What Is The Government Doing About Choirs and Musicians?

Type of post: Chorus news item
Posted By: David Harris
Status: Current
Date Posted: Fri, 5 Jun 2020
Will no one in government stand up for British choirs?
Richard Morrison
Thursday June 04 2020, 5.00pm, The Times
Until 12 weeks ago Britain was a choral powerhouse. Two million people sang in 70,000 choirs. Some were highly professional and world-famous. Think of the Sixteen and the Monteverdi Choir, or the magnificent opera choruses of London, Cardiff and Leeds, or the incredible eight-shows-a-week ensembles sustaining West End musicals. That’s thousands of highly trained singers now facing financial ruin. Then think of the millions who sang for fun. True, those people haven’t lost their livelihoods, but for many the weekly choir rehearsal was what kept them ticking along — culturally, spiritually, physically and socially.
Few singers dispute that choirs needed to stop temporarily because of coronavirus. What is starting to irritate, however, is the lack of official guidance as to when and how they might safely resume. Instead of scientific research, anecdotal horror stories swirl around, instilling a fear that choral singing is so dangerous it might be permanently banned.
Let’s deal first with those horror stories. In early March, before social distancing was a thing, people became infected with the virus after singing with a handful of choirs across the world. Sensational headlines created the illusion that all choirs were death traps. In fact, thousands of choirs were still rehearsing without any precautions in March. Only five reported illnesses afterwards. The affected choirs rehearsed in tightly packed rooms. They greeted each other with hugs. They shared refreshments. Yes, the singing might have transmitted coronavirus, but equally the socialising might have done. We need proper research before jumping to conclusions.

Choristers at St Paul's Cathedral, London

That’s the problem. Little research has been done, and none in Britain. However, two fluid-mechanics scientists at Bundeswehr University Munich conducted experiments to see how far singers project emissions. Their findings are encouraging. Although the World Health Organisation’s guidelines (echoed by Public Health England) say that Covid-19 is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets and contact routes rather than aerosols (airborne transmission, which carries farther), the Munich scientists tested for both. They found that “at a distance of around 0.5m [from the singer], almost no air movement can be detected, regardless of how loud the sound was and what pitch was sung”.
Therefore, they concluded that it is “unlikely that the virus could spread beyond this limit via the air flow created during singing”. Add an extra metre to minimise risk even more, and it seems that — if the Munich findings are accurate — choirs might operate reasonably safely with singers placed 1.5m apart and configured in one big semi-circle.
That’s good and bad news. It’s good for smallish groups who stay in one place while they sing. Cathedral choirs clearly won’t be able to use their traditional double-ranked, inward-facing choirstalls, but given their buildings’ size, they could easily spread out in a semi-circle (as German choirs are doing). For big choral societies, that formation isn’t practical. They may have to break into smaller units. The real challenge, however, would be getting the choruses for operas and musicals safely back in business in productions where they need to move around the stage.
Other factors hinder progress. One is the ultra-cautious approach of the Church of England, which controls (the word is not too strong) the vast majority of England’s sacred choirs. Its bishops seem so spooked by those early horror stories that they appear reluctant to allow any singing at all, even when services resume. That hugely endangers a cathedral tradition that relies on boy and girl choristers maintaining extraordinary musical skills through daily training and performance. An enforced break of a year, coinciding with cash-strapped cathedrals closing their choir schools (as York Minster is doing), would be the biggest catastrophe for church music since Oliver Cromwell.
How to overturn the negativity? One piece of German research, however convincing, won’t be enough. Britain’s singers need clear British guidelines, but the government’s response is (surprise, surprise) lamentable. Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, has set up a task force to “help reopen cultural life”, but it seems to have no musicians or scientists sitting on it. The same is true of a separate task force set up by the Ministry of Housing to get churches reopened. And although Public Health England could muster the requisite scientific expertise, nobody seems to have asked it to advise on how to restart choirs.
Singing in a choir will never be entirely risk-free, but neither will shopping. In Germany and Scandinavia guidelines have been agreed and choirs are confidently reopening. Here, it’s just muddle. Our choirs deserve better. Is there not a single minister in Boris Johnson’s cabinet who cares enough about Britain’s glorious choral tradition to fight for its survival?