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A St. Louis professor's invention makes masked singing a snap

 St. Louis singers give VocalEase a try.
Intuitive Eye Photography
St. Louis singers give VocalEase a try.

Almost two years into a pandemic that has reshaped life around the world, there are tiny masks for toddlers and clear masks for easy lip-reading. There are masks for athletes and masks for professional clowns.

What Stephanie Tennill couldn’t find was a mask for singers — something that didn’t just stay dry while they belted out a song, but actually preserved the acoustic quality of their voice with no strain or muffled consonants.

 Stephanie Tennill's VocalEase masks are being snapped up by top singers.
Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Stephanie Tennill's VocalEase masks are being snapped up by top singers.

And that was important to Tennill, an associate professor of music at St. Louis University and a former opera singer. She knew COVID-19 wasn’t going away, but she was nevertheless eager for music performances to come back.

So she invented one. Working with supplies around the home and funded by a SLU microgrant, she developed VocalEase — a washable, “acoustically transparent” mask so deftly designed, singers at the Metropolitan Opera have been spotted on Instagram wearing them in rehearsal.

Tennill said she took her inspiration from the foam covers used on microphones. “I thought, ‘OK, well, that's a foamy material, it's meant to allow sound to pass through and stop moisture,’” she recalled on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. She jury-rigged one and tried it out for her husband, letting him hear her voice masked with the material and unmasked. “He couldn’t tell the difference.”

Still, from that “eureka” moment, there were countless challenges. Tennill had to make sure the material actually blocked the virus (it does). She also had to find a manufacturer. “It's an interesting product,” she said. “It's not quite in the fashion industry; it's not quite a household item. And so we went through quite a few manufacturers who did some sampling runs for us and said, ‘You know, I just don't think this is in our wheelhouse.’

“It would have cost just to manufacture at one place, I think it was like $23 per piece, just for them to sew it,” she continued. “And we thought, ‘That won't get this at a price point where the public can have access to it.’”

Tennill persevered, aided by a veritable team of St. Louis University staffers providing expertise as she leapt various hurdles. Ultimately, she was able to hire the Collective Thread to manufacture the masks in St. Louis. The local nonprofit relies on immigrant women who work on sewing projects in their homes.

All told, Tennill said, it took about six months to get the masks from idea to market, an incredibly quick turnaround in a time plagued by supply-chain woes. It happened fast enough that Tennill’s own students wore them for SLU’s Christmas concert earlier this month — a huge moment for their inventor.

“When I heard their voices together, it's the first time I'd heard choral singing live in a room, and it was clear and I had to turn away,” she said. “I burst into tears. It was really emotional, really moving. Because we need that proximity. We need that vibration in the room and to be able to hear each other. And it's been exciting to see these being used all across the country.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Fenske