Two years before hearing a live choir? In the COVID-19 pandemic, choral music can be too risky for a very long time.

One in six Americans over the age of 18 sing along, according to Chorus America, and if any of them looked for a glimmer of good news in a recent webinar put together by this advocacy group and others, their hopes have been raised. probably been disappointed.

The ability of choirs to safely come together could last up to two years, experts said earlier this month in “A Conversation: What Does the Science and Data Say About the Short-Term Future of Singing?” “

A particularly cruel warning has recently emerged about a Washington state choir that came together just as the virus was taking hold. After a rehearsal in March attended by 61 choristers, including only one symptomatic member, 87% of the group developed COVID-19, according to a CDC report released on Tuesday. Two members died.

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

The prospect of two years without live choirs sent a wave of angst nationwide as well as choir-rich neighborhoods of churches, schools and professional venues in Philadelphia.

“Devastated” is how Julia Zavadsky says she felt after hearing that it might not be possible for the choirs to meet for some time. The artistic director of Nashirah, the Jewish choir of Greater Philadelphia, says the message she took from the webinar, which took place on May 5, is that “not everything we think we do together is safe. There is absolutely nothing, and it is absolutely heartbreaking. It brings tears to my eyes just talking about it, because life as we knew it is now over.

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

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

In the meantime, she suggested to the members: “We are in mourning. “

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

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

These developments can take months or even years.

“I think that surprised everyone,” says Jonas Crenshaw, director of worship and the arts at Society Hill’s Mother Bethel AME Church, who describes choir rehearsals as traditionally involving a level of physical contact that suddenly seems risk.

“As we get ready for concerts, we learn new music, and a lot of that is about pronunciation, and the way we shape our mouths when we sing allows the vapor to escape,” says Crenshaw. “As you sing, there is sometimes a choreography, there is dancing and sweating, and then you think of the people playing the microphone.”

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

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

The privacy extends to the benches, where the song of the assembly 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. “It’s fantastic,” she said, adding that it could be over two years before one or more can be widely distributed. “However, we have to proceed very carefully until we have them.”

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The sound of voices woven together is instant humanity. He animates the party scene in The traviata. It comes as the layer of ecstatic joy that the ear needs in Beethoven Symphony No.9. Choral texture is the source of ointment and emotional rescue in many requiems. And the sound of a raging chorus has become the height of warmongering in a number of commercials, movie scores, and video games that have made up an entire subgenre of Orff. Carmina Burana.

“I hear America sing,” writes Walt Whitman in his poem of the same name, noting the “everyone” aspect of the national soundtrack. The mason, the carpenter, the group of young men, we all sing, he writes.

The delicious song of the mother, or of the young woman at work, or of the daughter sewing or washing,

Everyone sings what belongs to him and to no one else.

More than 54 million American adults and children sing together today, according to Chorus America, which points out that the profits go beyond the musical. Nearly three-quarters of singers say participating in a choir makes them feel less alone or lonely, according to a 2019 poll of the group. 90% of singers say they vote regularly in local and national elections (compared to 55% of the general public).

” ASK US: Do you have a question about the coronavirus and its effects on your health, your work and your life? Ask our journalists.

Choral music gives many a sense of social connectedness.

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, art, sociology and changing the world. , and who sang about it. People who have used art to sing the 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 pastor, Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler. “There are two things people look for when they come to a place like Mother Bethel to worship. They judge by our music and our preaching. Anything 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 virtual Sunday services – in the church, safely spaced apart. A group of eight singers did the same at the First Presbyterian on 21st and Walnut Street.

Members of Philadelphia’s Grammy-winning choir, The Crossing, live primarily in Philadelphia and Chicago and will not meet to perform in groups “until scientists say it’s safe to do so,” explains Crossing conductor Donald Nally. “That’s not to say that we don’t think creatively about ways to express ourselves as a group. We are. But we haven’t found a working solution. “

As for virtual choral experiences through online platforms, this is a pale imitation, some say.

“It’s definitely not what I would feel like a satisfying choral experience,” says Senn of the First Presbyterian. “You get a product at the end, and the choir says it’s nice to hear us all sing, and a larger audience says it’s a generous performance and it makes people feel good. It’s awesome. But being able to be in the same room as your colleagues to make music is where it happens. “

Halstead urges patience.

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

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