Not-Too-Close Harmony: The Art and Science of Singing Together During the Pandemic

Alongside research into treatment of COVID-19, scientists around the world are conducting studies that are identifying the most effective ways to avoid contracting the virus when people choose to be near each other. Across the country, several choruses are applying some of these findings in an effort to develop safe ways to resume a behavior the pandemic has made especially risky: singing together in the same space. This story examines ways they are approaching the challenge and lessons they are learning

Anticipating Beethoven’s 250th birthday in December, Washington DC’s Cathedral Choral Society (CCS) had planned a Beethoven festival as a centerpiece for its 2020-21 season. Then the pandemic hit, and those plans were scrubbed—but not entirely. Scaling back the festival idea, the chorus decided to produce a short “cinematic video presentation” centered on a few of the composer’s less familiar, small-scale vocal works, says executive director Christopher Eanes. CCS is one of several choruses that have decided a tightly controlled recording environment would offer a reasonable way to get back to singing together in person. As Eanes was developing a set of safety protocols for the group’s October session, he ran his draft by a physician on his board, who emailed back with a suggestion: “‘You should try sending this to Dr. Fauci’”—meaning Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and perhaps America’s most trusted authority on COVID-19. Eanes recalls chuckling at the suggestion, but he moved on it “because what do you have to lose in these situations?” A day or two later, Eanes and Fauci connected for a brief phone call. “We only chatted for about seven minutes,” Eanes says, “but it was very helpful.”

Choral music leaders need all the help they can get as they make plans to sing together safely. Dr. Fauci doesn’t have time to return everyone’s calls, so where else is there to look for the latest, most reliable research? Choruses also need to interpret and sift those findings and to develop effective plans for making choral singing safe despite the coronavirus. What gives them confidence they’re making the right decisions?  In the process, what are they learning? In the end, are the risk and effort worth it?

Any choral musician understands why they are trying. Austin Willacy, for instance, calls it “agony” to be deprived of the joy of singing with friends in the Oakland-based Thrive Choir, a group “born to sing the music for the revolution,” in the words of its website. Thrive made its first music video during the pandemic, but Willacy, the co-director, can’t wait for the time when they’re back together every week, masks off, standing next to each other, “hearing my voice curl around and hug another person's voice the way that only happens when you're singing together real-time.” The pandemic has caused him to realize that, along with its power to heal and connect, singing right now “has the power to cause harm to people. And so that's what's forcing a lot of conversations that need to be had about how we can do the thing that we love right now—in a way that is as healthy and safe and honoring and respectful as possible.”


Who Is Responsible for Making Decisions?

In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, researchers have launched a number of studies to learn more about aerosol transmission in performing arts activities. In particular, several choruses are paying attention to recommendations emerging from an ongoing University of Colorado Boulder/University of Maryland study on reducing the risk of returning to rehearsals and performances. Similar research is under way at Colorado State University. From the vocal music field itself come The COVID-19 Response Committee Report, developed by a team of choral professionals for the ACDA, and a journal article on safe singing during the pandemic commissioned by the Voice Foundation. Like many other organizations, choruses are also adhering to guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and state and local boards of health. [Links to research, guidelines, and additional resources can be found at our Choruses and COVID-19 resource page.]

Some choruses are tapping expertise within their own organizations—such as board members who are also health professionals. The new board chair of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) is a medical doctor, says artistic director Tim Seelig. Like several other choruses, SFGMC created a COVID task force. Its 16 members include several health workers, Seelig says, one of them an epidemiologist. The group decided, as many choruses have, that SFGMC as a whole will not gather again to sing until there is a proven treatment for COVID-19. In the meantime, the chorus has moved to an all-virtual season, featuring weekly offerings on its new online platform, and small pods have been rehearsing outdoors to prepare for virtual choir productions. Seelig emphasizes that it’s the task force’s responsibility, not his, to determine the protocols the chorus implements for in-person gatherings: “I don't think it's any conductor's prerogative to put singers in danger.”

Naturally, the singers themselves have a say in all of this. The 18 members of the Thrive Choir make decisions collectively. Growing tired of Zoom, someone began a thread on the popular messaging application WhatsApp that led to their group decision to rehearse outdoors. The St. Charles Singers, a professional group based in suburban Chicago, began talking about an outdoor recording session partly because the musicians were overdue for a paying gig, says executive director Kay Kendall. Several of them became an especially valuable resource in the planning process because they are choral music educators who have been doing their own research on the safety of returning to the classroom. For the singers, “this has taken some courage,” she adds: “the courage to come and sing in the middle of a pandemic.” The chorus released the four videos from its July session on YouTube under the title “Courage to Sing.” Kendall says chorus members could freely choose not to participate, and a few did opt out—as has been the case with several ensembles that have scheduled in-person singing sessions during the pandemic.

The families of singers belong in the discussion too, especially those involved with children and youth choruses. As Tucson Girls Chorus director Marcela Molina points out, “we don't interact just with the singer; we need to think of the whole ecosystem when we are continuing with programming and answer to them.” Feeling a responsibility “to stay true to our commitment to underserved communities,” even in hard times, Molina says the chorus is holding in-person rehearsals outdoors. She notes that some parents are uncomfortable, even fearful, about sending their children, so the chorus launched “a really cohesive conversation” to address their concerns. Relying on research that included the Colorado/Maryland study, Molina drafted safety protocols, gathered input from her staff and a medical task force the chorus has assembled, and shared their ideas with families. “I'm very, very communicative about our plans,” she says. “Even when we were not sure what we were doing, we told them.” Molina says 90 to 95 percent of the families participating in rehearsals have “felt safe and felt grateful that their kids were practicing in person.”


What Are the Essential Protocols?

Last March, Tim Seelig put together a rehearsal guide to choral singing during the pandemic. Because so much has been learned since then, he now considers the document “a historical relic.” His protocols called on singers to start by “washing their hands for 20 minutes at a hand-washing station. Then they would get their temperature taken. And then they would go to their seats, distanced, and—I can't believe I said this—take off their masks to sing.” Now, he says, protocols include a health questionnaire and will call for COVID testing when rapid results are possible. The current eight-day wait in San Francisco is “not tenable,” he says.

Testing and quarantining are the two safety measures Dr. Fauci emphasized in his conversation with Christopher Eanes, and Eanes had already been planning to practice both of them during his three-day recording session at the Washington National Cathedral. Eanes told Fauci the testing would happen “as close as possible to the first time we all come together” and that the group would self-quarantine “from the time they take the test through the end of the project. This means no going out unless absolutely necessary, no unnecessary travel.” Fauci’s reaction, which Eanes is careful to characterize as his own takeaway, not Fauci’s specific recommendations, went something like this: “He said, ‘Yeah, you get that testing, particularly within 48 hours of your first rehearsal, and you hold people to their quarantining—these people actually have to obey the rules—then you've done everything you can to ensure safety. Not a guarantee, nothing's guaranteed.’” Eanes says that assurance was enough for him to move forward.

This past summer, the National Basketball Association undertook a highly publicized experiment in testing and quarantining: It finished its pandemic-interrupted 2019-20 season in a “bubble.” From late July until early October, players remained inside a facility at Disney World in Orlando, where they lived, were tested daily, and played their games. To the surprise of many, the experiment was successful.

In Tucson, a professional choral ensemble borrowed the bubble idea in an effort to sing safely together in front of live audiences. True Concord Voices and Orchestra launched a fall season of outdoor, socially distanced concerts on October 20. Leading up to the performances, singers, many of whom are from out of town, spent ten days in individual isolation, which, as operations manager Joshua Keeling notes, is the time period recommended by the World Health Organization. At first no one knew whether enough testing would be available to rely heavily on that protocol, but since then, he says the chorus has been able to work out a partnership with a local laboratory. Singers isolated in homes rented through Airbnb and guest houses belonging to chorus supporters. After that Keeling says they began co-housing with others inside the musician bubble—a 28-day period for rehearsals and some recording. True Concord’s protocols also included a daily self-monitoring health check, “a simple email questionnaire that they'll fill out every day, basically confirming that they don't have any of the CDC’s list of COVID-19 symptoms,” says Keeling.

Physical distancing figures in every conversation about protocols for safe gathering, but Eanes’s takeaway from his conversation with Dr. Fauci is that “that choosing a safe distance between singers is a shot in the dark.” Many variables come into play, especially air circulation in the surrounding environment. As long as the weather cooperates, outdoor gatherings may be the best choice. True Concord scheduled its season-opening concert in the courtyard of a Tucson church. The Tucson Girls Chorus rehearses in small groups at a baseball field, with singers separated by eight or more feet. Thanks to a camera, antenna, and wi-fi setup at the field, singers who choose not to be present physically can stream the sessions online.  At her top choir’s first outdoor rehearsal, Molina says two families took advantage of that option. For their outdoor rehearsals, members of the Thrive Choir form a wide circle, six feet apart, in Willacy’s backyard. They also shot their debut music video, “Remember Me,” outdoors in an Oakland park. The singers did not wear masks or use microphones; physically distanced, they sang along with studio-quality audio they’d already recorded in Willacy’s home. In the forest preserve where they recorded, St. Charles Singers music director Jeff Hunt planted survey flags 10 feet apart to mark everyone’s positions. Members of SFGMC have gathered in the National AIDS Memorial Grove to rehearse in pods of 12—three to a part. “No one touched each other,” says Seelig. “And we don't pass music from one to another.”

For audiences attending its fall concerts, True Concord established several distancing protocols. With the exception of couples, everyone is to be separated from each other by least six feet, and separate entrance and exit points are provided. To avoid physical contact, programs are digital and ticket handling is eliminated. Audience size is limited to 50. Masks are required.

Baltimore Choral Arts decided it needed an indoor setting to record music for a series of video productions called Off the Grid. “We are embarking on new territory for us,” says music director Anthony Blake Clark: documentary-style content combined with musical performances highlighting themes of social justice, inclusion, and response to adversity. The productions will be broadcast on a local TV station and later streamed on several online platforms. The 15 professional singers and other participants were tested in advance of the October recording session, which took place at Baltimore’s Parkway Theatre, chosen because its HVAC system boasts hospital-grade air filtering, says Clark. Protocols included five-minute breaks every 30 minutes to air out the space, a plan similar to the one Eanes implemented for his October session at the Washington National Cathedral. The cathedral’s massive size eased concerns over air circulation, and Eanes notes that only 12 or 15 singers, professionals and volunteers, were on hand for the recording—not the Cathedral Choral Society’s full complement of 120.

Eanes notes that wearing masks was another point of emphasis for Dr. Fauci. Going into the session, Eanes told singers “it's possible that we were going to have to record with masks off—obviously, still very socially distanced,” and that’s how it worked out. In the soundcheck, Eanes realized “it was just much easier for them to hear each other, and overall the sound was better.” Because they had no contact with anyone outside their bubble for more than a month, True Concord singers didn’t use masks in their first concert either. But the St. Charles Singers recorded with masks on. In rehearsals, the Thrive Choir uses masks to speak with each other and double masks to sing. Baltimore Choral Arts Society tried something new: the Singer’s Mask, a new product developed by Broadway professionals. “It looks kind of like a platypus bill,” says Clark. “The great thing about these masks is that they have wiring in them, so the cloth is really far away from your mouth, but still creates a seal on your face. You can open your jaw more in the manner that is required for singing.” They feel comfortable and safe, he adds. And the cloth is thick.

Masks—along with distancing—caused some of the bigger worries. When singers’ voices are muffled by masks, Clark notes that “miking so that the audio engineer can get really a very up-close sound is vital.”  The recording demonstrated that “he was able to capture real diction and consonants and the things that maybe sometimes the masks inhibit.” The St. Charles Singers used regular masks, but the close-miking technique worked well for them too, Hunt says, even in an outdoor setting.

The distancing “was probably the toughest thing of the day,” Clark says. It poses challenges for maintaining rhythm, tuning, and more. “Even in a reasonably good room, being 10 feet apart from another singer is really difficult.” And outdoors? Hunt says some of his singers, given the challenges of the recording environment, hesitated to commit to a repeat project until they could hear the results of “Courage to Sing.” Finally viewing and hearing the videos “was really affirming for them,” he believes. “They really felt yes, it was worthwhile.”


Is the Risk Worth It?

Most North American choruses are holding off on singing together in-person, choosing to exercise an abundance of caution or lacking the ability to conform to health guidelines in their area or reduce risk to an acceptable level. In a recent Chorus America survey nearly 75 percent of responding choruses reported that they are either rehearsing and performing entirely virtually or not rehearsing on performing at all. In Wisconsin, where the late fall and winter weather makes outdoor rehearsals unthinkable, indoor gatherings aren’t feasible either because, at this writing, the pandemic is “out of control,” says Madison Youth Choirs artistic director Michael Ross. County regulations prohibit meeting in groups larger than 10 indoors, he says. The Durham (NC) Community Chorale made a similar decision because, according to chorale president Donna Crisp, “many of our members and our audience are at higher risk of complications if they contract COVID-19,” noting the Centers for Disease Control warning that “singers can be super-spreaders.” Both choruses tentatively plan to resume regular in-person gatherings in the fall of 2021. By then, according to Eanes, Dr. Fauci is hopeful that a COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available.

None of the choruses involved in this story has reported any cases of COVID-19 resulting from the singing they have done in the same physical space. In dollars and cents terms, however, risk-mitigation efforts like these will be a challenge to sustain. As Clark puts it, in the long haul Baltimore Choral Arts cannot regularly “afford to create an all-day recording centered on safety and protocols,” especially during a time when it’s not selling tickets. Still, he says, the chorus is already planning another video production for Christmas. Like other choruses, the St. Charles Singers are using money originally intended for concerts now cancelled to cover extraordinary expenses, and Kendall says they received special grant support for their videos. Presenting its fall season in a bubble could cost True Concord as much as $220,000, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Keeling says the chorus’s development committee has a plan to raise the necessary additional funding, and he’s confident about community support. “But yeah,” he says, “it is an expensive project. We're budgeting it as carefully as we can.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced choruses to focus in a new way on their reason for being. If we can’t sing together, why do we exist? Because the Thrive Choir is part of an Oakland community organization centered on social justice and diversity, Willacy feels he has no choice but to move forward despite the challenges. “We do it because we love each other, we do it because we love the music, and we do it because it's a way of helping resource us emotionally during these really challenging times,” he says. “It’s important for us to keep convening and keep shaping the world that we believe in into existence.”

The reason to keep moving forward came to Marcela Molina the first time all of her choirs got together for a trial rehearsal. “It was beautiful to hear their voices one more time,” she says. And for the girls new to the choir who had experienced only Zoom rehearsals up until that point, “it provided goosebumps.”

At this point in the pandemic, most of us can only imagine how it will feel when choruses are finally together again in a concert setting, singing in person for an audience. In Tucson, the feeling became real on October 20, and it was “magical,” says True Concord’s Joshua Keeling. The Brahms Requiem, with its message of comfort for those who bear sorrow and of honor for the memory of those who have died, was chosen for the occasion. “The sun was starting to sink and there was a little bit of birdsong in the background,” Keeling noticed. With the moving three-note motif Seelig sind, “the choir emerged in perfect blend.” It was a reminder of all we’ve lost to the pandemic, Keeling says, but he “also breathed a sigh of relief that we had done it. Even though it's much harder to make concerts happen now, it is rewarding to have created an outlet for music again.”

Don Lee is the managing editor of the Voice, as well as a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.