On the last weekend before Sydney went into lockdown in March, I was in the City Recital Hall performing Handel’s Messiah. The half empty hall gave thunderous applause and a standing ovation. It was a cathartic climax to a stressful weekend, clouded by the worsening Covid-19 news and impending restrictions.
The talk in the green room was grim. Many musicians were facing the prospect of months of cancelled concerts, no events and closed schools. Many are freelancers, uncertain of their incomes at the best of times even when things are good.
“Can’t they just tell the people who have higher risks to stay home instead of closing everything,” one bemused voice asked. The tone was worried, though it came across as irritated. It was a leaky argument that could be dismissed in less than five seconds.
Most of classical music’s audience are older, in the higher-risk category. And directives were directives. Rehearsals for choirs of all sizes, shapes and forms stopped. Then came worse news. Stories were shared of how a choir in the Netherlands succumbed to coronavirus apparently after performing in a concert, and how a rehearsal in Skagit Valley, Washington, was linked to a fatal outbreak. And these news reports would be the foundation of most of the decisions that guided the public health advice and the choral community in the next few months.
Choir singing has been touted as something that can improve health and wellbeing. It is so because choirs foster closeness between members. For many, including myself, choir members are like family.
Yet in the early days of the pandemic, the choral community was divided along the lines of those who wanted to take the risk and keep singing, and those who didn’t. There was no satisfying mid-point. At a personal level, it’s really hard to accept that something which I, and many people love doing, may be deadly.
In the weeks to follow, many choirs perfected the (limited) art of Zoom rehearsals, and many virtual choir projects took off – most notably Eric Whitacre’s sing gently. But there’s no replacement for the feeling you can get in a room full of singers. It’s like swapping a baby for a Tamagotchi. And the pandemic marches on.
The most frustrating part of this story is that we have to rely on mostly anecdotal evidence to assess the risk of coming together to sing. Even the experts seem divided on how big a role aerosol spread plays in an ensemble setting, whether casual socialising was the cause of transmission in cases where it has happened, and if there are ways to manage or minimise it.
In late May, Australia’s choral community came together to discuss the future of singing in the Covid-19 era. It was spearheaded by Gondwana Choirs in a webinar that brought health and choral experts together through a panel discussion. It became clear that there was very little reliable research to answer the questions from teachers, conductors, players and singers whose lives and livelihoods have been affected by not coming together in this pandemic.
A follow up webinar concluded that with the right conditions – such as no community transmission, strict hygiene regime and social distancing – Australia was well-placed to resume choral activities. But a response from the New South Wales Department of Health around the same time wasn’t as optimistic.
The response cited a 1968 study on the role of singing in spreading tuberculosis through droplets. The advice also highlighted the challenges of working with the unknowns: safe singing may require larger spaces than practically possible and just how far apart singers need to be separated is currently unknown.
In recent days, the choral community has been tangibly excited by the prospect of Declan Costello’s study to find out the role of aerosol in spreading Covid-19 in ensemble settings. The National Federation of State High Schools Association, in collaboration with the University of Colorado, Boulder, has also released preliminary recommendations and observations from their study in progress.
Many more scientific studies need to be done to establish how safe, or how dangerous singing together is – though the findings, so far, haven’t been heartening. Meanwhile, we continue to live with the virus’s uncertainties.
Since those hopeful weeks, Melbourne has slid back to lockdown and Sydney is now on high alert – and with it, the prospect of resuming choral activities safely has disappeared. As I was working on this piece, I received a phone call cancelling another choral project which had been planned for weeks.
It feels like the roller-coaster won’t stop until a vaccine is found. And the effects can be felt fully in the everyday aspect of the choral sector – the shaping of projects, venue bookings and preparations, rehearsal scheduling, last-minute changes and an endless wait of “when we”. The sad fact is: singing is not worth dying for.