A Masked Singer Dilemma: Is it Fair to Expose Fans To Your Possible COVID?

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom 

Singing with a mask on isn’t fun. To keep from passing out, one must pace themselves, carefully planning each whisper, hum, or caterwaul. It’s natural for the mask to slip down under the nose. If the singer is playing another instrument, like a guitar, he or she must find the right split second between measures to yank it back up, without missing a beat.

Singing with a mask on isn’t attractive. This is a problem, because we singers don’t like to feel unattractive. We’re the front women and front men in our bands, the Mick Jaggers who wield charisma and high energy as we move our bodies to the beat.

Singing with a mask on also muffles the sound of the singer’s voice — which is the biggest issue that I have with them. 

I know all these things because I sing while wearing a cloth mask. So badly do I want to yank it off during outdoor band practice, inhale the crisp air through my nostrils, hear the even crisper sound of consonants captured by my microphone. I want to enjoy the freedom of breathing, unencumbered, and exhaling sound without feeling like I’m trapped in a sauna. 

But I don’t because of COVID. 

I’m the lead singer of Trashing Violet, a hard rock band based in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and over the summer my bandmates and I have been practicing in each others’ backyards, in front of each others’ kids. I sing with my mask on for up to 90 minutes, taking occasional breaks to take a sip of a drink. Wearing a mask makes my lead guitarist, bassist, and drummer more comfortable. It makes their spouses and kids more comfortable. It makes me feel better because I know I’m doing everything possible — outside of quitting my band — to prevent the spread of COVID. 

While I’m fairly certain I don’t have the coronavirus, asymptomatic transmission is a real thing. And with singing, the consequences are potentially deadly. 

An April study published by the CDC noted that the “act of singing” in a March Seattle-area choir practice had likely contributed to 53 of 61 attendees getting sick with COVID-19 — and two dying. As the LA Times noted in an article on singing and COVID-19, reports have surfaced of other outbreaks after choir performances, including one in Amsterdam that claimed four lives.

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Trashing Violet plays Cafe 9 in New Haven, Conn., in January 2020

Yet these articles mainly address communal singing, and are primarily focused on indoor settings, such as churches. They don’t address the safety of singing outdoors when the singer isn’t wearing a mask.

This raises questions for rock bands like mine, with just one lead singer: If I have COVID-19, what are the chances I could infect someone several feet away (like a bandmate)? Have there been any outbreaks of COVID triggered by an infected singer? Is there any reason patrons in a restaurant need to worry about the outdoor live entertainment?

There are no definitive answers to these questions. We’re still learning more about COVID everyday. As one July study published in the peer-reviewed voice medicine publication J Voice noted, “there is a paucity of data about both how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted by singing and how to bring communities of singers back together safely.”

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At band practice with Trashing Violet in June, wearing my cloth mask, ready to sing.

Fortunately, we know a few things. 

We know that outdoors is safer than indoors. In Connecticut, where I live, this is why we’re still in Phase 2 with reopening, which limits live entertainment to outdoor settings, and requires that entertainers stand 12 feet away from their audience — and each other. We also know with a pretty high degree of certainty that masks, coupled with social distancing, can help reduce the likelihood of virus transmission.

Meanwhile, in the two months since the NYC tristate area has reopened restaurants, singers and bands are playing everywhere they can. While a handful of musicians are wearing masks when they perform, many are not. When I was in visiting Narragansett last weekend, I saw a singer on the outdoor porch of a restaurant by the peer belting out rock covers, standing possibly less than 12 feet away from the nearest group of patrons. Sights like these are not uncommon. 

I can’t help but wonder how many of these singers have children or live with older relatives. Just the thought of passing on the coronavirus to a dependent gives me the shivers. 

I understand why some singers might not even entertain the thought of singing while wearing a mask. They can feel suffocating, and may distort the vocal output. Working musicians are paid for the quality of their work, and if they can’t execute properly, it calls their professionalism into question.

I also understand that life isn’t fair. Working singers — those who need the $500 they make from a gig like a wedding to pay rent — are accustomed to playing in intimate settings, where the distance between the entertainer and patron is closer. 

 

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At least my eye makeup is awesome, right?

Unfortunately, the safest and best live opportunities for performers in the coronavirus era are inaccessible to most everyday working musicians: I’m talking mainly about the “drive in” outdoor music shows that are happening now, where an entertainer performs on a stage at least 20 feet away from the audience. In settings like these, which feature well-known, original music acts, the big concern isn’t whether the singer is wearing masks so much as the lack of social distance among concert-goers (just ask Chase Rice or the Chainsmokers).

To be fair, I must admit I am not a working singer who relies on $500 gigs to live. Though I make a little cash from playing out with my band and as a solo artist, my main sources of income come from writing and teaching guitar (which, right now, is 100 percent masked and social distanced in backyards).

Yet while I am sympathetic to the plight of all musicians — whether they are reliant on performance income or not — the fact remains no working singer can guarantee that he or she doesn’t have COVID-19 unless he or she is tested. 

While outdoors is safer than indoors, restaurants may want to consider requiring singers to wear masks in all settings when at least 12 feet of distance between performers and audiences cannot be guaranteed. If and when we move into Phase 3, which allows indoor live entertainment, I probably won’t go to a concert where masks aren’t required (unless, of course, we have a decent COVID-19 vaccine). 

And while I am sympathetic to musicians, I’m so sick of the whining about masks or face shields. Singing while wearing a mask is hard, it isn’t impossible. And as performers, it is our obligation to ensure our audience can safely enjoy themselves. 

One bright piece of news came across my radar recently is the patent-pending mask that singers can wear so they can more safely sing in groups. I am about to pre-order mine. I have to admit, it looks about as “natural” as condoms probably did in the 1970s, and there’s no doubt we’ll have complainers among us. But this is life. We must adapt to our circumstances (and as we learned in the sexually liberated ’60s and ’70s, asymptomatic individuals can transmit STDS).

Until we know more about COVID, we need to remember that our personal freedoms are less important than the collective good. If we have been gifted with beautiful voices and the opportunity to play outdoor shows, we need to be grateful to our audiences — and committed to protecting them. When I play my only outdoor gig this summer on August 7, I will most likely be wearing a mask or using a face shield/microphone shield.

Like all musicians, I cannot wait until the day when we can experience live music like it’s 2019, when drawing a large-enough audience for a Tuesday night show was my biggest concern. Until then, I will do whatever I need to do to play music and bring joy to others through playing music — even if the sound of my voice is a little more muffled.

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy. 

What to Do When Goals and Hobbies Become Stressful

When I first began playing guitar in college, no one had to nag me to practice. I played every chance I got, picking up tips from more-skilled players and romantic partners along the way.

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Me, carving out 10 minutes on a sunny day, to play guitar.

Within a few months, I was hooked. It helped, of course, that when I started playing guitar I was dating an insanely skilled player — a guy who patiently walked me through the basics (transitioning from E-minor to G) and the complex stuff (the Circle of Fifths) — but he didn’t need to convince me to practice. I just did, perhaps to the detriment of other areas of my life.

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Fast forward to 2019, and “play guitar” has frequently found itself on my “to do” list — something to accomplish, something to check off. Sure, I play for fun too — I have a new band, Trashing Violet, and we practice for two hours a week — but most days, I try to hit a minimum of 10  minutes. Some days it’s a struggle.

So what gives? I didn’t even know what a “to do” list was when I was a teenager with her first Yamaha Acoustic (12 Gauge) 6-String. 

In a word, motherhood. 

My days are busy and — between making breakfast and lunch, snuggle time, laundry, working as a freelance writer, teaching guitar, working out to stay healthy, cooking, folding laundry, and finally, hanging out with my husband — the amount of time devoted to personal recreation has dwindled. And often times, I’m too exhausted to want to do anything at the end of the day besides watch The Bachelorette (don’t judge, people) or scroll through Instagram. In this way, I’m definitely not alone. 

But it isn’t just motherhood that’s changed me, and given a new urgency to goals like running a half marathon in 1:50”. It’s also the onset of “to do” culture and #goals.

Hobbies are no longer ways to pass the time. They’re #sidegigs and essential passion projects. Like many millennials, I grew up with the mindset that I should follow my dreams only to land a mediocre job after college. I grew up being told that having ambitions didn’t just mean getting a job — it meant aiming for the stars. And never quitting. Winners never quit. 

Of course, being a professional, paid freelance writer — one who’s written for The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and other esteemed outlets — is fantastic. Getting paid to teach guitar is fantastic. Playing guitar and singing with a band is fantastic. But I also harbor secret dreams that one day, I’ll get paid to tour the world with whatever band I’m in while writing a New York Times best-selling novel. 

The problem is that having goals — or being totally driven by passion projects — can distract us from the here and now. 

The truth is that I can only do so much to be a better writer, guitar player, singer and person. I no longer have the lazy days of college to practice my skills, or lie in my bed thinking of nothing until a poem comes into my head. Being a great mom is the most important thing I do. And that takes time. It also takes time away from personal development or passion projects.

In order to keep my life and recreational endeavors in balance, here are a few rules I follow: 

  1. Keep goals reasonable. If I were to practice guitar 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, I wouldn’t have time for anything else — exercise, parenthood, income-earning ventures, etc. So maybe that means Nita Strauss, a professional guitarist with no kids, will always be a better guitar player than me. But by practicing maybe two to three hours a week, I can still be better than the average hack. 
  1. Set the bar low. My weekly goals are as follows: 3 hard workouts (45 minutes or more) per week; 1 to 2 hours of singing/guitar practice per week (on at least 3 separate days); 1 hour of personal, non-income-generating writing time. That’s it. When I try to raise the bar, I get stressed out because I end up dropping things I need (like meditation). Keeping the bar low-ish leaves me time for self-reflection.
  1. Practice gratitude. Cheesy as it sounds, when I am grateful for the little things — a body that can run half marathons, a spouse who supports my ambitions, two beautiful children, a nice and relaxing home, my parents — I don’t feel deprived or resentful that I’m not as famous as Gwen Stefani. 

As my wise mom friend Emily once told me (I think, quoting Michelle Obama), women can have it all — just not all as once. 

Hobbies and goals should motivate and excite us. If they’re stressing you out, it’s time to rethink why you engaged in them in the first place. And it may be time for a new hobby. 

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.