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Rethink singing restrictions, say choral figures

19 June 2020

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LEADING figures from the world of choral music have warned the Government of “musical, cultural, and economic catastrophe” if the choirs and singers of the UK who have been brought to a complete standstill by the coronavirus pandemic are not protected.

In a report after a round-table conference on the choral sector at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on 9 June, they call for advice “based on scientific evidence and not on conjecture, anecdote, or supposition”.

They ask for the restrictions on singing to be reviewed, and urge the Government to involve them in the drawing up of future guidelines, in the light of expected DCMS advice restricting the number of singers in a fixed team to six, who would be required to stand more than two metres apart.

The letter to the Minister of State for Digital and Culture, Caroline Dinenage, comes from the Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, James O’Donnell. Its 27 signatories include directors of music from cathedrals and colleges in Oxford and Cambridge; symphony-orchestra chorus directors; and artistic directors of choirs such as the Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen, the Bach Choir, and the Monteverdi Choirs and Orchestra, and the English National Opera.

Assessments of the possible risks of choral singing are based mainly on assumptions and not on science, they say. “A persistently negative narrative has developed around singing . . . triggered by reports of clusters of cases in a very small number of choirs around the world.”

They acknowledge the absence of definitive research into the nature of aerosol or droplet production, but point to emerging evidence about the dispersal rate and the contributing factors of the social and behavioural aspects of groups singing (News, 29 May, 5 June; Online Comment, 4 June).

Choral singing “remains one of the cultural beacons of the UK whose practices are admired and replicated globally”, they say. “The societal, personal welfare, and well-being benefits of groups singing have gone largely unacknowledged in the present crisis.” While they understand and support the the reasons for the cessation of singing, they say, the longer the interruption, the greater the long-term damage.

Singing is intrinsically no different from any other form of vocalisation, they argue: in all cases, the vocal cords vibrate with varying intensities and frequencies. “Is it considered that a group of workers numbering more than six, at two-metre distance from each other in an unventilated office, poses less of a risk than a group of singers performing in a well-ventilated venue with the same social distancing?”

Professional singers are unable to work from home, but, with the overly stringent distancing regulations currently proposed by Public Health England, they cannot return to work, the report says. “Singing has not been scientifically proven to be more high risk than certain other activities and situations which are currently permissible, and we would ask for the restrictions on singing to be reviewed.”

A section headed “The dangers of a moratorium” refers to the financial difficulties in which many professional singers and choral directors now find themselves. “There is no doubt that some high-profile ensembles will not survive this crisis.” The already acute situation of many freelance singers “will be compounded by continued inability to return to singing because of unworkable restrictions”.

They continue: “We are witnessing the educational impoverishment of thousands of children who sing in choirs, whether in schools or a variety of communities — including the world-famous choral foundations of our cathedrals, abbeys, and colleges, and the rich tapestry of multi-faith and secular groups up and down the country.”

They describe the potential loss of choral music as “a deeply unsettling and worrying prospect for the estimated two million people, professional and amateur, and those who enjoy and support it”. They warn, too, that the significant economic contribution of the professional singing sector should not be underestimated, including the significant contribution to tourism of the cathedral and college choirs.

They call urgently for guidance setting out sound general principles to be applied “sensibly and flexibly” and kept under constant review, to enable choirs and choruses to undertake their own detailed risk assessment. The advice needed to “counter the baseless prejudice that any singing is somehow too ‘risky’”. One-size-fits-all was not the answer: “What would be feasible for one group could be unworkable for another.”

Where advising singers to undertake social distancing was proportionate and reasonable, the expected restriction “could prove musically extremely problematic, seems to have no clear scientific basis, and would almost certainly prevent most choral ensembles from resuming working”.

They recommend that many choirs could, in the short term, function online behind closed doors, with there was full control of social distancing, hygiene, and testing arrangements. “A differentiation between the conditions required for public performance, as opposed to rehearsing, performing, and recording in a well-ventilated venue with no audience, should be considered.”

A staged process, in line with the Government’s handling of the virus, would mean that smaller groups would be able to return first, observing current stipulations on social distance and hygiene measures.

They conclude: “We believe it is eminently possible to avert disaster if the appropriate steps are taken now. We would very much like the opportunity to help inform the drawing up of future guidelines concerning choral singing. The survival of one of our nation’s cultural treasures could depend on it.”

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