Socially distanced singing

The latest advice from the Irish government is that choirs can resume singing together in about a week’s time, at the beginning of Phase 3 of the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

After months of silence – or solo singing from home as part of virtual choirs – singers will be able to rehearse and perform together again in the same room. That is, as long as they manage to adhere to the specific rules for choirs:

  • Singers should be at least 2 metres apart from each other. That’s not just 2 metres from the person each side of them, but also those in front and behind. Not every rehearsal or performance space is set up to accommodate that spacing out. Some choirs use buildings with fixed furniture like churches, and others choirs are too big to fit inside the room with adequate spacing.
  • A maximum of 50 people in the same room. This limit of just fifty people would be a challenge for some larger choral societies where membership greatly outnumbers that amount. And if the choir is planning to put on a concert, they would have to include both choir members and audience in that limit of 50. Of course, the 50 person limit goes up to 100 in Phase 4, due at the end of July.
  • The duration singing inside should be limited, with frequent breaks and regular ventilation of the room. I suppose rehearsals and concerts can be adjusted to allow for regular breaks. However some thought will have to be put in to where singers can go during these breaks while still maintaining social distance. We don’t want everyone crowded into a church porch, or in a queue outside the toilet.
  • Choirs should consider protective screens or face coverings. It’s going to be difficult to sing with a face mask on, but it might be a good idea to get choir members to wear one as they arrive and leave, or during breaks. Not a lot of amateur choirs will be able to afford to buy protective screens between singers, and even if they did, the sound might be a bit strange. It might be an idea to put a clear screen in front of the conductor if they stand close to the choir – as they are often standing at the focal point of the breath coming from every mouth!
  • Choirs should conduct a risk assessment based on age profile and risk factors. Perhaps this means encouraging some choir members to hold off from coming back to choir for the time being. Vulnerable choir members, and indeed audience members or helpers, might be advised to stay away until the situation improves.

I’m sure a lot of choir members will be anxious to get back, even with the restrictions in place. There’s nothing quite like the sheer pleasure of singing with others, creating beautiful sounds together, and also being able to see friends again!

I sing in a parish church choir, and all this advice for choirs introduces some interesting challenges. We would normally sing in close proximity in fixed wooden choir stalls. When spaced out at 2 metres in the stalls we would have room for no more than 4 singers. So in our case we might have to think creatively about where else in the church the choir might sit that gives them enough space to spread out.

The priest might also want to think about the length of services, and the way that everyone enters and leaves the church. The choir and clergy might have to omit processing in together at the moment.

And with the current limit of 50 people meeting insider together, it may be that church leaders will want to limit the size of the church choir, to give priority for the congregation to attend services.