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Clark County choirs confront COVID-19

Local choir directors see little choice but to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s no longer safe for singers to stand in close formation and powerfully belt out their breath.

A Mount Vernon choir practice in early March that resulted in one person infecting 52 others made national news.

That was two weeks before Washington’s stay-at-home order took effect. Some choir members used hand sanitizer and refrained from friendly handshakes and hugs, but social distancing was not the standard yet. Two of those choir members have died. Local and national health officials consider the incident a textbook study of how easily the virus can spread to many people at one isolated event.

Vancouver Master Chorale artistic director Jana Hart tuned into an online discussion May 5 hosted at the University of South Carolina by the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the American Choral Directors Association and the Performing Arts Medical Association.

The panel’s view of safely resuming choir activity anytime soon was so “unrelentingly grim,” Hart said. “I just put my head down and cried.”

Dr. Lucinda Halstead, president of the Performing Arts Medical Association, said there is “no safe way for singers to rehearse together until there is a COVID-19 vaccine and a 95 percent effective treatment in place,” reported arts journalist (and singer) Zach Finkelstein. Those milestones are likely at least 18 months away, and perhaps closer to two full years, Halstead said during the discussion.

The panel’s experts outlined several serious obstacles to choirs rehearsing and performing during the pandemic, Finkelstein reported. Mainly, they said, there’s no way to socially distance the members of a choir and still have a real choir. There’s also growing evidence that singing — and shouting, and other forms of intense exhalation of breath — spews respiratory droplets carrying coronavirus much farther than 6 feet.

Scientists also keep revising upwards their estimates of how long the coronavirus can linger in air — especially indoor air.

The Vancouver Master Chorale includes about 90 singers, Hart said. There’s no way to separate all those people by at least 6 feet, and no space where it could realistically happen, she said.

Also, singing while wearing masks is simply impractical, Hart said.

“They muffle and alter the vocal sound completely,” Hart said.

Powerful singing may well render masks ineffective, she added. One panelist in the discussion cited a study showing that influenza virus particles escaped masks worn by infected people as they recited the alphabet.

April Duvic, the co-founder of Clark County’s pro-level Reprise Choir, said she can envision “some sort of headgear that gives you room to breathe, but doesn’t let out your nasties, and still lets you hear everything. That seems crazy.”

But if someone could come up with it, Duvic said, it would be wildly popular.

Many sophisticated safety methods suggested for choirs are unattainably expensive, she said, including rapid air exchange and overhead ultraviolet lights hung at the proper height to kill the virus but not harm people’s skin.

“Who has the finances for all this infrastructure you’d need?” Duvic wondered.

The Reprise Choir has canceled all its 2020 concerts. The Vancouver Master Chorale is wishfully planning a December holiday concert, Hart said.

“We are being completely flexible as to what next season holds,” she said. “We will be ready to resume singing within a couple of days if, by some miracle, a vaccine is developed and available.”

Master Chorale member Marna Hopkins said the loss of group singing hurts in many ways.

“Singing with the choir provides so many social, emotional and physical benefits,” Hopkins said. “Not being able to get together leaves a big void.”

Duvic said she takes heart from the intensity with which singers and scientists are attacking these problems.

“Man, has there been a lot of commentary from everyone in the choral world saying, ‘We can’t let this kill us. We are more creative than that,’ ” she said. “We’re going to figure out how to make this work. It may not look the way regular choirs always looked, but it’ll be something that satisfies the need for people to sing together.”

Virtual choir, solo challenge

You can still hear and see members of the Vancouver Master Chorale combining their voices online. The choir has been posting performances by its small “virtual choir” on YouTube and Facebook. Check out their renditions of everything from James Taylor to gospel, from “The Star Spangled Banner” to “How Far I’ll Go” from Disney’s “Moana.”

Virtual choirs are the hot trend in group singing these days, Hart said, even if they’re not quite “real.” Individual singers record their parts separately, and send them on to a video editor who combines them into a harmonized whole.

“We are all learning how to overcome the technical challenges, but we’re getting better and better every day,” said Matt Bay, the Vancouver Master Chorale member who edits those videos together.

Singing your own lonely, solo part for later combination with others is a daunting challenge, Hopkins said.

“Not having the support of others while I am recording my part has been much more difficult than I had anticipated,” Hopkins said. “At the same time, it makes me realize where I need to grow. I am learning every week. The amount of practice that goes into this method is far greater, even, than the practice I did for the larger choir.”

That’s what Duvic said about teaching voice by video. When they’re separated by screens, both teacher and student have to focus and work harder, she said.

“I am watching them learn in different ways and I’m watching their skills really improving,” she said. “It’s a completely different level of attention and energy. And by the end of the day, I’m exhausted.”


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