ROUND ROCK, Texas — Once upon a time, country music legend Johnny Cash uttered the words, “Singing seems to help a troubled soul,” in the hit song “Daddy Sang Bass.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the high-spirited sounds of choirs and chorus groups, singing live in churches and performance halls, has been largely silenced due to health officials’ concerns that the cororonavirus can be easily spread through singing.
Former Murray State University professor Dr. Tom Lough is one of the many people in the world who have had to abandon this treasured activity as his church choir in his hometown of Round Rock, Texas has been on the sidelines since early 2020. However, Lough, whose background is engineering, is using his talents and training in that field to do something about it, and his work appears on the verge of a breakthrough.
Lough has created a face mask with one goal in mind — allowing the sweet sounds of mass singers to once again start touching their audiences. Called the Noteable Mask, he said it is very close to receiving a United States Patent.
“I just hope it helps move the ball down the road and we get people back to singing again,” Lough said Monday in a phone interview from Round Rock, a suburb of the Texas state capital, Austin. “We had two intentions with this. One, was to help choirs, choruses and glee clubs get back to live-group singing.
“The second thing was to work ourselves out of a job, so that our company will eventually go out of business. If that happens, there won’t be a need for masks anymore and that’s a good thing for us because that means we’ll go back to singing like it used to be.”
A big test of his product comes Friday night. That is when the Tulsa Chorale of Tulsa, Oklahoma is scheduled to perform a concert in Tulsa that will be live-streamed on social media.
The kicker is the group will not be performing in the style that has become basically the norm during the pandemic, with all of the members appearing in different boxes on a video screen in a mass telepresence production. No, this time, the entire group will be together with every member wearing a Noteable Mask.
“I talked to the director last week because he had started using the mask himself, but he had also given the masks to everybody and they did a rehearsal and a recording session,” Lough said. “He said that several members came to him on their own and said how enjoyable it was to sing in a Noteable Mask, that they could breathe and get their sound out and that other masks they were wearing were constricting them because of jaw movements and they had to re-breathe the air, all kinds of things like that.”
Lough said the road to receiving those accolades has been a long one.
It started in March 2020 when his church choir had to stop singing. So he tapped into his engineering background, which had resulted in degrees from such places as West Point and the University of Virginia. He taught science for 20 years at Murray State before he retired and moved to Round Rock.
He also used the determination that had guided him to help the United States finish respectable fourth in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City in the modern pentathlon.
“I was talking with a director of another group and who has been a friend of mine for many years and she said, ‘You need to invent something,’” Lough recalled of a conversation he had in the early stages of the pandemic. “So I told her, ‘I’m going to invent a facemask for singers!’ She said, ‘You are? Well, how’s it work?’
“I told her, ‘I’m thinking about an inverted L design to intercept the frontal aerosol plume and direct it into a filter material,’ and I have no idea where that came from. I literally made it up on the spot. She said, ‘Are you working on a prototype? Send me some when you get it, OK?’
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘What did I just get into?’”
Three months later, after spending numerous hours on a sewing machine and creating mask upon mask, the prototype was ready. He sent his friend one.
“She said, ‘You’ve got to patent this idea. Start a company! You’ve got to get this thing out there!’” he recalled, remembering the last thing she said about the prototype. “This is going to make a difference.’
“She had the prototype in her hand on a Saturday and I worked on a patent application that Sunday night. So it’s still being processed, but once they’ve approved it, the patent will be back dated to May 25.”
Mass production is now being led by a North Carolina company that specializes in a method Lough referred to as “cut and sew.” He said the masks are tested by a laboratory.
“Our mask design is very different from others,” he said. “The thinking is, ‘What would an aerosol particle encounter as it goes through the material of the mask?’ Well, it goes through a sort of woven cotton, which is sort of a rectangular mesh, then it encounters the non-woven interfacing, which is sort of a random material. Then, if it makes it through that, it encounters a second layer of woven cotton.
“It probably took about three months and there were other aspects we had to figure out … make it so it doesn’t fog people’s glasses and that it could adjust to different directions. There were a lot of boxes that had to be checked.”
To see not only the product but also the results of testing that was performed, go online at www.noteablemask.com.