By Kirk Petersen
With the possible exception of receiving communion, singing in the choir may be the most dangerous thing you can do in church these days.
A church choir traditionally is a group of people standing in a tight bunch, all striving to sing loudly enough to be heard over the organ by worshipers in the back pew. A singing chorister expels a lot more air than a person having a conversation.
It’s not just a theoretical concern. Choir rehearsals and performances in March appear to have spread the virus in Europe and America.
Choir directors and members around the country have been coming to grips with the realization that because of the pandemic, an activity they love may not resume for a long, long time.
A gut punch came in early May in the form of a two-hour webinar sponsored by a group of national choral singing associations. Two scientists described in detail how the act of singing generates tiny droplets of aerosolized saliva that can be projected far beyond the social-distancing standard of six feet. They said the coronavirus particles are so small that significant amounts can be embedded in even the finest mist. They discussed possible countermeasures and workarounds, and explained why they were all ineffective or impractical.
The webinar caused anguish in choral music circles. “Everybody was just gob-smacked and devastated and heartbroken,” said Anne Matlack, who is choirmaster and organist at Grace Church in Madison, New Jersey, and also leads a 100-voice choral society.
“They’re recommending things like taking temperatures, and everyone wearing masks, and testing 24 hours before each rehearsal,” said Marty Burnett, president of the Association of Anglican Musicians. “The very idea that everyone coming to choir on Wednesday night would have to have an antibody test on Tuesday? That’s completely unrealistic.”
“Even with testing, the risk is never going to be zero,” said Dr. Lucinda Halstead of the Medical University of South Carolina, who is also incoming president of the Performing Arts Medicine Association, one of the webinar’s sponsors. “At our institution, we have a 3 to 5 percent false negative rate, which means that 3 to 5 percent of the people that come in with a negative test are actually positive.”
Dr. Donald Milton, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland, said “as we wait for the high-capacity testing capabilities to come online, we need to be thinking about the ventilation and air sanitation in the practice rooms and concert halls.” Even if the nave of the church is large enough for good air circulation, what about the room in the basement with the spare piano, where the choir rehearses?
One of the sponsors of the webinar was the American Choral Directors Association. Tim Sharp, the group’s executive director, said he and his wife have both recovered from COVID-19. His case was relatively mild, but his wife had to be hospitalized.
“As a person who dealt with somebody who had to be in the hospital… you don’t want to take this risk, folks,” he said. “You don’t want to be facing oxygen tanks and be responsible for somebody else who had to go the hospital and be there for a week. We need to live to fight another day.”
At Church of the Holy Faith in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Director of Music Mark Childers said it had taken a while for the enormity of the problem to sink in.
Early in the lockdown, “I was still holding on to some hope, so I sent an email out to the entire choir and said, ‘We’re still going to get to do Lasso’s Surrexit,’” he said, referring to Orlando di Lasso’s motet Surrexit Pastor Bonus – The Good Shepherd is Risen. “I know we worked on it for Easter, and we’re still going to do it. We’re going to do it in Easter season.” Not this year, as it became clear well before Pentecost.
Many churches have moved their services online, either live-streaming on Sunday mornings or prerecording services. Sermons and Scripture readings hold up well after making the transition, but hymns are another matter.
Singing at home with a cantor or soloist on the computer screen is a poor substitute for a crowd of choristers and congregants belting out familiar hymns while organ music soars to the rafters. Virtual choirs can be fun — with parts sung individually and then mixed digitally — but it’s a lot of work, and still involves singing alone at home.
Michael Smith is minister of music at St. Thomas’ Episcopal in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, a church with roots in the 17th century. He misses “singing together in community, working on something, struggling with something, doing something with a group of people that you couldn’t do by yourself.”
There’s no way to predict how long the situation will last, but it seems clear that choirs will not return to their familiar form until well after other forms of worship.
“I got an email from one of our 80-year-old choir members this week,” Childers said. The choir member “was writing me a note to say, ‘I love you, thank you so much for letting me be in the choir and sing, by the time this is all over I’m afraid that my time has passed.’ I hated that.”
“I’m not willing to say it’s going to be 18 months to two years before we can sing again, because, look how much has changed in the last two months,” Matlack said. Meanwhile, “I’m trying to figure out what is my relevancy, and what can I do to make music?” She’s been giving one-on-one Zoom lessons to kids in her children’s choir.
“We could produce videos with learning activities for the children and youth,” Burnett said. “We could have a book club online to look at interesting works of literature and music, and have study groups.”
Childers said, “I can see the makings of a pretty fabulous bell choir, and we can social-distance enough in our parish hall.”
“I’m unable to do this without hope, and I think we will recover,” Smith said. “It is so important, and for us as Christians, it’s our commandment to worship God, and God gave us this gift and grace of singing, and we will figure it out. I don’t think this will be the end of choirs and singing.”