Chorus chief: ‘Evidence that choral singing is a high-risk activity is strong’

The following message has been shared with the Association of British Choral Directors by Professor Martin Ashley, editor of ABCD Choral Directions Research:

Since the outbreak of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, generally referred to as “COVID-19” governments including that of the UK have imposed lockdown on all social gatherings. As governments move towards relaxing restrictions it has emerged that choral singing may need to be one of the last restrictions to be relaxed. The paper reviews the scientific evidence that underpins this perception and considers the position of choral directors. Evidence that choral singing is a high-risk activity is strong, but ultimate decisions on the future of choirs will need to be taken by choir directors and managers through an informed risk analysis. The paper considers the specific case of English cathedral choirs where both children and adults sing together in unusually large spaces. It draws on a survey of members of the Cathedral Organists Association and evidence from Norway and Sweden where choral singing has either resumed under strictly limited conditions or, in one case of a boys’ choir, never ceased. Conditions under which English cathedral choirs as a specific category might resume singing are considered. The conclusion is that a limited resumption may be possible, but this must still be treated as a high-risk activity and does not apply generally across all sectors of choral singing.”

In writing this, I have raised some hope that we might hear some cathedral or similar choirs perform together before the end of this year. One thing we need to accept is that there is no blanket, “one size fits all” way out. Some countries appear to have been more successful than others. My paper cites data from Norway where choirs have restarted, but as of 22nd May, the death rate in Norway had been 44 persons per million as opposed to 538 per million in the UK. Even within the UK, death rates and other indicators vary by region, by urban/rural location, by social class, by ethnicity and, most significantly, by age. I said, “cathedral or similar”. The point here is that most cathedral choirs have children as their top line. The balance of the papers I have read up to now is that children are the lowest risk group, though uncertainty exists as to whether children who appear perfectly healthy might spread the virus to their families. Some papers I have read say they might, others that they probably won’t. Reading more and understanding that topic better is my task for this week. At least I will be focussing on something a little more specific. I was going to suggest (I hope I am forgiven) that the presence of young choral scholars and the such like also brings down the average age of ATB lines in cathedrals to lower than would be the case in parish or many secular choirs. A newly published study from France that I read only this morning already counteracts this. The study concludes that children of chorister age are low risk, but young people of sixth form age are more like the general population. And so it goes on!

One issue raised in the excellent RSCM webinar which some of you will have seen last Friday was that we are now in danger of sleepwalking into illogical disparity. Football matches might be played in closed off stadia, but choirs may not sing in closed off cathedrals. The very choristers who might not be allowed to sing in their cathedrals might sing in their schools if those reopen! We are back to wondering what scientific papers are published on aerosols in large enclosed spaces (cathedrals) and aerosols on spaces enclosed but open to atmosphere (sports stadia) might tell us.

Meanwhile, I conclude with my favourite quote from the RSCM webinar. “An organist is no more dangerous than a priest”. Make of that what you will!

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  • This was a study mentioned by slipped disc a while back:

    Professor Christian Kähler and Dr Rainer Hain from the military university in Munich have been conducting experiments with singers and orchestral musicians to determine whether their activities can spread the Coronavirus.The initial results from the Institute of Fluid Mechanics and Aerodynamics are encouraging.
    Air was only set in motion no more than half a metre in front of the mouth, making virus spread beyond that ‘extremely unlikely’, according to the study leaders. Kähler nonetheless recommended a 1.5 metre safety cordon in a choir or church of 1.5 meters, as well as distancing between singers to prevent droplet infection.

  • I too attended the RSCM Webinar on Friday and I believe strongly any choral director, organist and member of the clergy regardless of denomination should’ve attended this webinar or at least now be making a point of watching it via the RSCM webshop. It would appear Professor Ashley has failed to pick up on the following points which were raised at this webinar, and left with a rather gloomy and pessimistic view of the future of music making in churches and choral societies which is a great pity.

    1. At the moment there is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest singing is dangerous or can cause the spread of coronavirus. True, there is an awful lot of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence to suggest this but as yet there is no real, hard scientific proof that singing is responsible for the spread of covid. Many choirs are a very sociable group of people and it is easy for the germs to spread by people hugging/kissing on arrival, sharing of communal areas – tea/coffee facilities at the break, toilet facilities, passing of music to and from each other, shared surfaces – e.g. setting out of chairs, and even drinks after rehearsal could all account for the spread of coronavirus which has sadly claimed the lives of many singers across the globe. Science, at the moment does not know for certain if singing is the culprit. Having said that, it is the belief of some scientists that congregational singing is perfectly safe.

    2. Attendees were told not to be depressed or enthused with what they read online – particularly articles appearing on social media. There are many anecdotes which aren’t yet backed up by science and it is vitally important we do not hypothesise what we read on social media or in the press if not scientifically backed up. Prof. Ashley seems to have missed these points spectacularly.

    3. Once churches have been allowed to re-open, and other musical groups allowed to rehearse again, we are to consider making the use of space. Follow social distancing guidelines, and try to mitigate the risk of covid. Nothing to stop the choir being in one area of the church and congregation in the other. Directors of Music should be thinking about different possibilities of the making of music – smaller vocal groups (such as what the St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig is doing), using different instrumentalists instead or solo singers. The choir could even be called in to record anthems, or other musical contributions in the week and the recordings played during the service. Provided guidelines are followed and musical directors, their committees etc have a carefully considered plan and find ways to enable music to be made the risk should be minimised.

    I found Friday’s webinar to be incredibly positive – as the director of three choirs (one church and two choral societies) there was scope to consider what we offer and how we offer it as well as offering it safely. It would appear to me that Prof. Ashley missed quite a lot of the positive message and sense of hope for the future. I would urge him and any other readers disappointed with his rather gloomy outlook to watch the RSCM webinar and allow themselves to be filled with hope for a very positive outlook for the making of music in our churches and further afield.

    • Singing is not the issue but rather the unavoidable consequence of expelling liquid droplets while doing so that does spread the virus. Furthermore, although 6 feet is a sufficient distance to avoid coming in contact with aerosols under typical social circumstances that is not the case when singing; try looking at the numerous photographs taken with a strobe of what is projected from the mouth when singing. Stop spreading your selective pseudo-scientific nonsense.

  • Let’s have some positivity for the Arts otherwise all Concerts and musical events will never take place again. All these event venues are lying empty and it is becoming costly to maintain without any revenue. In Germany and Austria for example they are getting back to performances on advice from scientists which are detailed documents in how to approach the new method of social distancing. In other countries as well they are working on modifying their Festivals.

    • Austria and Germany are beginning to get back to performances, which is marvelous, if it can be done safely. The problem with other countries following their lead is that places like the U. S. are light years behind in regard to testing and tracing the virus.

      Imagine if Angela Merkel had denied the seriousness of COVID-19 for weeks. Imagine if she had discouraged Germans from following the advice of epidemiologists, but instead urged them to gather in large groups to protest lockdowns. Imagine she told Germans they didn’t have anything to lose if they tried unproven, dangerous treatments. Imagine if she had turned wearing a mask into a political battle. If she had done any of that, Germany would not feel confident they’re getting the virus under control.

      Some places are reopening, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to do so worldwide. Unfortunately, the bungled response of certain ‘leaders’ will force countless artists to take an indefinite Grand Pause. Such tremendous loss. It didn’t have to be this bad.

  • Not quite related to the article but the point I want to raise is this. Every year in the UK we have a ‘flu outbreak. This occurs during the winter months when all concert series take place. Flu is highly virulent yet our concert season is not curtailed. Mass events like Mahler 8 or English choral classics are programmed every season and we do not seem to see Choruses or orchestras affected by chorus singers spreading the virus during performances. Why then the fear over the spread of Covid 19?

    • Because COVID 19 is much more letal and contagious than flu and there are still no vaccines. It really surprises me that you are asking this question on May. This was the kind of comment we used to read back in February…

      • Patricia we don’t yet know the full extent yet. Once excess mortality is removed this Covid 19 outbreak may only have a similar outcome. Also, the way deaths are recorded is highly misleading. Covid 19 is not an airborne disease. Social distancing, shielding the vulnerable and scrupulous attention to hand hygiene will suffice. It is highly unlikely a vaccine will be available any time soon.
        Perhaps if you read more widely the literature by immunologists and virologist you would know this.
        My question remains, why do we not suffer mass outbreaks among choral singers and particularly orchestral members places on front of the chorus.

        • You know nothing about immunology or virology. As someone who has engaged in both sciences II would ask that you either go back to school and earn a degree or stop spreading nonsense that someone might mistake for science.

        • As a choral conductor at a university, I can tell you that every time my students come back from any break, a significant number of the singers gets sick. Any school teacher of choir has this same experience. This is exactly in line with what the immunologists and virologists are telling us.

    • Because we have a vaccine for flu therefore mass outbreaks do not occur from attending concerts. In addition, contracting the flu does not lead to hospitalization in the ICU and ventilation. Once we have a vaccine for COVID-19 the same will apply.

      • Amos different influenzas appear each year. A vaccine will cover some but not all mutations.
        I think some sort of herd immunity is required. And the current ‘lockdown’ policy seems to be discouraging this occurring. Shielding and protecting the vulnerable to continue of course.
        In fact many influenza outbreaks are worse than Covid 19, attacking young adults and children.

        • First, enough with the herd immunity via unimmunized infection unless you want millions of deaths and every hospital over-run with patients so that life and death decisions are made by the tens of millions. Second, a new infl A vaccine is generated every year at modest cost and it is effective to the point that society functions “normally”. There is every likelihood that once a COVID vaccine is developed and if mutations arise in the current SPIKE target then similar strategies to that employed for infl A will be successful. Your last comment is idiotic given the vascular disease now being seen with children.

          • Amos. Only 2 children have died in U.K. I don’t know figures elsewhere but all experts agree this is not an issue for children.
            Research Dolores Cahill.

          • Keep listening to quacks. Any immunologists who says that people infected with COVID-19 clear the virus in 10 days and are immune for life is insane. First, everyone responds differently. Second, no one knows how the virus will mutate and how neutralizing Ab against this year’s strain will react against a mutant. Third, reports of unique effects on children have been reported throughout the US. Fourth, all experts agree on virtually nothing given that this is a new viral entity.

    • Why the fear over the spread of Covid-19?
      Because it’s an even more serious illness than flu, much more contagious, with more aftereffects and, above all, a higher death rate (and a rather unpleasant death, mostly by asphyxiation).

    • No problem for the healthy under 50s. The fear is that covid 19 is more deadly, the mortality rate for the age group 65 and above is 89% compared with 72% for flu. Source:ONS

      • We need to stop with this line of thinking. Anyone can get it, everyone is getting it, and people of all ages are dying from it – even healthy people under 50, even children.

      • Either your reading of the statistics or your typing of them here was so wrong as to be an outrageous bit of fake news.

      • “No problem for the healthy under 50s”

        Likely to survive, yes. However, there are more variables than this and which is why caution needs to be exercised.

        A friend of mine got a very nasty variant of it (cyctone storm) as his very robust immune system over-reacted to the CV19. Advice from him (previously keen on herd immunity) is an unequivocal “ don’t get it”

        • Cytokine storm. Cytokine is a general term for the immune mediators released primarily by CD4 T cells and mononuclear cells when activated. Most are pro-inflammatory which caused what your friend experienced.

    • Because flu is far less contagious, less deadly, AND IS REGULARLY VACCINATED AGAINST. There is NO vaccine for COVID 19.

  • Taking place right now in and around Frankfurt: An outbreak with so far 112 confirmed cases. The spreading event: A religious service where participants sang together. Meanwhile they admitted that this was, together with not wearing face masks, a mistake.

  • Having attended the RSCM webinar, I can only disagree with Anon’s comments.

    The issues with aerosols are not entirely clarified – but it is not just a matter of how far droplets are emitted whilst you sing, it is what happens when aerosols (tiny droplets) hang around in enclosed spaces. An Australian choral singing webinar describes the “mini-weather systems” that warm bodies in a room create. It is safe to assume that these aerosols spread far and wide throughout a room over the course of a rehearsal. It is also safe to assume that singers who breathe deeply are more likely to inhale these aerosols, and deeply.

    What is less clear is exactly how well or poorly Covid-19 survives in these aerosols. Survival in droplets is well established, but aerosols less certain. There are other viruses and indeed other coronaviruses that I believe have been demonstrated to survive and spread in aerosols, hence the concern about COVID-19.

    We don’t know the degree – but we should very much assume (until we do know) that there is some sort of risk, and make sensible practical decisions to mitigate that risk.

    I found the RSCM webinar to be a little bit of people saying and hearing what they want to hear: to suggest “the science isn’t in” along with an air of optimism and positivity leads me to concern that people are being encouraged to be less cautious than perhaps they ought.

    In Australia the virus is close to being eliminated, and yet these conversations are still being taken seriously.

    In the UK, it appears that churches are eager to re-open despite there being a large amount of virus in the community, and the RSCM webinar left me feeling that perhaps they weren’t taking it seriously enough.

    It was the Dead of Westminster who said “it seems the virus is fading away.” Well, we all hope so, but as the UK is still recording thousands of infections a day, as they move towards returning to work and society, I suspect that this is another case of misplaced optimism; seeing what they want to see.

    • I think you will find in this UK that all musical groups: secular and sacred are having serious conversations about the future. We are all concerned about the impact of this virus. It is the responsibility of each group, each church etc to ensure it is safe for everyone to resume singing activities. I don’t think there is anyone who is being cavalier in their approach to the resumption of singing.

      As was made clear the webinar the science is suggesting that coronavirus at the moment seems to point to it travelling and thriving more in droplet form that aerosol but even that isn’t 100% conclusive.

      A shame you found the positivity of this webinar a bit too much. I felt it was honest, and gave us some serious points to consider for the future music making in church and beyond.

      Finally, I think you mean the Dean of Westminster as opposed to the Dead of Westminster. I really hope that was a typo.

    • Thank you for the interesting and helpful report. The only point I’d disagree over is the eagerness of the Church to reopen. They seem more concerned with Dominic Cummings at the moment.

      • The church is open! It’s only the buildings that are closed. The church is the people and millions have gone on line who would never go inside any church of any denomination. You can’t suddenly tell all those people they no longer matter if the building opens.

  • There is an enormous difference of risk depending on whether the choir is in a small rehearsal room or a large cathedral. In small room humidity will quickly build, droplets will not evapourate and an overhead supply air system will mix the air and cause everyone to breath everbody-else’s air and droplets emitted from deep in the throat. In a cathedral the air will rise because of body-heat and this will take the droplets away by convection.

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