As the UK continues its easing up of lockdown measures, one of my biggest concerns has been when I can get my haircut again. (Answer – Wednesday 7 July at 11am. YAY!) However, I’m being asked a lot about when we can get together to sing again, by students and choir members who haven’t taken to online sessions, by those who have taken to online sessions but are missing the in-person singing together and tuition, and by new choirs who have not experienced anything else other than working through a screen and Zoom.
Although the government are announcing this week an incredible £1.57bn support package for theatres and venues, there is nothing to show us how we are going to bring singing back from only being online. (Hopefully, our esteemed Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, will give us further information this week on how we can start opening up the music and arts sector – fingers crossed.) We do know there are lots of things to think about when looking at the risk of bringing people together to sing, whether its individual lessons or groups such as choirs. There are many conversations going on within the voice world, globally, and research is being undertaken. In fact, there will be research studies published over the coming weeks from Colorado, and work is also being done in the UK with leading ENT specialists such as Declan Costello and Natalie Watson. This blog attempts to summarise the discussions that have been taking place, and I will update this when more information is available.
When we cough or even speak and sing, you can see droplets coming out of people’s mouths. Aerosol particles are smaller and go unseen – they can stay in the air for longer and travel a further distance. It appears that singing (and other loud vocalising) increases this aerosol emission.
For singers, it’s not just about the air being expelled when vocalising. In periods between phrases, singers will take a larger than normal breath in.
With the knowledge that these aerosol particles help to increase the amount of virus in the air, we need to think about how long we are singing together for, and how far apart from each other we are. Do we need screens between us? Some of the discussions taking place are that the screens won’t work as the aerosol particles will go over. But does it add to the sense of safety that we may need?
In the UK currently, we have to comply with 2 metres distancing (or ‘1 metre plus’ if 2 metres is not possible). This is one of the strictest forms of distancing globally, with most other countries using 1m or 1.5m. Yet, is this still too close for singing? Conversations have discussed anything from 2m to 5m to maintain a safe space.
Viral loading also needs to be considered when singing together. The more aerosol particles containing the virus that are airborne, and the longer people are in the contaminated area, the more likely people are to catch the virus. So the more people that are singing together the greater the risk. It can also be assumed that the longer we sing together the greater the risk too. Do we need to look at fewer people singing together for shorter periods of time? A reduced rehearsal is possible, as is rehearsing in sections to reduce numbers. However, does this mean that we still lose that singing together because we cannot hear the parts that we’re combining? My thoughts are shorter rehearsals but still with mixed parts to get that sense of choral community that people are missing. However, access to a large space will be required to allow social distancing, plus lots of good ventilation. Another factor to consider is whether members will want reduced numbers, plus the financial impact on the teacher/choir leader (this is our business after all).
When singing indoors, care must be taken with room size and ventilation. The room needs to allow the social distancing required, but there should also be windows for sunlight and good ventilation to help with the dispersal of the virus. This can cause logistical issues as most rehearsal venues, although can be large, may not offer the space required for every member. There is also the issue of windows that can open, and the question of whether air conditioning/ automated ventilation is a pro or con. These need to be considered when looking at rehearsal venues.
With social interaction (albeit with distancing) now allowed in the UK, there have been trials singing together outdoors with small groups. Although this can give the space needed, and some reduction in aerosol transmission, this creates an acoustical issue. With an open space, it is likely that singers will work their voices harder to be heard, which will lead to increased vocal fatigue and possible hoarseness.
In Short (yes COVID-19: “I’m over you, so bye”), the risks against the practicalities need to be weighed up. The case numbers in the UK are still fairly high, although they are dropping. Current government guidance is that this isn’t allowed (both 1:1 tuition and group singing). At this stage, there is no indication from the government about when dance and singing schools can go back. (Fingers crossed for more information later this week – nudge, nudge, Oliver Dowden). Please write to your MP to ask for clarification on when choir leaders and singing, woodwind and brass teachers can go back to work, you'd be helping us enormously.
This singing teacher would rather ensure the safety of herself, family, students and clients by keeping things online until the risk is minimised. I know and appreciate that it isn’t easy doing this online, and we’re missing out on so much that we get from singing together. But oh, what an amazing feeling it will be when we can finally get back to doing what we love in person. However…
Ever the optimist, I am putting in place ways that we can sing together safely when we are permitted. And things can currently change overnight – watch this space!