Singing: Who knew it was risky – until now?
+Rev. Dr. Dee Pederson, Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA
I miss the singing! We all feel it: worshipers, choir members, worship leaders, and pastors. We haven’t been together to sing in a long time. Martin Luther said, Those who sing pray twice. Sitting at home, we miss the experience of singing with others. It doesn’t matter what style of music we prefer: contemporary, traditional hymns, rock, folk, or choral arrangements ..….. We Lutherans just miss our music. We may feel like God’s people did in exile so long ago, as they cried, How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?!
Then just when we think that we’ve learned everything there is to know about COVID-19, new info comes to light. That information is summarized by one word: aerosol. You know – the mist you see when you spray an aerosol can of anything into the sunlight, and you can see these little particles hang in the air? That’s it. Recently, scientists have taught us how risky it is to be exposed to the aerosols of the virus through, of all things – singing. Videos in the links below show how particles move out from someone’s mouth far beyond 6 ft.and up to 30 ft. Who knew singing could be risky behavior?!
But remember back a couple of months ago when we heard stories of how churches suffered a significant number of illnesses and deaths? Most of those transmissions traced back to that activity we all know and love: singing. And NONE of us want to live with the question of whether our actions caused someone to get sick, or even die.
Physicians and thousands of the nation’s choral and music leaders have discussed the very real risk of transmitting the disease by singing, and these are some of their insights:
- The keys to reopening safe group singing and performances will be wide-spread testing, contact screening, rapid diagnostic testing, vaccine development, new drug treatments, and physical distancing (including masks, gloves) until safe vaccines are developed.
- A return to group singing is high risk because people can be asymptomatic and contagious.
- The masks that most people wear are not a safe barrier because droplets get through or escape a mask at the top, bottom, or sides. In addition, heavy-material masks can make it difficult to breathe as they re-circulate breath, leading to headache. Masks are hot to wear, and could put a strain on people in our choirs with significant health issues (asthmas, COPD, heart disease).
- As one university professor of music has said, “There is no safe way for choirs to rehearse together until there is a vaccine or 95% effective treatment in place, most likely 1 year to 18 months. Perhaps occasionally outside in small groups, but only when the wind is not at your back. Masks and spacing DO NOT protect your singers from contagion, and singers are super-spreaders.”
The catechism asks, What does this mean?! What does this mean for congregational singing? Can we sing together?
For the time being, there does not seem to be a safe way for congregations or choirs to sing together in worship. So before we resume congregational singing and prepare for the time when we can, consider answers to technical questions like this:
- Is it possible for small groups to sing outside, when the wind is not at your back?
- Is there an acceptance of risk by group/sponsor or both?
- Can there be screening at the door in a private space (not by a choir member), checking for symptoms, temperature (less than 99.4F), and pulse oximetry check?
- How do you maintain privacy issues: Who is managing this data? How do you interpret it? (With a choir, for example, what if the first time you practice, everybody passes the test; then the next time, Sarah comes in, but has to leave, and everyone knows she didn’t pass the test? How do you respect people’s privacy in health matters?)
- How do you handle transmission of viral particles from surfaces (hands, hymn books, Bibles, music folders, door handles, instruments)?
- How do you space people out so they aren’t singing in each other’s faces?
- How do we keep pastors – including high-risk pastors – safe from the aerosol droplets that the congregation projects toward them?
- Can we keep worshipers safe and protected from one another in corporate worship if they are speaking in unison (even The Lord’s Prayer) and singing together?
What we CAN do
- Musicians can continue to offer music on piano, organ, electronic keyboard, percussion, and strings.
- Invite musically-inclined individuals and families to record music from home and send it for inclusion in online worship.
- In the sanctuary a song leader may be placed a safe distance away from the congregation, and providing visual and aural leadership.
- With the required technology, detailed instructions, and time to sync the tracks, vocal and instrumental music can be recorded from home and sent to be part of an ensemble or choir video.
Our call is to love our neighbor and protect the most vulnerable among us. It will be very difficult for any congregation to find a way to answer the above questions affirmatively and keep worshipers and worship leaders safe. It may be that for a time, a vocalist – safely distanced in front of a sanctuary – offers the congregation’s song on behalf of everyone.
As we look to the day when we will be able to belt-out our songs together again, we patiently remember God’s promise, If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come. (Habakkuk 2:3)
And in the meantime, we sing alone together:
My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?
Click the links below
- Interview with Dr. Michael Osterholm regarding pandemic and the risks of in-person, congregational worship.
- An in-depth look at the science of singing, through the eyes of a vocalist.
- A Conversation: What Do Science and Data Say About the Near-Term Future of Singing #officialnats.
This is an excellent, 2-hour meeting, of national vocal leaders and physicians.