Columbus Choirs: How Can We Keep From Singing?

May 18, 2020

Restaurants, barbershops and businesses may be re-opening, but nowhere is there a universal green light for a return to business as usual. While some activities slowly become okay again, the future of singing in groups remains unclear.

Last week,  The National Association of Teachers of Singing, the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Chorus America, Barbershop Harmony Society, and Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA) presented a webinar about the near term future of singing as we seek fact-based solutions for protecting our singers, teachers, and conductors during this time. The webinar was lengthy, but if you'd like to see the whole session, it's here:

Tens of thousands of people have watched, including several choral directors in the Columbus area. I asked a few of them to give their impressions on what they learned, and what needs to happen with choral singing moving forward.

Many lamented the loss of in-person community. Many acknowledged that singing together in the same room is the heart of the choral singing experience. Just like being in the audience in a theater for concert music and opera. It’s hard to yell “bravo!” to a laptop.

Now, in May of 2020, common sense puts the communal health over the communal heart.

In a post titled "The Risks -- Know Them -- Avoid Them," Dr. Erin C. Bromage writes of a recent tragedy with a choir in Washington State.

From the blog:          

Even though people were aware of the virus and took steps to minimize transfer; e.g. they avoided the usual handshakes and hugs hello, people also brought their own music to avoid sharing, and socially distanced themselves during practice. A single asymptomatic carrier infected most of the people in attendance. The choir sang for 2 1/2 hours, inside an enclosed church, which was roughly the size of a volleyball court.

Singing, to a greater degree than talking, aerosolizes respiratory droplets extraordinarily well. Deep breathing while singing facilitated those respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs. Two and half hours of exposure ensured that people were exposed to enough virus over a long enough period of time for infection to take place. Over a period of 4 days, 45 of the 60 choir members developed symptoms, 2 died. The youngest infected was 31, but they averaged 67 years old.

Here’s what some of our local choral singers and conductors think of the current challenges:

Robert Bode, Visiting Professor of Choral Music, OSU

The information presented in the NATS/ACDA Chorus America webinar is sobering.  And it dropped the choral world on its head with a decided THUNK. Since then, some of my choral colleagues have questioned the scientific validity of some of the assertions made in the webinar.  We are still in the early stages of an unfolding epidemic and there is much that is still unknown about the virus. Others of us acknowledge that, until we know more about how the virus us transmitted, we must exercise caution. For the foreseeable future it is simply not safe to sing in groups.

This is heartbreaking news for those of us who love choral singing.  We love it because singing in a choir is an act of community, an act of breathing together, listening to each other, and expressing one idea TOGETHER. This is not possible when each singer is home, on their computer, contributing their lone voice to a virtual choir or Zoom rehearsal.  We have to be together to bring this art to life. That's what an "ensemble" is all about.

Larry Griffin, Capriccio Columbus

We are facing difficult times with choral music. I miss my Capriccio Columbus family, but it is more important to have them in a safe environment. Until there is sufficient testing and a vaccine, we will not be singing. Our 15th anniversary is happening in the year 2020-21. It is my hope and prayer that our government will have this virus under control by May of 2021, but I am not in any hurry to sing until it is safe. My group’s average age is 50 and I love them too much to put them in harm’s way.

Nathan Ogg, Lancaster Chorale, Barbershop Harmony Society

As a member of ACDA, a former NATS competitor, and now as judge and chorus-outreach employee of the BHS, I was really glad these organizations were having this conversation publicly and providing a platform for scientists and medical professionals to share the facts when there's so much division, doubt, and politicization going around. I've been hosting weekly webinars with over 350 of our BHS choruses over the last few weeks and although they're all scared and frankly grieving because of what this means to our art form, they understand why. Especially when presented with this type of data and analysis. This presents all of us with a unique challenge to keep our music going, our singers engaged/interested/challenged, and perhaps most importantly, preserve the culture/fellowship that accompanies communal singing.

As you might imagine, working for the Barbershop Harmony Society, our average singers age is "on the high side", but we're seeing more and more of our 700 choruses engaging in Zoom rehearsals with social happy hours, music theory classes, guest speakers, sectionals, and private voice instruction. We're seeing "old dogs learn new tricks" left and right, and that is quite exciting and illuminating in the bleakness of hearing news like this.

Personally, I miss singing with colleagues in Lancaster Chorale, miss coaching, consulting, and judging groups and contests across the country, directing my church choir, and singing with my quartet - but I'm excited to see how we use this opportunity to change our "always uphill" strategy to share our art with as many as we can.

Richard K. Fitzgerald, Minister of Music, St. Joseph Cathedral

Based on what I've learned of the dangers of singing in regard to human aerosol transmission and the spread of the Coronavirus, I'm recommending that all choral and congregational singing be suspended throughout the Diocese of Columbus for the foreseeable future.

Jeanne Wohlgamuth, Conductor, Columbus Children’s Choir

The information shared on the webinar was indeed very upsetting and disheartening, but we cannot let it paralyze us. We need to stay as educated as possible in order to make decisions that are considered safe and in the best interest of our singers. We must proceed with caution and be committed to reinventing the way we do business if needed. We MUST keep a positive attitude and believe that this too will pass and we will return to singing again at some point.

Kevin Wines, Minister of Music, Trinity Church Capital Square

Having just completed a half-semester of virtual voice lessons, and having cancelled the choir at Trinity Episcopal Church for the foreseeable future, I am suffering withdrawal along with us all. To hear facts and science applied is wonderful, regardless of how difficult it is to hear. I'm sure all my colleagues have explored virtual choirs and discovered that what we really end up with is more like the process used for animated movies - individual performers recording with little or no interaction with the other performers. With endless hours of editing a final product can be pretty good - though I have suspicion that many of these I've heard are layered over a full performance recorded in the past when the ensemble was actually together.

Where we go from here is tenuous at best. With universities and bishops reserved but somewhat confident that programs will begin in the fall, we have many technical hurdles to overcome. I look forward to hearing more from our colleagues as plans are developed. And more importantly, I look forward to the day we can all gather and make music together.

Lynda Hasseler, Director of Choral Activities, Capital University

I am confident that together, as an informed and thoughtful choral community, we can find a path forward that will keep our ensemble members engaged in meaningful musical connections and experiences. Singing is not over. Performing is not over. How both can be done in the near future is the challenge we face. We will need to be creative. As choral music educators, we will need to learn new skills. We will need to stay informed and seek clarity. And we will need to keep foremost in our planning the safety and well-being our singers. I look forward to exploring what IS possible with the help and good will of choral colleagues in our immediate community, as well as regionally, nationally and internationally. I appreciate the following quote I read today:

If a choir is only about singing and performing - there will be no choir for a while. If choir is about teaching and learning, growing, connecting, community, cultural exploration and transmission, and innovating - we will find a way to have choir.  –Kellie Walsh, choral leader in Canada.

Daniel Hunter-Holley, Associate Professor of Music, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, OSU/SOM alumnus

It’s been a rough week for the performing arts world, especially for those of us involved in ensembles, as we begin to face the realities of what will be possible in the fall... It’s not just the loss of making music but also the absence of the communities we all nurture, enjoy, and rely on through these ensembles in ways that go beyond degree requirements. Acknowledging that this too will pass doesn’t help those people that need this type of connection NOW. I’m looking forward to continuing to brainstorm with colleagues around the world who are working so hard to create new paradigms for the organizations we all participate in and lead. My silver lining for this morning: “necessity is the mother of invention.” We WILL figure out new ways because we MUST continue to connect with others. Until we meet again.

Necessity dictates that many activities move to Zoom or online platforms.

These choral singers have given serious thought to how the current situation affects them…and their audiences. I can sing enthusiastically but badly. I do a choir no favors by joining, but I am a loving audience member. One hundred years ago, it was thought radio would keep audiences out of the concerts halls. It did not. Televised opera was supposed to be the death of ticket sales in the hall. It was not. Today, performing onstage in close proximity isn’t safe. The arts are not served if artists and audiences become ill. Technology will help the arts to reinvent themselves, so these groups are still around when the audience can experience dance, theater and music, together. In community. Safely.