by Jennifer K. BauerSinging was never considered dangerous, until COVID-19 arrived.
Early on in the pandemic, a choir in Skagit County, Wash., became a cautionary example of how the new virus spread through the air.
A Skagit choir practice was attended by 61 people, including one with COVID-19 but no symptoms. They practiced together for 2 ½ hours. In the days that followed, 32 people came down with confirmed COVID-19, and 20 were listed as probable cases. Two people died, and three were hospitalized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed the incident and concluded that transmission was likely a result of being in close proximity while singing.
The story put community, church and school choirs on high alert around the country. Since then, new research is showing ways to mitigate the risks of singing in groups. As students return to area colleges and universities, music educators are using the latest scientific research to adapt their studies.
Choirs have had a really tough time getting over the story of the Skagit singers, said Dean Luethi, director of the School of Music at Washington State University in Pullman.
“Now, this is completely separate from the reality,” Luethi said. “We’re finding, more and more, that someone singing with a mask on is pretty close to the aerosol dispersion of someone with a mask talking and breathing, but it took us a long time to get to a point where we had data, and it’s still coming out.”
However, WSU officials decided early on that its choirs would not meet in person this school year, he said. All rehearsals are online, and performances will be virtual.
“We are probably being overcautious, because we don’t want to cause harm,” Luethi said. “In order to adequately prepare for the semester, and out of an abundance of caution, we play it as safe as we can.”
The power of the breath
Recent research supports evidence that the novel coronavirus is primarily spread via respiratory droplets produced when an infected individual talks, breaths, coughs or sneezes. Others become infected by inhaling those droplets. Many illnesses can be contracted through the air, from the common cold and flu to chickenpox and tuberculosis.
Singers, actors and public speakers are trained to project their voices and use their breath more powerfully, said Sarah Graham, associate professor of music at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston.
“That compounds the situation for singers,” Graham said.
Because of the way they use their voices, singers can produce more aerosol and droplets. One study Graham consulted showed singers could project droplets and aerosols as far as 25 feet. Studies have shown that musicians who play wind instruments also spread increased amounts of aerosols and droplets.
Graham and others are closely watching the International Performing Arts Aerosol Study, a scientific examination of COVID-19 as it relates to the performing arts.
Findings from that study, and others, show that ventilation in a space plays a crucial role in the buildup of aerosols. If people are in an enclosed room, or a building where the same air is recirculating through all the rooms, the body is exposed to greater loads of the virus. In a space where fresh air exchanges often, aerosols disperse, decreasing the load.
“How long you’re exposed and how strong the exposure is are factors in whether or not you become ill,” Graham said. “I don’t think a lot of people get that.”
She summarized the advice many schools are adopting, based on research, for safer in-person practices for singers: “Perform outdoors, standing 10-feet apart, wearing masks.”
At LCSC, singers are practicing outdoors, with masks, while weather allows. When the weather turns cold, they will go online, Graham said.
While masks help slow the spread by decreasing aerosols and droplets, it’s difficult for singers to use them effectively. Depending on the person and mask’s fit, it can dislodge and ride up over the chin or slide down under the nose while singing. Several companies are developing special singer’s masks, designed with an vaulted chamber that boxes the mouth while maintaining a seal around the face. They cost anywhere from $25 to $35 apiece, depending on the company. Graham ordered some, but they are backordered and won’t be available for months, she said.
Carving out new spaces
In the mornings at the University of Idaho, students can be seen and heard practicing music outside on the Administration Building lawn. Vanessa Seilert, director of the Lionel Hampton School of Music, hears them as she walks to work.
“They’re happy to be making music at all,” Seilert said.
Pre-pandemic, students practiced together in nearby Ridenbaugh Hall. The hall was built as a dormitory for women in the early 1900s. The rooms are too small for students to practice together in and maintain proper ventilation, Seilert said.
The school erected tents on the tennis courts across from the hall for rehearsals, and musicians also are practicing in the Kibbie Dome. While being outside is ideal, the dome is an airy, well-ventilated space, Seilert said.
The choir meets for 30-minute rehearsals, wearing masks, standing 15 feet apart, she said.
Any indoor rehearsals for musicians are limited to groups of five practicing for 30 minutes with a 90-minute break between rehearsals.
Masks and physical distance reduce the impact of aerosols, “but it doesn’t stop it,” Seilert said. “In order to be safe, we need to only do 30 minutes.”
Juggling available space with student and faculty schedules is challenging, she said.
When outdoor rehearsals no longer work, they will move activities online.
“We’re excited to be doing this, too, even though it’s modified,” she said. “It has to be that way.”
When singers and musicians go online because of the weather or other circumstances, educators will again be experimenting with new and different ways to rehearse, practice together and teach.
“One of my colleagues said this phrase: ‘When it comes to online performances versus in-person, it’s 10 times the work for half the payoff,’ ” Luethi said.
Written scores will need to be ultra-detailed to make up for what is lost in a video conference, he said. Students will record themselves, and instructors will watch and send back an assessment for each one. People will be trailblazing new technologies in order to make music together.
“It is so much work to spend time and allocate all these financial and personal resources to make this happen, but I will say this: Why would someone do this unless they didn’t feel like it was an unbelievably worthwhile endeavor?” Luethi said. “It is something we miss so dearly that we will spend 10 times the effort to do it. We could just say, ‘Go home for the year.’
“If there’s ever a time people need to express themselves, it’s now. There’s a lot of strife about what is to come — in terms of the election, whether you’re Republican, Democrat or independent; or COVID, with loved ones in the hospital, parents. There is a lot going on, and this is one way we can continue dealing with it.”