Ottawa vocalist and choir leader Joan Fearnley launched a sewing circle that sewed around the world as she began posting tutorials for a mask she designed specifically for singers.
Fearnley is both soprano and conductor with Bytown Voices and former director of the Women’s Choir and Children’s Choir at Notre Dame Cathedral.
In the early days of the pandemic, she searched online and on social media for a mask that would allow her to sing safely in public.
Choir had become silent, forced to stop performing and rehearsing because the singing act with its deep breathing and voice projection had been identified as a super-spreader by COVID-19.
Fearnley says she could not find a mask online that suited a singer’s needs.
“They were really close to the lips and you would breathe in and you would suck the substance right into your mouth. You would open [your mouth] wide to make a loud vocal and the mask would bounce off, “she said.
That was when she decided to try to build one herself. Sitting at a sewing machine in her basement, Fearnley began experimenting with fabrics and designs, and eventually came up with a workable model that used three layers of cotton, a polypropylene filtration layer on the inside of the mask, and zippers to keep the mask from hanging.
Fearnley was not interested in setting up a business or even making the masks. She wanted to share the idea so “everyone who is good with a needle or a sewing machine could come to work and make their own stitches.”
“I wanted to give people the tools to help themselves,” Fearnley said. “I created a community so innovation could be shared and we could accelerate it.”
She created a Facebook page and posted how-to videos on YouTube. Soon she heard from choirs, sewers and even scientists from all over the world who either made the masks or suggested design improvements.
Hundreds of masks have been made by choir groups and theater companies across North America, Europe and Asia, and recently she has heard from choirs in New Zealand.
Local choirs wearing Fearnley’s designs
Kurt Ala-Kantti, the music director at St. Thomas the Apostle’s Anglican Church and the Harmonium Choir, consider themselves lucky that his sister-in-law is also a skilled seamstress who sewed dozens of the stitches up so his choir could resume singing after two years of waiting.
“Getting back and singing together and making a good sound using these masks is hard to describe. I think we were all in tears at times at our first rehearsal,” Ala-Kantti said.
“Having these supermasks that Joan has come up with allows for a space in front of her mouth for resonant sound, but also for being able to breathe and not breathe in a mouth full of substance.”
Ala-Kantti says that the individually sewn stitches can be color-coordinated with the singers’ dresses, which is an added benefit.
For Fearnley, it has been particularly gratifying to see his own choir reunite safely after the long, quiet period.
“I have a lot of seniors, and some of those seniors have been home for a whole year,” Fearnley said.
“I think community choirs have a really big role to play in taking some of these people who have been isolated in hand and making them feel really safe by making music again.”