Is singing dangerous during Covid-19?
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
I've been wondering this question for a while now. As a singing teacher the restrictions on singing have been a real problem. I'm due to start teaching group singing in September for a college that I work at, but I've been told we aren't allowed to teach in person and will have to do the lessons remotely because of the Covid-19 risk singing poses.
My internet connection is fairly shocking and I guarantee many of the students I will be working with are from backgrounds where resources will be fairly limited and this could be a serious disadvantage to them over the next few weeks. I mean, will they even turn up for the lessons?
Whilst I'm debating how I set up a remote session in my music room where I can play the warm-up exercises and work with them on songs, I'm also considering the fact that the balance will be off in group work making harmony singing very difficult (everyone will have different volume settings for a start on their devices), how do I ensure they all have lyrics? etc. It is going to be a logistical nightmare.
I will be honest and say I don't believe singing is any more dangerous than shouting and I guarantee that as soon as pubs were opened, people were out drinking and shouting at each other across the street and in the bars, yet singers were told we couldn't possibly sing in a group because it was too dangerous to the risk of spreading the virus. This made me quite mad. There wasn't a ban on shouting, which as far as I can predict would be just as dangerous. Why then should we be unable to perform songs?
The suggestion that singing is a potential way of spreading the virus comes from fears that the droplets emitted from a mouth when we sing is more than when we speak. The 'aerosol particles' are sent out of the mouth and transmitted over a certain distance depending on volume of singing/speech and the particular sounds produced.Good articulation means creating clear vowel and consonant sounds and of course there is a certain element of spitting created. Is it however, more than if a person coughs or sneezes? The answer is no. Projecting the voice does mean an element of forcing out the air to let the sound carry, but if you consider the action of a sneeze or a cough and think about how particles are forced out onto your hands, you can see a clear difference.
Early advice and fear saw evidence that choirs around the world had been infected after one member in a Washington choir unknowingly carried the virus and took part in a rehearsal, after which other members of the choir died from Covid-19. Two more choirs saw similar events in Amsterdam and Berlin and this was what made singing labelled as such a danger. In Germany singing in churches was outlawed as a way of controlling the potential risks.
According to a study done by the Bavarian Broadcasting team in connection with the LMU University Hospital Munich and the Universitätsklinikum Erlangen their conclusions were that a greater distance would need to be placed between singers in front and behind than either side. Obviously if you are standing behind someone you are likely to be spitting more over them than the people on either side of you. Choirs face the audience and that is also a consideration they were taking into account, suggesting physical dividers would be best to ensure everyone's safety. But how does that effect the sound? Sound waves travel forward from the mouth too, carrying with them the articulation and dynamics (louds and softs) and anyone who has sung in a good group will tell you the success of the sound is all in the ability of the group to balance with one another. Adjustments to the sound waves by putting up barriers will certainly present a challenge in balancing a piece of music.
The other suggestion they had was the use of masks for singing, however even they conceded that it wasn't practical for professional singing groups because of the lack of clarity required to create a good performance. Singing in church is fine behind a mask, but applying that to choirs and other groups is not going to work. I personally wouldn't find it easy to develop the students singing ability when their voices are hidden behind masks. The more nervous singers hide their voices well enough without the PPE equipment.
Four days ago the BBC released a new report discussing the aerosol problem. This study, called Perform, asked different genres of singers to record speaking and singing in an operating theatre and the droplets were measured. The study showed that speaking and singing showed very little difference depending on volume. If the singing was very loud it produced a similar amount of droplets to shouting. This seems fairly obvious to me...
One of the biggest things to have in place is good ventilation. Now, unfortunately, as much as singing outside would be great in summer, it's not going to be possible as we get further into wintry weather and only Gene Kelly enjoyed singing in the rain (the chances of me persuading a group of teenagers to do that are none-existent!) The college does lack ventilation and space, so I can see I'll have to remain teaching remotely despite the new research.
Earlier guidelines suggested that singing could be done if singers stood back to back or side by side, by 3m apart, lengthening the social distancing gap for safety, but the report suggests that this is no guarantee. Although the larger droplets are pulled down by gravity within a couple of metres, the smaller particles can remain in the air for any time from minutes to hours. This of course suggests a risk of contamination to performers and audiences and space and ventilation are going to be very important in the future performance of sung works.
There is however some evidence that singing may not be a 'dangerous activity'. Looking back at the choirs in which members died, the act of singing was suggested as the cause, however closer examination suggests this cannot be confirmed. Friends like to greet each other, hug, get into close proximity. They also moved the same furniture, touching the same surfaces, and shared drinks and snacks during break times. All of this behaviour could be found to be a cause of the spread of the virus through the choir and the singing may not have had anything to do with it.
Perhaps it's because sport doesn't really interest me, but I don't remember there being information on teams and events where people caught Covid-19 being mentioned a lot in the news, however I thought I'd do some research and discovered that thousands of people were infected after visiting large sport events. The sport itself wasn't blamed for their infection, simply the amount of people gathered...
I might be wrong, but this leads me to conclude that the gathering of people and the distancing early on in the outbreak, or before we were even aware of the pandemic, is the guilty party and I personally believe singing has been labelled as a dangerous activity with very little evidence at the time. It doesn't really help me now, but I am hopeful that the new research may support the act of singing and see that we are no more at risk than the people shouting in the pub, as long as we consider distancing and ventilation.
It has been proven that singing is good for mental health and well-being from the reactions in the brain,as well as having long term physical health benefits to the cardiovascular system, so let's all hope the blot on the name of 'singing' can be erased and we can once again enjoy the act of using our voices to make music. Until then, I'd better get my computer set up ready for remote...