It’s not often that choral singing and meat packing find themselves in the same basket – but the two occupations have been linked by the coronavirus. As epidemiologist Raina MacIntyre said last week at a webinar organised by Gondwana Choirs and the University of NSW, “we’ve seen two types of outbreaks that have really stood out. One is the choirs and the other is the meat packing plants”.

The reason, she explained, is the high concentration of aerosols created by the processes involved at abattoirs, and when people sing.

Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir in Vienna in 2017. Photograph © Nathan Kelly

Aerosols are miniscule clumps of liquid or solid particles floating through the air. When people breathe, talk or cough they generate aerosols. But more are generated when people sing because of the deep breathing involved.

Speaking at the same webinar, Professor Con Doolan, an aerospace engineer, explained clearly what aerosols are and why they spread the coronavirus.

“When you sing or cough or sneeze there’s a combination of the breathing with the saliva or fluids in your mouth and in the lungs, and that gets projected out of your mouth and it forms like a cloud, its own weather system. So the big drops start falling out of the cloud, and the cloud moves away from you and eventually those drops fall away and you’re left with an aerosol,” said Doolan.

“So they are small particles – maybe tiny bits of virus inside small droplets or just bits of solid material – and they can stay airborne because they are so light.” Because the aerosols remain airborne for hours or even days they gradually spread, taking the virus with them.

Around the world abattoirs have become coronavirus hotspots. The US has been the hardest hit with almost 5,000 meat workers contracting the virus. In Melbourne, the number of cases linked to the Cedar Meat abattoir has reached 111 with 67 staff and 44 close contacts infected by the virus.

There have also been several alarming cases of the coronavirus being spread through choirs in the US and Europe. On March 8, the Amsterdam Mixed Choir performed Bach’s St John Passion at the Concertgebouw. Within days the choristers began to become ill until 102 of 130 had developed COVID-19. One chorister died along with three others who had had close contact with a choir member.

On March 10, the Skagit Valley Chorale based in Washington met for a rehearsal. Precautions against COVID-19 were taken with hand sanitiser at the door and physical distancing employed, but 53 of the 60 choristers contracted the coronavirus, two of whom died.

Fifty-nine of 78 choristers of Berlin’s Protestant Cathedral Choir contracted COVID-19 after a rehearsal in March, while members of the Voices of Yorkshire choir in England also became infected with the virus.

In Australia, most choirs stopped rehearsals as soon as the government issued advice about social distancing and there has not been a similar example, but naturally there is concern about whether singing is dangerous in the coronavirus era. Currently many choirs have been performing online, but they are itching to start gathering in person again.

Gondwana Choirs and UNSW presented their free webinar last Wednesday to discuss how the choral community can safely return to the stage, or at least meet again in person in the rehearsal room. The webinar featured choral conductors Lyn Williams, Carl Crossin and Elizabeth Scott, in conversation with two leading experts from UNSW – Professor Raina MacIntyre, an internationally renowned epidemiologist and Head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute, and aerospace engineer Professional Con Doolan.

The webinar was watched live by 1,800 people from Australia and 27 other countries. It is now available on Gondwana’s YouTube channel where it has had over 5,900 views.

Tonight at 7.30pm, Gondwana will present a second free webinar called Back to choir: positive and practical next steps, aimed at providing practical information to assist choral conductors. Sam Allchurch, Associate Artistic Director of Gondwana Choirs and Music Director at Sydney Chamber Choir, will be the facilitator, in conversation with Brett Weymark, Artistic and Music Director of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Paul Holley, Associate Director of Voices of Birralee, Dr Megan Kalucy, Senior Lecturer, Psychiatry Education at UNSW, and Dr Wei Jiang, a doctor and musician, who sings with Sydney Chamber Choir.

Lyn Williams, Gondwana’s Artistic Director, says that the first Gondwana webinar was sparked by a webinar that was held in the United States, followed by one in New Zealand. “We thought it was really important to have one for the Australian context because we are in a very different situation, and a very fortunate situation as compared to so many places in the world,” Williams tells Limelight.“There was also a lot of information coming out of Europe and it’s all quite contradictory and I’m of the belief that they don’t actually have the data yet – which means that the scientists currently disagree, which makes it hard for us lay people to know. Musicians are caring people and we obviously don’t want to be putting people at undue risk.”

Lyn Williams

Williams says that the two “biggest takeaways” she got from last week’s webinar are firstly that Australia is very fortunate that the community transmission of COVID-19 is very low “so therefore our risks are similarly low. However, it appears a strong likelihood that singing in a room with a group of people, if somebody happens to be affected by the virus, is not good. [Singing] does raise the risk of transmission when it is present in the room. They seemed to be the two clear things,” she says.

There have been suggestions that a lack of social distancing led to the spread of the coronavirus in the choirs overseas, with the US choristers eating a meal together. At the webinar, MacIntyre said that she suspects the spread of aerosols rather than physical contact caused the virus to spread. “We don’t know how they acquired it whether it was airborne or contact, but there have been plenty of other gatherings of people that have not [had] as high an attack rate,” she said.

In the US, the Netherlands, and German choirs, around 70 percent got infected – an incredibly high rate given that the infection rate among families is generally closer to 25 percent according to MacIntyre.

Williams believes it is vital that choirs get back together in person as soon as possible. “If we can get to the situation where we feel reasonably confident that people are taking all the precautions that we can, and following the government guidelines, then I feel we should be launching back into choral singing as soon as we feel that the risk is low enough for us to do so, because there are so many other great benefits to singing,” she says.

“The benefits that we can draw for mental health and all sorts of other reasons are so strong that it’s definitely something to be taken into account whilst realising that there are going to be risks.”

Brett Weymark agrees that singing is vital for the mental health of choristers. Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, of which he is Artistic and Music Director, celebrates its 100th birthday in 2020 and had a special anniversary program scheduled.

Brett Weymark

“We did the Dawn Chorus [in January]. We did a fantastic performance of Considering Matthew Shepard and we were just about to go into a piano call with Donald Runnicles on Missa Solemnis [with Sydney Symphony Orchestra] when the restrictions around people gathering came in, and the regime pretty much ground to a halt in terms of concert life. But actually, we are a volunteer choir and our biggest responsibility at the moment is to really keep our singers singing because singing is such an important part of the mental health of everyone, and particularly our singers. And so, when you hit a situation like this, which is unprecedented, where suddenly the one thing that you do – all come together and sing together – you can’t do, you’ve got to find inventive ways of keeping that sense of connection.”

“So the music staff have been working incredibly hard. For example I am recording a Beethoven 9 piano part as we speak. My Beethoven 9 at the piano is not at Ashkenazy standard, let me tell you!” he adds with a laugh.

Nonetheless, Weymark is as concerned as anyone by the spread of coronavirus through the overseas choirs and was one of the many who tuned into last week’s webinar. “The wonderful thing about the Gondwana Choirs’ webinar the other night was that it explained that whole idea of aerosols quite well, so there are obviously some challenges for us, given that large groups of people [have] more chance of getting the disease. The other things are the length of rehearsals – three-hour rehearsals are very long. And once you add to that 100 people in the room, and the body heat and [aerosols] staying in the atmosphere a lot longer because singers are breathing deeply and they are using the air that comes out in a much more highly energised fashion, there are obviously risks that are involved [for choirs],” he says.

“But the other side is we have the benefit of being able to rehearse very large choirs in smaller groups. We do have the ability to spread choirs out. Maybe going into winter, singing outside is not such a good idea. For me it’s terribly important to know the science and I think we are getting closer to knowing the science, and then from there we can make some very good, educated decisions on the best way forward.”

Like Weymark, Williams and her team at Gondwana have been looking at the concept of smaller groups coming together while other singers watching online. “At least there’s a sense of singing with a choir as opposed to singing on their own in their loungerooms. So there are possibilities – though obviously putting all the precautions in place,” she says.

As for performing in theatres and concert halls in front of an audience, “we are hoping for it to be really soon, but that seems unlikely,” says Williams. “The first step is to sing together for the sake of the choristers themselves and for the chorister musicians because it’s really important for them.”

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Photograph © Keith Saunders

Performing to smaller, physically distanced audiences is an option being looked at by some orchestras, musical ensembles and performing arts organisations. Williams isn’t convinced that it will work for choirs. “That’s not going to be financially viable for venues or presenters. You rely on your income and you’re just going to lose money if you’re putting the same thing on stage [to a smaller audience]. It’s really challenging.”

Attracting audiences back will be the other challenge. A survey called the Audience Outlook Monitor, released recently, found that most arts lovers will eventually return but that 67 percent will only attend when they deem the risk of transmission to be minimal, while 11 percent won’t consider returning until there is no risk at all, in other words when there are no cases and/or a vaccine is available.

“Raina MacIntyre said you’d really think twice [about attending an arts event] if you’re over 50 and you’ve had cancer. Well, that’s me,” says Williams. “You don’t necessarily think of yourself as being at risk, but it’s all about the statistics.”

The Audience Outlook Monitor put a range of suggestions to respondents including deep cleaning of venues, hand sanitiser at entry points, timed entry, socially distanced seating arrangements, and the wearing of masks. Most respondents said if they had to wear masks it would discourage them from attending.

Wearing masks is not an option for the choristers. “If you sing with a mask for any length of time your oxygen levels drop considerably because you can’t get enough air in. It wouldn’t be a comfortable experience,” says Williams.

As arts organisations wait for venues to reopen they have turned to digital platforms to varying degrees of success.

“I’m not a big fan of online concerts. I’ve watched a couple but it’s just not the same,” says Williams. “It’ll become a part of the things that we do and there are great advantages of being able to suddenly have a guest from overseas so that’s a real positive that will stay with us forever, now that we’re used to the whole idea of it. But you actually can’t replicate that feeling of being in a concert hall and sharing that, it’s a unique experience.”

Weymark believes the advancement in the use of digital platforms by arts organisations is here to stay, and could become part of the live experience.

No-one knows yet when theatres will reopen and venues will be full again. “We really are just waiting, and it’s a case of coming up with different options for when we do. And also trying to gauge the appetite for what audiences may or may not be interested in hearing when they come back,” says Weymark.

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Photograph © Keith Saunders

Even though they may not be performing for an audience, Weymark says that the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs will be singing together as soon as possible. For a while, that may mean changing the model with 20 sopranos in a room on a Monday, 20 altos together in a room on a Tuesday and so on.

“We have to think very creatively about the obstacles that are in our way because at end of the day getting people back in the flesh singing together is what we do. No type of technology is ever going to replace that human connection when you are in the same space and involved in an essentially temporal art form that happens in time and in space.”

Webinars to discuss issues surrounding the return to live performance are “incredibly important” says Weymark. “But we’ve got to keep it measured. There are three big outbreaks in choirs that are getting all the attention – the Washington, the Amsterdam and the Berlin choirs – and it’s very serious what happened there. Could the same thing happen here? Yes, of course it could, but we’ll be armed with so much more information by the time we come to bringing choirs back together. And in many ways, it won’t be our decision anyway. It will be a decision made by the NSW Health advisory board, so hand in hand with government advice we will very carefully move back to rehearsing and singing as a group.”

“We need to get back as soon as possible,” says Williams. “We don’t want to take any undue risks but actually it is beginning to look really positive for Australia, and that’s what I’m hanging onto because if we were living anywhere else in the world it would be tricky to be a choral organisation right now.”

Williams remains optimistic, but says the next couple of weeks as restrictions are gradually loosened will be crucial in determining what happens next. “If the numbers suddenly start to rise, well then it seems like we’ve got a long road – probably until the vaccines. I’m not an epidemiologist but that’s what my instincts say. However, if they remain low, that looks good to me. But we are not scientists and the scientists disagree – so it’s like everything in 2020, it’s the great unknown. But we remain positive.”

The Gondwana Choirs’ webinar Back to choir: positive and practical next steps will stream live on May 27 at 7.30pm and will then be available on the Gondwana website and Facebook page

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