One of the most important questions posed in the recent Chorus Connection 2022 COVID Choir Survey was why choir membership had decreased during the pandemic. By far the largest number of respondents (86%) indicated that singers were concerned for health reasons.
It’s no wonder that many singers were afraid to attend in-person rehearsals. Early in the pandemic, numerous studies indicated that COVID-19 was highly transmissible through the air, and singing was dangerous. There were also many instances in international news of choir rehearsals causing great distress to choral groups either by illness or death due to COVID exposure.
(If you’d like to look at a recap of all of the studies done on COVID-19 and music, you can find current and past resources on The National Federation of State High School Associations website.)
While the healthiest singers were worried about preventing illness due to COVID, those with underlying health issues had even more reason to fret. How would they be able to protect themselves in any environment, much less a singing rehearsal!
These fears were founded. At the time, we didn’t know much about the virus, there was a limited supply of tools to help us protect ourselves (i.e., masks), and our ability to detect and trace SARS-CoV2 was in its infancy.
Fast-Forward 2 Years
The information about COVID-19 has progressed dramatically in the past two years, and the resources needed to create healthier living and working environments have also become more accessible. Our testing capabilities have improved, we have greater access to different masks, and we now have medications that may provide relief to those who catch the virus. Furthermore, the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine brought a sense of relief to many people who want to protect themselves and their families against the virus.
Even with all of these new possibilities, the underlying fear about returning in person to singing rehearsals is prevalent. Some common questions and fears include:
You may be able to think of many other questions that have arisen during choir meetings and virtual rehearsals. What should directors do to answer these questions and encourage member participation? How can you address suggested COVID guidelines from organizations like the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the WHO (World Health Organization)?
Making In-Person Rehearsals Possible
As more folks are vaccinated and feel comfortable being in groups again (family dinners, work meetings, carpools, lunch with friends, etc.), getting back to in-person rehearsals is becoming possible. Understandably, some of those early underlying fears are still there, but they don’t have to be the deciding factor in how in-person rehearsals are approached.
I want to take a quick moment to acknowledge that some choirs are already back to in-person rehearsals without masks. This is a choice that each choir has to make utilizing the knowledge and tools they have available. This post isn’t meant to encourage choirs to choose masked or un-masked rehearsals, but rather to offer options so that folks can go back to singing together in the same room with less anxiety.
5 Ways to Make In-Person Singing Safer
1. Mask & Distancing Policy – Many choirs who are beginning to sing in person again have developed a mask and social distancing policy for their singers. You may decide to buy specialty singers’ masks for rehearsals or develop particular guidelines you’d like singers to follow if they need to remove a mask during rehearsal time. You could also structure mask breaks into rehearsal time, so everyone has an opportunity to take a breather safely. For social distancing purposes, it may be helpful to mark singer standing placements at appropriate intervals, or separate rehearsal seating with gaps for safe singing.
2. Regular Testing – As COVID-19 test kits become more accessible, you may choose to ask choir members to test before rehearsal to mitigate the possibility of attending while sick. This could be especially helpful for asymptomatic folks who may not have known they were infected.
3. Air Circulation– There is a lot of information on improving air circulation and applying appropriate filtration systems to remove airborne viruses. Depending on your rehearsal space, you may be able to add more reliable filtration or adjust air settings to keep unsavory aerosols from stagnating in singing areas.
4. Air Purifiers – Studies suggest high-quality air purifiers can provide protections against COVID-19 and many other viruses that can be spread in the rehearsal room. Researching the size of the air purifier you need for your space and the types of viruses it can trap will be necessary; however, this could significantly affect singer comfort when attending in person.
5. Singer Waivers – Another approach is to utilize COVID waivers for choir members who plan to attend in-person rehearsals. These waivers give choir leadership the option of avoiding liabilities associated with in-person rehearsals and developing a COVID policy that works for all choir members.
A Common Sense Approach to In-Person Rehearsals
Let’s face it, we all know that there are some tried and true ways to prevent singers from getting sick when attending rehearsals. Before COVID-19 threw a curveball at our daily lives, there were plenty of other viruses that could make us sick! (Has anybody else had half their choir out with the flu at the same time? *raises hand*)
All of us who have been singing for any length of time know these rules, but sometimes they bear repeating.
Stay Home if You’re Sick – It doesn’t matter what kind of sick it might be. Singers can have a head cold, the flu, strep, or any other contagious illness and quickly spread it to others. It bears repeating all year long that singers who don’t feel well should stay home.
Don’t Share Food & Drink (or anything else!) – We often consider our chorus peeps our chosen family, and we can become very close with other members. Regardless of how much time you spend together, avoid sharing food, drinks, or anything else that could transmit viruses from one person to another. This could include makeup, facial wipes, breathing apparatus such as inhalers, or masks.
Wash Your Hands Frequently – The National Library of Medicine published a study that found that we touch our face 23 times per hour! The reason viruses are transferred to us from surfaces is that we touch the surface and then touch our face. Encouraging frequent hand washing, including during breaks at rehearsal, is a common-sense approach to preventing illness among chorus members.
You Can’t Solve Everything - or Retain Everyone
Many of us would love for our choir to return to the way it was before COVID. This pandemic has been long and complicated, and exhausting! Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to get all of your members back or protect them from everything.
There will be members with underlying health concerns that prevent them from singing with you again. Members will have decided to move on to a new hobby, new choir, or new experience. There will be members who aren’t ready to come back yet, but maybe they will in time.
All you can do at this point is plan ahead, consider your existing choir, and do your best to make a safe space for folks to come out and sing in person. Singing is what brought us together, and it’s what will strengthen us as we continue to learn and grow from this pandemic experience.
Take a few moments to reflect on how far you’ve come during the pandemic. What has your choir achieved? How have you failed? How have you succeeded?
Maybe my glasses are rose-colored, but I can’t help thinking there are so many great possibilities that come from something as difficult as the situation we’ve been in for the past two years. It’s ok for singers to feel timid about coming back to sing, and it’s also ok to press forward and create that safe space where we perform together as one. “Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” – Ella Fitzgerald
How do you alleviate singer health concerns in your choir? Do you have any tools or tips to suggest? Please share with us in the comments below.
Amanda Carroll is a former middle school chorus and general music teacher in North Carolina. She is a member of Carolina Style Chorus and Sweet Adelines International and is a non-performing member of Womansong of Asheville. She has Master of Music and Master of Public Administration degrees from Appalachian State University. Her background includes singing with large and small ensembles, as well as solo work and teaching private lessons. Amanda is passionate about creating meaningful concerts and connecting with the community through performance.