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How School Choirs Are Practicing In-Person With Creative Safety Measures

Northeastern University Choral Society

Screenshot from Northeastern University Choral Society / YouTube

Key Takeaways

  • Singing poses a higher risk for COVID-19 transmission than speaking or breathing.
  • Despite pandemic risks, some choirs have continued to practice with "singer's masks" and social distancing.
  • School communities may have to find creative ways to gather safely as they navigate COVID-19 restrictions in the fall.

Exiting her first unmasked, in-person singing lesson since the start of the pandemic, Ivy Evers began to cry.

“I cried on my way there, I cried on the way home, I cried at my workout studio beforehand,” Evers says of the lesson, which took place last week. “Everyone's starting to taste normalcy again, and I think everyone's just really, really excited.”

Evers is a choir member and music major at Northeastern University. She started and ended her freshman year in the pandemic and will likely experience pandemic restrictions in the fall, too. 

“One of the most heavily restricted things was in person singing, logically,” Evers tells Verywell. “Spit is flying everywhere. People were really concerned that it would be a superspreader.”

In addition to COVID-19 restrictions for the school, administrators placed unique safety rules on college singers like Evers last winter, prior to the vaccine rollout. Going into the fall semester, the school choir is unsure how many of these restrictions will remain. As of this August, Northeastern reinstated its indoor mask mandate for vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Unfortunately, some of these restrictions affect sound quality and present a twofold challenge for college singers. How can singers safely navigate pandemic restrictions while continuing to produce quality music?

“It's practically impossible to [sing] isolated, over Zoom, over FaceTime calls,” Evers says. “It wasn't as adaptable to online platforms as the rest of our jobs and studies.”

During the frigid Boston winter, Evers and her crew strapped on masks that look like duck beaks to attend choir practice. She took breaks every 30 minutes to take a chilly walk to a nearby Panera Bread as she waited for the practice room to air out.

The cold air tightened the singers’ voice boxes, constricting their muscles and putting pressure on their vocal chords, she adds.

“Not only is the flow interrupted because you have to stop rehearsing, but your physical preparation starts from Ground Zero,” she adds of returning from the break.

Masks Specialized for Singers

The “singer’s mask” is a type of face mask designed by Broadway professionals that juts out over a person's nose and mouth, providing a larger pocket for breathing than a typical cloth or surgical mask. The idea is to lift the mask away from the singer’s lips, giving them more mobility for singing while still mitigating the risks of COVID-19 transmission.

How Is COVID-19 Transmitted Through Singing?

David Edwards, PhD, a professor of biomedical engineering at Harvard University, tells Verywell that multiple factors can contribute to COVID-19 transmission in a choir.

The COVID-19 virus first invades a person’s upper airways, where the larynx, or voice box, is located, Edwards explains. When people breathe, speak or sing, they emit respiratory droplets from their upper airways. These droplets are larger when a person sings because singing emits more energy than speaking or breathing, he adds. 

A study shows that singing produces greater amounts of aerosol droplets than repetitive talking. Singing at high volume, in close vicinity to other people, and in poorly ventilated rooms can further increase transmission risks.

To reduce COVID-19 spread, people should get vaccinated, stay hydrated, and keep a safe distance from other singers, Edwards says. Distance can be created by using a combination of methods like standing apart from other singers, wearing masks, and installing plexiglass barriers between singers, he adds.

Maintaining a humid environment has been shown to mitigate transmission risks of viruses like the flu and it could also help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

As an aerosol scientist, Edwards has studied the impact of humidity on the lungs and airways. He and his team designed a technology called FEND, which is a hygiene mist system that helps strengthen the body’s natural ability to trap particles and clean the airways.

Singers can create hydration through humidifiers, gadgets like Edward’s FEND or practicing in a naturally humid environment, Edwards says.

Singing Safely During the Pandemic

Evers and her choir-mates wore singer’s masks all winter. Practicing with the masks on is doable, but difficult, she says.

“When you're in a choir, there's something really powerful about hearing your voice mingle and blend with everyone else's,” Evers says. “To have the core of it stripped away, it was essentially like singing with earplugs.”

The mask creates a sound tunnel for her own voice which makes it difficult to hear others and hard to gauge the correct volume, she adds. 

Among other restrictions, Northeastern’s choir sizes were limited to 25 people per practice—23 singers plus choir director and conductor Katherine Chan as well as her assistant. Choir members stood in a circle around the room and centering Chan, instead of their typical three rows. Singers also stood nine feet apart from the person closest them.

Evers says she is blessed to have been under Chan’s leadership and that the director “really fought for us to have in-person singing.”

“In the moment I was like, ‘this is so freaking annoying,’” Evers says of the restrictions. “But it clearly worked because we weren't shut down throughout the entire year and we were able to put on the finished product.”

“Dr. Katherine Chan's number one priority was safety,” Evers adds.

At the end of the season, the groups held virtual concerts on YouTube. Choirs with more than 23 members rehearsed in sections, which were recorded separately and mixed electronically for the YouTube performance.

“The students did so well with that,” Chan says. “It's not easy singing in a mask and to have the pressure of these recordings on top of that because you know you want to be highlighting your best work.”

Chan says that her regulations were all based on advice from medical organizations and other choral groups. She adds that her students were compliant with the rules and people were willing to make things work in order to sing in person.

“Our students are so smart and they're so dedicated to what they do, I didn’t sense pushback,” Chan says. “The priority here is to be able to be in the same room to sing, when so many schools are not.”

Navigating COVID-19 Restrictions in the Fall

Singing restrictions and social distancing measures can feel disheartening, but Edwards says it can be comforting to remember that our bodies are resilient.

“There’s so many risks that we seem to be facing in this pandemic world that it can be frightening, and it can seem as if there's no way to protect ourselves,” Edwards says. “It’s helpful to understand that the upper airways have been defending themselves against inhaled pathogens for as long as humanity has been here.”

So long as we equip ourselves with vaccinations and personal protective equipment (PPE) when necessary, our natural defense systems can fight off many toxins, he adds.

The extent to which mandates and restrictions will impact Northeastern’s choir and other singing groups this fall remains uncertain—especially in the presence of the Delta variant, Chan says.

“The commitment to safety is still my number one priority for all my students and myself,” she says. “So if we have to sacrifice a performance here and there, that's what we do, just to be able to be a community.”

Evers says she hopes to have the opportunity to sing maskless with her group in the near future, but notes that the pandemic has already taught her how to get creative when things get tough.

“It really was a soul searching year to figure out what can I be motivated by, what can bring me joy, and what can bring me hope,” Evers says.

What This Means For You

If you’re in a choir, or a singing group, you can take steps to prevent virus transmission, such as getting vaccinated, maintaining a humid environment for practice, wearing masks, and creating space or physical barriers between singers.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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