- This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: June 22, 2021
What’s it like to live in a world without music? Much of the world got a preview of that grim reality in the spring of 2020, as the pandemic put an abrupt halt to singing and performing music in public. Everything from marching bands to church choirs to full-size orchestras went on hiatus as the virus continued to spread. Now, professional musicians and scientists around the world are trying to figure out the safest way to fill the silence again with singing.
What we know so far about singing and its ability to spread viruses isn’t encouraging. As noted by the CDC in October 2020 (and again in May 2021), COVID-19 is airborne. Both droplets and aerosols that come from our mouths when we exhale, speak, cough, or sneeze plays a major role in spreading the virus.
A 2019 Nature study found that singing creates more aerosol transmissions than talking or breathing and is roughly comparable to coughing. Scientists have known that singing plays a role in spreading respiratory diseases like tuberculosis and the common cold for decades; a 1968 study in the American Review of Respiratory Disease found that singing spreads six times as many droplets as talking.
Several incidents of choir practices sparking COVID-19 outbreaks have already occurred in 2020.
In March 2020, a single choir rehearsal in Skagit Valley, Washington, led to 45 members falling ill with the virus, three hospitalizations, and two deaths. A Baptist church in Jacksonville was forced to shut its doors after six members of its church choir, two handbell ringers, and six members of its congregation became sick.
More than 250 attendees at a Georgia summer camp, where daily activities included singing and cheering, tested positive for COVID-19. In December, a family of gospel singers recorded a virtual concert in Texas, and afterward, five members of the family were infected by the virus.
Even outside of the U.S., there’s evidence that group singing can quickly become superspreader events. In the Netherlands, 102 members of an Amsterdam choir fell ill in March 2020 and four died. Similar incidents have occurred in live music performances throughout Europe, Asia, and Canada. In August, the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet suspended its activities indefinitely after both the opera director and his deputy tested positive.
Even a college in Scranton, Pennsylvania has tried to figure out how to get its singers and wind musicians to play music safely.
But what if singers wear a mask and perform outdoors? Or stand six feet apart?
How to make singing safe
A group of musician advocacy groups and professional organizations have funded a six-month research study that looked into the transmission of aerosols by singing and playing wind and brass instruments. The study’s preliminary results, published on Aug. 6, confirmed that singing, as well as playing certain wind and brass instruments, generate droplets at high rates. The same could be true of shofar blowing. But actions like installing HEPA filters and wearing masks significantly reduced the amount of aerosols emitted by the singing, though it didn’t eliminate them completely.
The study’s authors recommend conducting practices outside and to maintain a distance of at least six feet. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious diseases expert, agreed and said, “If you’re [outside], with the natural breezes that blow respiratory particles away, it is so much safer.”
If singing practices must occur indoors, keep them brief. “What we’re recommending right now is definitely staying six feet apart with masks, with good ventilation, in very short duration of 30 minutes, with breaks to air out the room,” said University of Colorado professor Shelly Miller, one of the study’s authors, in an interview with NPR.
Even 15 months into the pandemic and even with vaccines becoming more prevalent, experts were still suggesting that singers wear masks when they practice.
Marc Scorca—the president of Opera America, one of the groups that backed the study—isn’t surprised by its conclusions. Opera singing in particular has presented a real challenge in terms of the spread of aerosols and droplets.
“How do you put 50 instruments in an orchestra pit? How do you rehearse a chorus in a rehearsal room under current circumstances?” Scorca told Nautilus.
One Michigan man, though, has tried to use cheap, accessible technology to get people singing again, one choir in Oregon is singing together from the safety of their cars, and the San Francisco Opera has developed a special mask that allows its singers to rehearse together.
Operas and others have had to adjust
Operas in many cities have hosted live, virtual performances, or performed opera in the park or in another outdoor capacity. But these tend to be more scaled back, abbreviated productions. Singers do their own hair and makeup. Performers maintain a distance of six feet.
After conducting free, live performances in the park all summer, the Harrisburg Opera Association in Pennsylvania opted to release a production virtually on the organization’s YouTube channel. The Michigan Opera House, which plans to host live performances again, is doing so with a far smaller audience. The 2,700 seat opera house in Detroit was reconfigured to fit 250 people, who sat on tables on the stage and deck area. The Salzburg Festival in Austria, which included two opera performances, will impose audience size limits, mask mandates, and an elaborate testing plan for employees, the New York Times reported.
But returning to the stage has come with dangers, because it’s still not safe to sing in public. Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko was hospitalized with the virus in September, days after performing with another singer who later tested positive for the virus. German opera company Bayerische Staatsoper held shows for 500 spectators using a special staggered seating plan, an experiment which led to four positive cases. Meanwhile, music festivals across the globe have been canceled because of the pandemic.
Even by June 2021, with the U.S. case and death rates doing down, 37% of surveyed people said going to an indoor concert was a large risk (48% said it was a small or moderate risk).
While many operas have found creative solutions to performing, the economics don’t exactly work, Scorca noted. Expecting a company to pay full production costs for a performance that can only sell 250 tickets, when it usually sells more than 2,000 tickets a night, just isn’t sustainable. The New York Metropolitan Opera opted to cancel its fall season altogether. Opera houses in Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, and Kansas City followed suit. The Seattle Opera canceled its first production of the fall season, and the Houston Grand Opera shuttered the majority of its fall performances and fired one-quarter of its staff.
The English National Opera in London went a different direction, though, and began using some of its performers to help long-term COVID sufferers recover from breathing issues with online lessons. “Opera is rooted in breath,” Jenny Mollica, who runs the English National Opera’s outreach work told the New York Times. “That’s our expertise. I thought, ‘Maybe E.N.O. has something to offer.’”
Operas will return to their pre-pandemic splendor, but only when there’s a permanent solution for the pandemic, only when it’s safe to sing in public again (though summer tours of pop and rock music are beginning to heat up). “It’s unlikely that (…full-scale productions) will be taking place until there’s a vaccine,” said Scorca.
Until then, most of the world’s opera houses will have to exist in silence.
After you get the vaccine, is it safe to …
- Get a tattoo?
- Attend a wedding?
- Go to a movie theater?
- Party in Las Vegas?
- Go to a restaurant?
- Go to the gym?
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