British Columbia

Choirs reimagine themselves as singing proves an effective way to spread COVID-19

Research has shown that because of the nature of COVID-19, and the way it spreads through airborne droplets, singing may be a particularly dangerous activity for transmission —  leaving choirs, church groups and musical ensembles struggling to redefine themselves after centuries of tradition.

'Who would have thought that singing could be dangerous, or deadly?'

Zoom performances are more challenging than they look. Every singer must be muted, and can hear only themselves and the director — a far cry from the heady experience of singing and performing alongside 60 people. (Jamie Brown-Hart and the Canadian Virtual Choir/YouTube)

When picturing a worst-case scenario for transmission of COVID-19, you might conjure up images of crowded airport gates and stadiums, bars overflowing with revellers bumping shoulders and sloshing drinks.

You likely don't picture the disciplined setting of a choir practice — but increasingly, research has shown that singing, with its deep breathing and voice projection, spreads airborne droplets more efficiently than other activities, leaving choirs and church groups struggling to reimagine rehearsals and performances.

"Who would have thought that singing could be dangerous, or deadly?" said Gail Suderman, the director of voice and choral studies at Metro Vancouver's Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Suderman said the loss is amplified by the fact that for many, singing represents a way to escape everyday life while forming bonds with others.

"I think that was sort of the first hurdle to get over psychologically, emotionally. For many people, singing is people's refuge in life."

Early in the pandemic, the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State became a cautionary tale after 45 members of a 56-person ensemble became infected with COVID-19 following a rehearsal. Two choir members later died of the virus.

Suderman said that story was a wake up call, prompting choir directors across B.C. to rapidly shut down.

"If you're a professionally trained singer, all the power from the body can really send those particles a great distance," she said, adding the latest research she's reviewed suggests singers would need to be spaced 15 feet apart outdoors to minimize transmission.

'We spread goodness'

Erick Lichte, the artistic director of Chor Leoni, a 60-person amateur men's choir in Vancouver, said COVID-19 has "decimated" chorale music, and that he doesn't anticipate group sessions resuming normally until a vaccine is developed.

"It is so uncertain for us right now. We'll make it through — but will it look the same when we come out the other side? I don't think it will," he said.

"I am a very firm believer that the effects of what choirs do are not just about those that are singing together on stage. The very act of doing this spreads goodness into our communities. Right now we can't, and it's hard."

Both Suderman and Lichte said that for now, their groups meet over Zoom, not to rehearse, but to maintain the bonds usually formed over music.

While many videos have been released featuring choirs performing over Zoom, they take an immense amount of post-production and don't work for group rehearsals.

Because of delays in video feeds, every singer must be muted, and can hear only themselves and the director while singing — a far cry from the heady experience of performing alongside 60 people. 

Kevin Zakresky, a conductor who also teaches at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's School of Music, said while group singing may currently be impossible, he's focused on other ways that he hopes music can thrive throughout the pandemic.

Registration for his online musical theory class, for example, has jumped from six students to thirty, and for solo singing classes, some students find connecting online less daunting.

"There's so many elements of singing like diction, tuning, good vocal production that you don't often get around to doing with everyone because you're so worried about the performance goal," he said.

Chor Leoni meets weekly over Zoom, not to rehearse, but to sustain bonds normally formed over a shared love of music. (Michael Soderling)

"I think for a lot of people who have been wondering if they would ever possibly walk into a music school and take lessons, now is the time because you don't have to walk into a music school. You can try it at home and see if it's for you."

Despite the challenges, music ensembles, and other forms of the performing arts, will carry on. After all, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre closed three times during the plague, only to re-open.

Chor Leoni is currently hosting a weekly show reviewing past performances and interviewing other artists, and is imagining a future with outdoor, physically distanced performances.

Kwantlen classes will move online in the fall, though the future of choirs, so rooted in a communal experience, is more difficult to imagine.

"Working with my choir singers I say, it won't be the same, but we'll still be the choir," said Suderman.

"We can still sing. It's just different."

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

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