On not singing the Lord’s song

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Chester Cathedral choir. Photo: Brian Smithson/Flickr

It was the story of a community choir rehearsal in Mount Vernon, Washington, that sent shockwaves through the choral community. Sixty-one members of the choir met for their rehearsal on March 10, 2020, as they had every Tuesday: one of the choristers had experienced cold-like symptoms for a few days and was later diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Within two days of the practice, six more choir members developed symptoms.

In the end, 53 members of the choir became ill with COVID-19. Two of them died.

One of the underreported stories of this pandemic has been the suspension of choral singing: community and church choirs have gone silent. While some much-lauded performances of “virtual choirs” have been circulating on social media, the time, skill and effort required to make these recordings possible can be prohibitive. And much of the end result is because of the skill of technicians rather than the artistry of the choristers.

Sadly, it would appear that, for a time—maybe even a long time—and for safety’s sake, churches will be without choral singing. Congregational singing is most likely off the table, as well. Both congregational and choral singing have already been banned in parts of Germany: scientific evidence suggests that droplets or aerosolized particles coming from a singer’s mouth can travel up to 16 feet (almost 5 metres). Dr. Heather Nelson, a vocal scientist, describes it this way: “It’s not a perfect analogy, but think of it a little like a bubble that is popped as it goes through a fan. The bubble doesn’t just disappear, but the particles of the bubble are chopped up into small pieces and dispersed through the air at a higher velocity on the other side of the fan.” Given that some churches rely on recirculated air, the likelihood of aerosolized, virus-laden particles in a room can be enough to cause infection.

Increasingly there is a convergence of scientific evidence recommending the suspension of singing until there is a vaccine for COVID-19. Dr. Howard Leibrand, public health officer for Skagit County, Washington—where the March outbreak occurred—said, “I would recommend that until we get a vaccine, we don’t do congregational singing,” adding that it is “the safest recommendation.”

Robin J. Freeman, writing from the Orthodox Church in America in a May 19 article, reports results from a webinar co-hosted by the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the American Choral Directors Association entitled, What Science and Data Say about the Near-term Future of Singing: “The medical experts laid out some difficult facts, concluding that there is no safe way for choirs to sing together until a vaccine is widely available or a 95% effective treatment is in place. Masks do not sufficiently contain the aerosol spread caused by singing. And because singers breathe deeply, wearing a mask increases the carbon dioxide they inhale. Nor does the customary 6-ft social distancing recommendation protect singers from the virus, due to the varying aerosol clouds emitted by singers. As such, these experts recommended that all in-person group singing activities be postposed through the fall and perhaps longer.”

Unfortunately, the news gets worse. An article in the May issue of Montreal’s Ma Scena magazine by Arthur Kapanis cites Dr. Lucinda Halstead, an otolaryngologist and choral enthusiast who specializes in voice and swallowing disorders, who concludes that no effort of distancing can realistically create a perfectly safe environment for a choir. “How would you space them out with six feet between them?”, Halstead asked, referring to the Westminster Symphonic Choir, a large and acclaimed collegiate ensemble based in New Jersey. “You would need a football field.”

As parishes begin to make plans to reopen their church buildings for public worship, it’s likely that, for the first little while (and maybe longer), and out of an abundance of caution, neither congregational nor choral singing can safely be part liturgical gatherings. Of the many deprivations that COVID-19 has brought, this one will be felt acutely by religious people and in a particular way by Anglicans, for whom the choral tradition and congregational singing form an important and cherished aspect of public worship.

Many of us have held dear words attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, “The one who sings prays twice.” Not only will the community spirit of worship and the sense of holiness be diminished because of the absence of choral music and congregational singing, but also our prayer lives affected since, for many of us, our spirituality is enhanced because of hymn singing and appreciating the gifts of choral musicians.

It’s an exile of another sort, another experience of absence. In response to this I offer three practical suggestions:

  1. Those churches fortunate enough to have paid singers should find ways to continue to offer some form of compensation to choristers for whom singing provids a source of income. There will come a time when their services will again be needed; in the meantime, singers should not suffer economic deprivation because of the virus. It’s also a time for pastoral sensitivity for church musicians for whom this time of social distancing has another dimension—the loss of an important community of fellow artists.
  2. In carefully monitored situations some churches may be able to have soloists or even very small ensembles perform some parts of the choral repertoire, but great care needs to be exercised to ensure the safety of singers and listeners alike.
  3. It may be a time for the gifts and skills of instrumental musicians, particularly keyboards (organs and pianos) and stringed instruments (guitar, violins, violas, cellos, double basses) to be heard in the context of public worship. Psalm 150 suggests a wide variety of musical instruments that can be employed for the praise of God.

But most of all, for now, what’s needed is community lament: amongst the many things that this novel coronavirus has deprived us of is singing in community. It would be helpful to make a public acknowledgement at liturgies stating that to ensure the safety of all, church communities are refraining from the practice of singing—with the hope that we will one day be able safely to sing together again. And until that time, silence and wordless music may well have to accompany our prayer as, we fervently continue to hope for that day when, once again, the Lord’s song can be sung throughout our land.

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Peter Elliott
The Very Rev. Peter Elliott is adjunct faculty at Vancouver School of Theology. From 1994 to 2019 he served as dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Peter. We are indeed grateful for instrumental musicians sharing their gifts on social media but it sure will be a treat when all of our musicians can sing with us again. And thank you for your counsel about not forgetting to support our musicians, as we always should.

  2. THank you Peter for telling it the way it is. As a life-long chorister I am left bereft, singing alone at home to major choral works that I once created live in a crowd of fellow singers and listeners. God help us . Beth Chandler

  3. Thank you for this, Peter, which is, as usual with you, comprehensive and balanced. We Christ Church Cathedral choristers miss singing, but we get together on Zoom every Thursday night at choir practice time to socialize and keep in touch.

  4. Peter, this is very sad news indeed. I was looking forward to once again hearing our wonderful choir sing at St. James Church in Stratford. I had even suggested that in the future we sing outside, or downtown celebrating the many blessings we enjoy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to part of a gloroious hand clapping celebration on the lawn of our church.
    Please God, help us through this trying time.
    Karen Haslam, Stratford, Ontario.

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