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Safety of singing under more scrutiny  

09 July 2020

WHO concern grows about risk of aerosol transmission


Young singers from the choir of New College, Oxford, sing Bach’s Letzte Stunde. Each part and the instrumentals were recorded separately, then joined together by the production company Positive Note, to raise awareness of the current threat to the future of choral music in Britain

Young singers from the choir of New College, Oxford, sing Bach’s Letzte Stunde. Each part and the instrumentals were recorded separately, then joined ...

CHURCH musicians have welcomed the Government’s initiation of targeted scientific research into the droplet transmission produced by singers (News, 5 June), as the debate continues on how choirs can return safely to singing together physically.

On Thursday, the Government updated its guidance on singing. From 11 July, one individual may sing or chant indoors when other worshippers are present. The guidance suggests that churches consider the use of a plexi-glass screen to further prevent transmission. Group singing is still banned.

Also from 11 July, “small groups of professional singers” will be able to sing in front of worshippers out of doors. “Singing in groups should be limited to professional singers only and should be limited to a small set group of people. Both the singers and the worshippers should be outdoors.” The guidance gives no specific number, nor explains why permission is given only to professional singers.

The guidance continues to instruct congregations to avoid “singing, shouting, raising voices and/or playing music at a volume that makes normal conversation difficult or that may encourage shouting . . . even if social distancing is being observed or face coverings are used.”

A senior medical adviser at Public Health England (PHE), Dr Simon Tanner, said on Tuesday that his organisation was leading a small study with adult male choir-singers from Salisbury Cathedral, and some adult volunteers, to gain a better understanding of transmission.

“This research will help inform government guidance for the performing-arts industry and places of worship during the Covid-19 pandemic and is due to start in the coming weeks,” he said. “The tests are not taking place on cathedral grounds or any other public spaces, and the study does not involve people who have the virus.”

The director of music at Salisbury Cathedral, David Halls, confirmed on Wednesday that the two lay vicars who were to take part in the experiment had not yet been contacted. While the PHE statement specifically mentions researching droplet transmission, the World Health Organization (WHO) conceded on Tuesday that evidence was emerging about the risk from aerosol transmission. An open letter from 239 scientists in 32 countries urged the WHO this week to listen to the evidence and change its guidance.

German scientists are at the forefront of aerosol research, with a plethora of papers emerging for peer review. The first results from a study conducted by Professor Matthias Echternach with the Bavarian Radio Chorus were announced this week and confirmed what many other studies have concluded: singers need to stand at least 2.5 metres from one another in a closed space and possibly at even greater distances to be safe, until aerosol transmission of the coronavirus is discounted.

The experiments involved ten singers from the Chorus inhaling from e-cigarettes a neutral substance visible as a cloud. They were then filmed individually with high-speed cameras in laser light to measure how far aerosols could travel from the singer’s mouth. Considerable differences emerged between singers: some produced aerosols that travelled well under one metre, others travelled 1.5 metres and possibly further.

Text with strongly emphasised consonants was found to create aerosols that travelled furthest, regardless of whether the singer sang loudly or softly. Aerosols were shown to travel a shorter distance in sideways transmission.

Professor Echternach emphasised that this study showed only the direction of the cloud of airborne particles. Research is now being continued into exactly how much aerosol is produced, how long it might remain suspended in the air, and how it might behave in a closed space over time. The study recommends that singing should be done outdoors where possible, and with good ventilation every ten minutes in a small closed space.

The director of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), Hugh Morris, said on Tuesday: “What every church wants is clarity, because that enables you to plan as best you can. It’s helpful that the Church of England did issue some much clearer guidance last week, showing some steps that can be taken to get music back — to have an individual cantor, for example, or to introduce a keyboard.

“It all comes back to that sense of needing to understand the risks, so that you can work out how to safely manage them. I think nothing will happen in the next two or three weeks, because we’re all waiting for the scientific research. There is a co-ordinated approach going into that now: the Government is waiting to see what stance it should take on singing, and the Church will follow very closely on that.

“What is really helpful is that the Government and others take time to understand, and that we have rational conversations to make the right information available. Otherwise, it just becomes polemic.”

While virtual choir resources were proving the biggest seller in the RSCM shop, there were many enterprising examples of choir directors’ looking for creative possibilities to come together: using green spaces to measure distances between singers, for example, as some cathedral choirs have been doing. Churches were finding many ways to remain connected with their choirs and to continue to engage and teach their young people, Mr Morris said.

“The best thing we can keep doing at present is to make sure that music is not viewed by churches as a bolt-on thing, but an integral asset to worship, something that has to be factored into the planning. It works really well when you have clergy and musicians working creatively together. Music transforms worship. It is a powerful tool, and they don’t want to let it pass away.”

There were reports this week that two London churches — Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, and St Margaret’s, Westminster — had permanently laid off their choirs. In reply to a request for confirmation, a spokeswoman for Holy Trinity said on Tuesday that no comment could be made “at this stage”. At the time of going to press on Wednesday, there had as yet been no reply from St Margaret’s, Westminster.

New charity. On Wednesday, the Trustees of the Friends of Cathedral Music (FCM) announced the creation of a new charity, the Cathedral Music Trust (CMT). The Trust aims “to increase public awareness and appreciation of cathedral music, and to support and encourage all those involved in making cathedral music, and extend its range of grants to individuals, choirs and choral foundations”.

The Trust would be “especially committed to enabling children from a diverse range of backgrounds to experience the benefits of being a chorister”, a statement from CMT said. Existing Friends are to become part of the Cathedral Music Trust and continue to be known as Friends of Cathedral Music.

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