LONDON — On Wednesday night in a community hall here, Matilda James kick-started a rehearsal of the Citizens of the World Choir with an unusual instruction. “Can we really keep our voices down?” she said. “We don’t need to be louder than when we talk.”
Her plea — in line with findings by British scientists indicating that singing poses no more risk of spreading the coronavirus than talking, if done at the same volume — initially seemed to work. But about 20 minutes in, while practicing a jaunty Zulu folk song, the 14 members were clapping along and swaying side-to-side. Their voices grew louder and louder, ending in a joyful, full-voiced harmony.
“It’s really hard not to sing that one loud,” said Meg Brookes, the pianist.
Such measures are being adopted by choirs across the world as they return to in-person rehearsals amid a still-spreading coronavirus pandemic — a significant challenge after early outbreaks linked to choirs in countries including Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and the United States suggested that collective singing might be one of the last cultural activities allowed to resume.
The risks remain. Earlier this week, the entire choir of the Czech Republic’s National Theater was quarantined after 10 members tested positive for the coronavirus, a spokeswoman said.
But since the spring, scientists around the world have conducted experiments with singers to work out the dangers and make recommendations, including shorter rehearsal sessions.
In the United States, a group of over 120 performing arts groups commissioned a study by scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder and University of Maryland. Last month, they published preliminary results indicating that because aerosols are released by singing, choir participants should wear masks, stand six feet apart and rehearse for no more than 30 minutes at a time.
Risk is significantly reduced if measures like these are followed, Shelly Miller, one of the lead researchers, said in a telephone interview. Citing one case in which 53 people were infected at a choir rehearsal in Mount Vernon, Wash., in March, she said that based on her group’s modeling, it was likely only seven people would have been infected if they had rehearsed for 30 minutes, rather than for over two hours, as they did.
Lucinda Halstead, the president of the U.S. Performing Arts Medical Association, said in a telephone interview that she knew the mask requirement would annoy some people.
“When you take a deep breath, they collapse against the face,” she said — though she added that many college choirs were following the advice.
New masks are also being developed to make singing easier, like the Singer’s Mask, sold by the Broadway Relief Project, which protrudes from the face, Halstead added. Such masks are becoming increasingly popular, with West Virginia University’s choral director having also made a version, and Halstead said that continuing research would examine their effectiveness.
Some choirs in the United States were getting around the suggested time limit by swapping rooms after 30 minutes, Allen Henderson, the executive director of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, said in a telephone interview. But most are still gathering solely online, he added.
The members of one choir that is rehearsing in person say they are not doing so lightly.
Becky Dell, the musical director of the Citizens of the World Choir — a group of refugees, migrants and their supporters — said she had spent “hours and hours” reading scientific studies and guidance.
The choir is now taking protective measures like spacing singers at least six feet apart and keeping the hall’s large windows open, though they don’t wear masks. Rehearsals are taking place in two half-hour sessions, Dell said, with a break to air the room. The choir also offers an online option for members who don’t feel comfortable attending in person.
In Britain, choirs have been allowed to meet indoors since Aug. 15, when the government relaxed its guidance on the recommended distance between people in group settings. On Tuesday, the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London returned to perform at services, and several other church choirs have returned for indoor rehearsals.
That shift has been important for choirs, which are typically more than just a s singing group.
“We really are a family,” Dell said of the Citizens of the World Choir.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated September 1, 2020
Why is it safer to spend time together outside?
- Outdoor gatherings lower risk because wind disperses viral droplets, and sunlight can kill some of the virus. Open spaces prevent the virus from building up in concentrated amounts and being inhaled, which can happen when infected people exhale in a confined space for long stretches of time, said Dr. Julian W. Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
Its members include people from Syria and the Democractic Republic of Congo, and some are asylum seekers who have been waiting years for their applications to be processed in Britain’s immigration system, she said.
Barred from working and with little money to socialize, they had found an outlet in the choir, she added. During the country’s lockdown this spring, Dell said, the choir sent laptops to several members and paid for data plans so they could take part in online rehearsals.
“I don’t want to be dramatic,” she said, “but it makes a difference between a life worth living or not.”
On Wednesday night, five of the choir’s members all said they felt safe indoors.
Aref Hussaini, 22, an Afghan refugee born in Pakistan, said it was “a delightfulness” being able to sing together. With the choir covering his internet costs during the lockdown, he was able to take part in Zoom rehearsals, but often lost cellphone connection. He said he preferred singing in a group, so he wasn’t self-conscious about his voice.
“You can release whatever’s inside, and it feels so good,” he said.
Sonia Shamlo, 35, a political refugee from Iran, said she had asthma and had been stressed about going out during the pandemic. But “it’s more important to be here than worried,” she said.
“Choir is not just choir for me,” said Shamlo, adding that being part of the group had helped her deal with past traumas, including traveling across land from Iran to Britain. “It’s therapy,” she said.
The evening had the usual sights and sounds of a typical choir rehearsal, making it easy to forget all the coronavirus measures. At one point, Hussaini, got lost and flicked through the sheet music to find his place. Shamlo smiled broadly throughout, especially when the sopranos’ voices leapt high above the others.
But eventually the restrictions crept back in.
Exactly 28 minutes into the rehearsal’s second half, Ms. Brookes, the pianist, was leading the choir through a song involving lots of body percussion, in which the singers beat their chests.
“We’ve only got two minutes left, so let’s do it a bit faster,” she said. “Have a bit of a dance! We don’t really get to do this at the moment.”
Almost everyone happily did what they were told.