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Real talk about singing safely during Covid-19

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

In this post:

  • ways to stay connected while staying apart

  • PPE for singers

  • considerations for small ensemble singing

In May 2020, the music world was rocked to its core by a webinar advising that singing, especially in the group setting, is a Covid-19 super-spreading activity. The webinar, hosted by the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the American Choral Directors Association, Chorus America, the Barbershop Harmony Society, and the Performing Arts Medical Association, outlined how the act of singing produces fine aerosol droplets which are capable of transmitting the Covid-19 virus as far as 25 feet away. Other factors were also discussed, including the use of PPE, indoor ventilation concerns, testing, social responsibility, asymptomatic spread, other mitigating measures, and of course social distancing.

We musicians watched in horror as singing consequently became so much as outlawed in some parts of the world. A challenge was swiftly borne to determine scientifically just how dangerous singing during Covid-19 actually is, and a flurry of new research studies across the globe were taken up to determine the precise rate of fine aerosol particle distribution among singers and wind instrument players. Most of these studies are still underway, with new findings being announced frequently. (Here is a synopsis of what is known to date. To follow the latest findings and dialogues around them, you may visit this Facebook group.)

(Image: initial results from International Coalition of Performing Arts, released August 6, 2020)

While most have chosen to err on the side of caution, at least until more definitive information has been released, the world still strives for some sense of normalcy and beauty. Indeed, in such challenging times the world needs music now more than ever before. Most known outbreaks that have been linked to choral singing happened right at the onset Covid-19, in the absence of other safety precautions. As we learn more about the ways in which the novel coronavirus spreads, many musicians are exploring innovative, socially distanced ways to create music.

I write this blog post from a time in history that is still seeking effective drug treatment and a vaccine for Covid-19. Acknowledging that singing, and especially ensemble singing, is considered to be a high risk activity, I outline some thoughts about singing during pandemic times.

Seeking the pivot within a pandemic

(Video: Eric Whitacre's latest virtual choir release, "Sing Gently" July 19, 2020)

The shutdown of choirs, with no end date in sight, has caused devastation to millions of people all over the world. Choirs are not only an avenue for the creation of music, but they foster numerous physiological and emotional benefits, and provide a vital social outlet for their members.

Recently I was lamenting the hole that the absence of ensemble music has left in my life, and someone asked me why we can't we just make music virtually? Good question. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for live harmony making. With the inherent lag time of internet communication, it is impossible to create real-time harmony virtually. The beautiful, virtual choirs we have been seeing pop up on the internet of late, require massive amounts of tech work behind the scenes, and no musician gets to hear the end result until well after all the music making has been completed.

That being said, many groups are finding creative ways to keep members connected and musically sharp. Many music teachers shifted their private music lessons online (my own husband had been teaching classical singing via Skype for ten years pre-pandemic). Zoom coffee hours and interactive sessions became popular to keep choir members connected during the shutdown. One organization is working with a software company to create a program which will help ensemble members to electronically assess whether they are singing their choral parts on pitch and with the correct rhythms.

Other organizations are encouraging socially distanced, face to face singing opportunities such as porch singing (transmission rate of the virus drops significantly when out-of-doors). One creative choir figured out how to use an FM transmitter and microphones from separate cars to create a safe "driveway choir". Some singers have gone so far as to engage in formal agreements with other singers about pandemic lifestyles and safety precautions, to form safer "choir pods" for singing.

My own desire to stay connected musically during this time gave me opportunity to synthesize the many years I've spent as a chant instructor in the midwest, and launch the Virtual Chant School, an online place where amateur and professional musicians alike can learn more about the underpinnings of western music, engage and improve their singing with interactive exercises, and receive customized attention. In fact, due to difficulties choirs face right now, for a limited time I am offering a couple sessions entirely for free. If you are looking for a creative way to convene your choir through virtual means right now, let's chat!

Singer's masks: not all masks are created equal

(Photo: singer's masks from the DIY pattern of soprano Joan Fearnley)

Masks must be a serious consideration for live, in person singing. Remember, aerosol particles are thought to travel up to 25 feet during the act of singing, and these particles will fill and linger within an indoor space for a long time. These factors contribute to the "viral load", and a higher viral load is linked to a greater likelihood both of transmission and severity of symptoms. From the Mayo Clinic website: "Face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the virus."

For an effective singer's mask, comfort, safety/filtration level, performance of mask during deep breathing, and effect on sound production for the listener are all important considerations. Cost can also be a factor, especially for ensembles which meet repeatedly.

While N95 masks are the most effective among masks for preventing the inhalation of Covid-19 particles by the user, they work in a one-way fashion. The filter does not conversely protect others from one's own exhaled particles. Most singers find the N95 masks to be ill-matched to their craft due to the abundance of warm air and carbon dioxide that they contain, as well as the muffled sound that they produce. N95 masks must be specially fitted to the wearer, tie tightly around the back of the head, and are not meant to be reusable.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that surgical masks may help to protect against the coronavirus when the N95 mask is unavailable. Many singers opt to use surgical masks, as they interfere with sound quality far less than the N95 masks, and can be fitted to the contour of one's face by forming the wire found across the top of the mask, pinching it over the bridge of one's nose. Surgical masks, however, easily bunch up and get caught in the singer's mouth once the mouth has been opened widely. (I have found that expanding the mask fully before putting it on will reduce this effect, but one must use freshly washed or sanitized hands to do so safely.) Surgical masks are meant for single use only.

Cloth masks allow more custom-fitted options, including some with more space for opening the mouth, and many free patterns are available specifically for singers. (For example, you can check out the DIY tutorial for soprano Joan Fearnley's singer's mask here.) At least one published study compares the filtration efficiencies of different cloth masks. Multiple layers, closer weaves and thread counts, and specific combinations of common fabrics have been found to be the most effective in reducing transmission of aerosol droplets among cloth masks. The Broadway Relief Project sells cloth masks for adults and children. Some people are exploring clear mask options, and there is even a Facebook group dedicated to creating and comparing masks for performers, with vendors who will make masks just for you and your group. Another bonus: cloth masks can be laundered and reused.

Of important note, masks must be properly fitted for maximum effect; gaps cause leakage which can contribute to as much as a 60 per cent reduction in effectiveness.

Face shields are not recommended as a substitute for masks, although they may be used in addition to face masks for additional protection. Shields have a way of muffling sound for the listener, and can interfere with the wearer's hearing by creating an echo chamber around the head. In an unsettling outbreak at a hotel in Switzerland, several staff who wore face shields tested positive for Covid-19, while none of the staff wearing face masks tested positive.

Personal note: When I originally wrote this post, I had opted for the surgical mask while singing, but since then I discovered the KN95 mask. KN95 masks are comparable to the N95 masks in terms of safety, offering 95 per cent filtration, are surprisingly breathable, can be comfortably fitted more closely to the face than a surgical mask, retain their structure away from the mouth even in the midst of heavy breathing, and have ear loops for easy removal and replacement. KN95 masks are used currently by medical institutions with Covid-facing medical workers, and are now available to the public for purchase. With some good diction (which is needed with most masks anyway), one can be heard singing quite clearly through a KN95. These masks are meant for single use.

EDITED October 2021: The singing community continues to create innovative masks to meet its needs. To this day, however, few masks meet all the qualities that are needed in a singer's mask: 1) filtration level for the virus (is the mask medical grade, and certified by a trustworthy organization such as NIOSH?), 2) styled to stand away from the face when taking a big breath, 3) retains a seal against the face when the jaw is lowered for singing, 4) breathability, and 5) efficacy of sound. And to all these, another really ought to be added: 6) comfort. The closest mask I have found to comply with all the above is the Korean-made KF-94 mask, which seals against the face better than the KN-95 when the jaw is dropped. I have been singing with the KN-94 mask for nearly a year.

The "Covid Chorus": thoughts from my personal experience singing in pandemic times

(Photo: singing for the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis' priestly ordinations, May 2020; singers were spaced 10 feet apart.)

After listening to the NATS webinar in May, I decided my best approach to singing opportunities would be to treat them on a case by case basis, evaluating the safety of each situation and setting clear boundaries prior to making any commitments. Whenever being asked to go into a new situation, I let the point person know that I take the virus seriously, ask what safety precautions their organization is following, and then shut up for awhile. I've learned a lot about what kinds of situations I'd be encountering in this way.

I have sung in large and small spaces, experimented singing with my mask on, and off when appropriate social distancing (25+ feet) would allow, and even sang in two different small, socially distanced pickup choirs. (One of them aired on live national television.) These experiences have afforded me opportunity to reflect and share a few thoughts on the subject of ensemble singing during a pandemic.

1) To get started, there are four pillars for safest pandemic singing: a) Masks b) Social distancing (minimum 6 feet, perhaps more given current data) c) Good hygiene (hand washing, frequent sanitizing of commonly used surfaces, no shared sheet music or music stands, etc.) d) Good ventilation and minimal amount of time in one room together (remember that term "viral load" we discussed earlier: aerosol particles containing the virus may linger in the air for several hours, increasing risk of transmission even in the presence of social distancing and mask wearing).

2) Stick to very small groups. When it comes to the virus, safety does not lie in numbers. The more people who are included in a situation, the higher the risk factor. Here is an interesting tool which shows the likelihood of coming into contact with a person infected by Covid-19 based on your location and group size.

3) Social distancing changes the dynamics of choral singing. A socially distanced choir should not be spaced in the customary U-shape, as the goal is to limit breathing on other members as much as possible. The adjusted straighter-line, socially distanced formation leaves singers without the companionship of singing partners to lean upon and blend with, making the singer's experience feeling much more like that of a soloist. Also, remember all those moments when your ensemble members used to lean over in someone's ear to whisper a question or a clarifying thought to another member without disrupting the rehearsal? Those days are gone now. A successful, socially distanced ensemble will demand that singers know their music and their cues confidently, sing out, and yet be more attuned more than ever to the other vocal parts.

4) The rehearsal space should be the same as the performing space. Due to the change in listening dynamics, it is more imperative than ever to give singers the opportunity to adjust to the acoustic of the space inside which one will be performing. Using the same space also keeps surface contamination at a minimum. Safety-wise, singing will ideally be done out-of-doors, as the ventilation from outside air currents will decrease the risk of transmission significantly. However, hearing other ensemble members will also be more challenging out-of-doors.

5) Safety comes first. Set your expectations regarding safety measures and social distancing from the outset, insist on full agreement, model them unconditionally with your ensemble yourself (the old adage "follow the leader" applies here), and be prepared to reinforce them with others as needed. It is only natural that musicians will unwittingly go back to old habits in the beginning, and with choir members who have not worked together for a long time, the temptation to whisper, chat, catch up, and perhaps drop the mask for a few moments will be stronger than ever. Have you expressed to your singers how you will handle the situation if one of them falls sick or is experiencing Covid-19 symptoms? Don't wait; have that conversation now.

6) Have your Plan B ready. If a vocal part has been assigned to a singer who feels under the weather, will the singer still feel an internal pressure to show up and sing even when feeling unwell, or do they know you are prepared with a Plan B? It may be best to refrain from planning very challenging music, unless the pieces allow you to drop a vocal line, or you are prepared to cancel in the case of sudden sickness, or unless you have another singer who can fill in for one who is sick. Don't leave this to chance. Have a plan.

7) Encourage the practice of singing with masks at home first. Singers will need to adjust to the experience of singing with masks. Those with glasses will need to practice reading music without their glasses fogging up, and those without glasses, from having masks creep up over their eyes (this especially can happen with surgical masks). It's best to minimize unwanted surprises when they will already be adjusting to the different listening dynamics of socially distanced singing.

Score Credit: Arizona State University Music Library Sheet Music Collection; Description Credit New York Times: during the 1918 pandemic, several different songs called “The Influenza Blues” were published as sheet music.

8) Consider the virus trends in your area, and the risk category of your ensemble members and audience. If cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, is it prudent to put an ensemble together at this time? Perhaps it would be better to take a break for a month or two and then reconsider, or to increase social distancing among singers and shorten rehearsal time.

9) If you are looking to bring together a small ensemble which meets on a somewhat regular basis, commit to ongoing evaluations, especially as new information about the virus emerges. Calendar these sessions now, and commit to them. Be open to making difficult changes as necessary.

In Conclusion

The thoughts that I share in this blog post are strictly my own, based on available evidence and best practices. A thorough investigation into the dynamics of Covid-19 is recommended to any singer who is performing in public, and especially to any director who is undertaking to convene an ensemble of any kind during this time. Many of the links shared earlier in this article may be helpful in this endeavor. You may also visit the websites for NATS, ACDA, Chorus America, BHS, and other choral singing organizations.

As we struggle to find a way forward with life in a pandemic, I am reminded of an essay I read in college: "Learning in Wartime" by C.S. Lewis.

"The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with 'normal life'. Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never come."

Let us not despair, but continue in our resolve to explore new ways to make music safely, and to uplift the world around us.

Indeed, this pandemic world needs music now more than ever.

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