When will choirs sing together again?

It’s been 9 weeks since I last sang with my choir, and I miss it dreadfully. I just wish we could get back together and make music again.

All across the world, choirs have stopped singing. Cathedrals that have a tradition of daily singing stretching back centuries have fallen quiet. Chamber choirs preparing for concerts have abandoned their rehearsal plans. Concerts, operas and other performances have been cancelled. Choral festivals have been cancelled. Amateur singers are frustrated, and professional singers have lost their livelihood!

Of course, there are some people still singing at home. There’s a wonderful creative community of people pulling together ‘virtual choirs’ and publishing their singing online. And while it’s lovely to see and hear, it’s not the same as actually singing together in a group. These virtual choirs rely on individuals recording and videoing themselves at home, and then for some technical whizz with expensive software to spend many hours (sometimes days) splicing all the audio and video together. The result may sound great, but the performance always loses something from the singers not being able to hear and react off each other.

It’s not possible to record (or even rehearse) a choir together in real time. The video conferencing applications that we’ve all got used to recently have a slight time lag or latency which makes it impossible for people to hear each other properly and sing together. There’s no getting around the fact that for proper choral singing you need all the choir members in the same room. And at the moment the prospect of that seems a long way off.

What’s the problem with choirs?

If we take church choirs as an example, some countries such as Germany are reopening churches, but they are not allowing any singing during services.

Leading epidemiologists have declared that singing is just as dangerous as coughing for spreading viruses. When people sing the water vapour in their breath (that carries the virus) spreads a long way, but nobody knows exactly how far. All the recommendations for standing 2 metres apart when you queue to get in the supermarket are based on people standing still and breathing normally – not for those trying to project their voice, and indeed breath in more deeply while singing!

It’s not like a singer can wear a face mask, unless you want a kind of muffled sound. And who knows how far apart singers would need to stand to stay safe?

Initially I was quite excited to learn that churches in Ireland would be allowed to re-open in Phase 4 of the easing of restrictions, some time in July. I thought that things would be back to normal, but then I realised that the church choir can’t resume at the same time.

Theatres and other social venues have to wait until Phase 5 in August to open. And even then all these spaces would still be required to enforce physical distancing.

So when will choirs be back singing?

At this stage we’re really dependent on the number of infections dropping really low. Because if we can’t implement the physical barriers needed to stop the spread of infection between singers, then instead we need to have no infection to spread.

I don’t know if that means we’ll need to have a vaccine in place before we can sing together again, or whether the current control measures can drive the number of cases down low enough.

We have to get to the point where the chances of any singers in the choir having COVID-19 are extremely low – otherwise we do face the prospect of one singer potentially infecting the whole choir, as has been seen in other choirs such as the church choir in Mount Vernon, Washington, USA, where 75% of the singers contracted the virus in just one rehearsal.

And the problem is that we don’t know when the numbers will be low enough. It’s certainly going to take a long time to develop a vaccine, and longer still to manufacture enough of it and distribute it around the population. And scientists are still not sure yet whether people that have already been sick with COVID-19 are actually immune from getting it again.

So I guess we need to resign ourselves – at least for now – to continue singing on our own!

Further Reading

Update: Specific COVID-19 recommendations for choirs and singers – 20th June 2020