As we await the results of the Colorado State University study on the role of singing and playing wind and brass instruments in the spread of COVID-19, there is a study available now that gives us some potentially important information. Study: Aerosol emission is increased in professional singing
• The Berlin study confirms the data shared in the first NATS webinar. Remember the one all of us widely panned as being overly pessimistic? The one we all decried, saying, “They don’t know what they’re talking about! They’re irresponsible to be saying this! They’re just spreading fear!”? It turns out they were right, after all. Singing spreads significantly more droplets and aerosol particles than normal speaking.
• The Berlin study involved 8 professional singers, not students and not amateur singers.
• The CSU study will give us more data on student singers. One can reasonably anticipate that even though students expel fewer droplets and aerosols than professional singers, they still expel more while singing than they do through speaking. Is that increase enough to be concerned? We will have to wait and see.
• The Berlin study showed the aerosols expelled by singing can hang in the air for hours and that they have a cumulative effect (the more singers in one space, the greater the accumulation, the longer they hang in the air).
Considerations and questions for choral professionals:
• We now know from multiple experts and scientific studies that singing spreads orders of magnitude (the Berlin study’s words, not mine) more droplets and aerosol particles than non-singing activities. (Want a good visual of this? Watch Jonathan Groff’s performance as King George in Hamilton, now available on Disney+.)
• We know (or at least scientific evidence strongly suggests) that COVID-19 is spread through the air on large droplets and in the smaller aerosols.
• The risk of singers spreading COVID-19, then, is elevated, probably significantly elevated. This risk could be lower or higher depending on the amount of spread currently active in the singers’ community. (For many of us, that spread is currently very high. We must take that into consideration.)
• As choral music professionals, what level of risk are we willing to take with our own singing?
• A far more important question, though: As choral music educators, what level of risk are we willing to ask our students to take on? Do we have an ethical responsibility to ensure our singers are safe?
• Are there mitigation techniques that we can employ that would reduce the risk of spread in a school setting enough to justify a return to singing in the classroom?
• We’re not just worried about our singers. We’re also worried about all the people with whom they come into contact. What we allow in our rehearsal rooms will have an exponential effect outside of our rehearsal.
It’s not enough to say we’re ready to get back to singing. Of course we are. We all are. And we have the right as individual professionals to assess our own risk tolerance. We do not, however, have the right to make that decision on behalf of our student singers. I think we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that our student singers are safe, that they understand and own their role in keeping others safe, and that they understand the factors we take into account to make decisions. And that might mean we err on the side of focusing on non-singing standards for much of this coming school year.
N.B.: This is my opinion. It’s an educated, well-researched, and science-based opinion, but it’s still an opinion. I’m not speaking on behalf of any organization with which I am involved. These are my thoughts and these are the ideas I’m discussing with my administration.