Things seemed to be coming back to pre-pandemic norms for singers, but here in the Boston area, this month has been disheartening.
Unmasked singing: Recently there was a nightmare outbreak of COVID among members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the resident chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Over 30 people in the chorus and orchestra became infected after performing Britten’s War Requiem unmasked at Symphony Hall. See link: (https://www.wbur.org/news/2022/04/15/tanglewood-festial-chorus-boston-symphony-orchestra-covid)
Masked singing: The Boston Cecilia Society recently premiered a new work in two masked choral performances, and although there was a need to amplify some instuments in the Concord venue due to poor acoustics, there were also pitch problems in the chorus, probably due to changes in overtones caused by singing through a mask. Masks’ effect on overtones in singing has been examined in some small studies, and there are masks especially designed for singers to minimize this effect. (https://scitechdaily.com/sing-on-certain-face-masks-prevent-covid-19-transmission-without-distorting-voice/) Not just any mask will do!
Indoor air quality: Nationally, there are calls for upgrades in ventilation and additional air purification for any venue with large numbers of people. These upgrades can be expensive, especially in older buildings like concert halls and churches, but they may be necessary before choral singing without masks can resume. (https://www.epa.gov/coronavirus/air-cleaners-hvac-filters-and-coronavirus-covid-19).
Vaccination and testing: Still, opera companies have begun performing again, Broadway plays and musicals have returned to the stage, and we must ask ourselves under what conditions it will be both safe and aesthetically rewarding to program performances with a number of singers in any genre. The Theater Guild has produced some guidelines that all actors must be vaccinated and test weekly. Several productions have had to shut down for the 5-day isolation when a performer tested positive. The Met is rehearsing masked (see photo) and performing without masks, but I was unable to find published protocols for singers at the Met as of late 2021 or early 2022. We need to look carefully at how to assure safety for the performers.
Studio update: Meanwhile, in my home studio I (vaccinated, twice boosted) am teaching in-person to vaccinated students, using a UV air purifier and allowing time between lessons. Students have voluntarily gone to online lessons again if they test positive or are exposed to someone who has tested positive. (Thank you, students!) We have not had a studio recital since December 2019; it seems like a lifetime!
Summary: Singing produces very high levels of aerosols. The virus continues to evolve and mutate, and while singers themselves may feel safe from (or able to overcome) a mild case of COVID, many live with immunocompromised family members or small children who cannot yet be vaccinated. This forces groups to consider safest practices, and at the moment it means they must mask.
- Absent social distancing (which in any case is nearly impossible for larger group performances), the choice of which types of masks are used seems to be crucial, both in containing aerosols and in allowing optimum vocal sound.
- Enhanced ventilation and air purification can further reduce risks, and frankly must be considered when choosing a performance venue.
In the near future, unmasked singing indoors can only be safe with improved air purification and ventilation, combined with frequent testing of already-vaccinated performers. Sigh.