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Two years until we hear a live choir? In COVID-19 pandemic, choral music may be too risky for a very long while.

The national organization Chorus America advised this month that singing together may not be safe for as long as two years. Philadelphia’s church and professional choirs are devastated.

Andrew Senn (center) conducts a small number of singers from the choir inside the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia on Friday. They pre-recorded music for Sunday's online church service.
Andrew Senn (center) conducts a small number of singers from the choir inside the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia on Friday. They pre-recorded music for Sunday's online church service.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

One in six Americans over age 18 sings in a chorus, according to Chorus America, and if any of them were looking for a glimmer of good news in a recent webinar assembled by that advocacy group and others, their hopes were likely dashed.

The ability for choirs to safely gather could be as far off as two years, experts said early this month in “A Conversation: What Do Science and Data Say About the Near-Term Future of Singing?”

One especially cruel cautionary tale emerged recently regarding a Washington State choir that met just as the virus was setting in. After a March rehearsal attended by 61 choristers, including a single symptomatic member, 87% of the group developed COVID-19, according to a CDC report released Tuesday. Two members died.

The problem stems from the proximity of singers, and the fact that the very act of singing propels viral droplets. Indeed, among art forms, it is choral singing that may face the most treacherous path back to normal.

The prospect of two years without live choirs sent a wave of anguish nationally as well as in Philadelphia’s choral-rich neighborhoods of churches, schools, and professional venues.

“Devastated,” is how Julia Zavadsky says she felt after hearing that it might not be possible for choirs to meet for some time. The artistic director of Nashirah, the Jewish Chorale of Greater Philadelphia, says the message she took away from the webinar, held May 5, is that “anything we think of doing together is not safe. There is absolutely nothing, and it is absolutely heart-wrenching. Tears are in my eyes just talking about it, because life as we knew it is now over.”

“Everyone is trying not to think the worst right now,” says Andrew Senn, organist and director of music at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia near Rittenhouse Square.

“Choral singing won’t be a safe activity until the pandemic is well under control,” wrote Miriam Davidson, artistic director of Philadelphia’s ANNA Crusis Women’s Choir, in an email sent to the group’s 80 members last week. “It is … very clear that concertizing as we are used to doing will not be possible in the fall. Will it even be possible next June? Hard to know.”

In the meantime, she offered to members: “We grieve.”

“Certainly, it was a blow,” said Chorus America president and CEO Catherine Dehoney of reaction to the webinar, whose participants included a laryngologist and specialist in performing arts medicine and an expert in respiratory epidemiology. “Some of the research supports the idea that the physical act of singing is in line with viral spread and in some cases extreme viral spread,” Dehoney said.

The kind of deep breathing and production of loud sounds required for singing projects the virus into the air at a significantly higher rate than talking, research shows. Safe resumption of voice lessons and group singing hinges on the arrival and deployment of an accurate rapid diagnostic test, vaccines, and effective drug treatments, said webinar participant Lucinda Halstead, founder and medical director of the Evelyn Trammell Institute for Voice and Swallowing at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Those developments may be months, if not years, away.

“I think it caught everybody by surprise,” says Jonas Crenshaw, director or worship and arts at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Society Hill, who describes choir rehearsals as traditionally involving a level of physical contact that seems suddenly risky.

“As we prepare for concert times, we are learning new music, and lot of it is about pronunciation, and the way we shape our mouths when we sing there is an opportunity for vapor to escape,” says Crenshaw. “As you sing, there is sometimes choreography, there is dancing and sweating, and then you think about people passing the microphone.”

There is also what he calls the “family” aspect of being in a choir.

“When people first walk into choir rehearsal, we all hug each other, and at the end of rehearsal we all hold hands and pray. There are a lot of different things we do as a church family and music family that would be considered unsafe potentially.”

The intimacy extends to the pews, where congregational singing also raises questions about what is safe.

Halstead points out that even since the May 5 webinar, work on vaccines has progressed rapidly, with some moving into clinical trials. “This is fantastic,” she says, adding that it could be sooner than two years before one or more could be widely distributed. “However, we need to proceed with an abundance of caution until we have them.”

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The sound of America singing

The sound of voices woven together is instant humanity. It buoys the party scene in La traviata. It arrives as the ecstatic layer of joy the ear needs in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The choral texture is the source of salve and emotional rescue in many a requiem. And the sound of a raging chorus has become the ultimate in bellicosity in any number of commercials, movie scores, and video games that have fabricated an entire sub-genre from Orff’s Carmina Burana.

“I hear America singing,” Walt Whitman writes in his poem of the same name, noting the everyman aspect of the national soundtrack. The mason, the carpenter, the party of young fellows — we all sing, he writes.

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.

More than 54 million American adults and children today sing in a chorus, according to Chorus America, which points out that the benefits go beyond the musical. Nearly three quarters of singers say that choral participation makes them feel less alone or lonely, according to a 2019 survey by the group. Ninety percent of singers say they regularly vote in local and national elections (as opposed to 55% of the general public).

» ASK US: Do you have a question about the coronavirus and how it affects your health, work and life? Ask our reporters.

Religion, tradition, truth to power

Choral music gives many a sense of social connectivity.

Joy Payton says she joined the ANNA Crusis Women’s Choir because she “really wanted to find ‘my people’ — the people who were interested in politics, and art, and sociology, and changing the world, and who sang about it. People who used art to sing truth to power.”

Others, of course, connect with religion and tradition through their choral art.

“For the African American church experience, music is absolutely central,” says Mother Bethel’s pastor, the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler. “There are two things people look for when they come to visit a place like Mother Bethel to worship. They judge on our music and our preaching. Everything else can be wonderful, but if these two things fail, you’re in trouble.”

Mother Bethel aims to have a few choir members record music for Sunday virtual services — in the church, spaced safely apart. A group of eight singers has been doing the same at First Presbyterian at 21st and Walnut Streets.

The members of Philadelphia’s Grammy-winning choir, the Crossing, live mostly in Philadelphia and Chicago and won’t meet for group singing “until the scientists say it is safe to do so,” says Crossing conductor Donald Nally. “That doesn’t mean we are not thinking creatively about ways to express ourselves as a group. We are. But we haven’t landed on a performance solution."

As for virtual choral experiences through online platforms, it’s a pale imitation, some say.

“It’s certainly not what I would feel to be a satisfactory choral experience,” says First Presbyterian’s Senn. “You get a product at the end, and the choir says it’s nice to hear us all singing, and a wider audience says it’s a generous performance, and it makes people feel good. That’s great. But being able to be in the same room with your colleagues to make music — that’s where it’s at.”

Halstead urges patience.

“I can’t stress how much I miss hearing all of you sing. I can hardly wait for it to happen again,” she told her webinar audience. “But I’d rather have a full chorus of 120 people or 80 people versus a chorus of 40 people because that’s all that’s left in the choir.”