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Webinar: Science and the near-term future of singing

Webinar notes: Science and the near-term future of singing

“A marathon, not a sprint”: a panel of scientists and leading arts administrators are framing the conversation of what we’ll need to know to understand the implications of singing together.

Watch the fully-produced video, complete with speaker's slides

Download the speaker's notes

Hosts and speakers

On May 5, 2020, the Barbershop Harmony Society was pleased to co-host an important webinar about the near-term future of singing as we seek fact-based solutions in protecting our singers, teachers and conductors.

Leaders of several major singing organizations participated:

  • Catherine Dehoney, president and CEO, Chorus America
  • Allen Henderson, executive director, National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS)
  • Marty Monson, CEO, Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS)
  • Tim Sharp, executive director, American Choral Directors Association (ACDA)

Medical specialists:

  • Otolaryngologist Dr. Lucinda Halstead, founder and medical director of the Evelyn Trammell Institute for Voice and Swallowing at the Medical University of South Carolina, and President Elect of the Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA).
  • Dr. Donald Milton, a leading researcher on the interrelated areas of infectious bioaerosols, exhaled breath analysis, and respiratory epidemiology.

Arts marketing and leadership professionals:

  • Colleen Dilenschneider, IMPACTS Research and Development
  • Mollie Quinlan-Hayes, ArtsReady
  • Tom Clareson, Performing Arts Readiness

The two-and-a-half hour live seminar covered a wide range of topics, and the panel acknowledged that this is only the beginning of a long journey of research for all arts organizations. “This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” noted ACDA’s Tim Sharp -- himself a survivor of diagnosed COVID-19.

BHS notes on the webinar

The Barbershop Harmony Society prioritizes member safety above all considerations, so this meeting is an eye-opener on the realities we face. Just like every aspect of our lives these days, we need to balance expert research and opinion with optimism and resolve to innovate -- to change the things we can, accept the things we can’t change, and find the good where we can. And that? That’s always in the spirit of goodwill and harmony that underlies our entire barbershop world

While reading the summary or watching the webinar, please consider:

  • This presentation is not “the last word.” More data will continue to emerge. This conversation helps us understand what we will need to understand.
  • These are not absolute instructions. We will continue to learn more and seek best practices, like all responsible organizations.
  • Be mindful of context when discussing and referring to these topics. Yes, there are hard implications to these observations. Every idea spurs a “what if..?” hope. We can’t assume the sky has fallen, nor that things are all rosy. But sticking to facts and being honest with one another offers our best hope.

Some observations from a viewer

BHS board member Blair Brown attended the live webinar with her music educator husband, Ravi Raghuram, and made extensive notes. We share them here as a summary and a companion to the video and speakers' notes. Blair writes:

We were able to watch the whole thing, and it was very sobering. Here are some points that stuck out for BHS leaders and members to consider.

  • On the hierarchy of “safe” activities to return to, group singing is considered among the least safe, with the exception of a quartet singing outdoors with the wind NOT at their backs (sorry, Irish Blessing!). A return to traditional group singing is considered HIGH RISK. Singing in an enclosed space with recirculated air is one of the most dangerous things people could do right now. There are some technologies which may help (air filtration systems, UV lights attached to ceilings), but all would be costly to implement, especially in older spaces--like a church basement.
  • For a variety of biological reasons, singers are considered “super spreaders.” Our deep breathing and loud sound produced during a rehearsal projects disease particles into the air at a significantly higher rate than talking. This is why we keep hearing horror stories of entire choirs falling ill from one rehearsal. According to available data “many severe infections originated in churches, practice rooms, and rehearsal halls.” Even if 6 feet of physical distance is observed, singing mitigates that by filling a room with virus particles quickly.
  • New studies show that those with COVID may be *most* contagious just BEFORE they start to show any symptoms. Asking singers (or our audience members) to self-police and stay away from a rehearsal or performance if they’re feeling ill may not be much help if they’re most contagious before they’re even aware they have the disease.

    There is no existing barrier method (masks, PPE, etc.) which is considered safe for singing right now, with the possible exception of N95 masks. Even those are not yet a realistic consideration for regular choral rehearsals because:

    1. Masks must be properly “fit tested” in order to be effective
    2. Even medical professionals can’t get enough N95 masks; it's unlikely a chorus would have access to the needed amount.
    3. Wearing a mask during singing inhibits oxygen intake, which is dangerous. The masks trap CO2 near the nose and mouth which isn’t good for anyone to inhale for long periods, especially those with existing conditions like asthma, COPD, heart conditions, or those who are simply older/elderly. Sounds a lot like our membership?
    4. Most medical professionals find themselves lightheaded or headachey after a few hours of wearing an N95 mask, and in their cases they’re only talking, not singing.

    Choruses may consider implementing onsite testing at the door, but this raises its own challenges:

    • No such testing is widely available yet. Even doctors don’t have enough tests, so choirs likely wouldn't for a while.
    • Would be prohibitively expensive
    • Privacy concerns
    • Choirs would need access to very accurate tests which provide a rapid response. So far the only rapid response test which exists works only if the person is already symptomatic. See my note above about how those without symptoms may actually be more contagious.
    • Even with widespread testing, there are false negatives. Testing at the door could lower risk, but certainly not mitigate it entirely.
    • Would need 100% compliance on predetermined agreement by all singers. If anyone doesn’t buy in, it won’t work.

    Chorus America consulted with a marketing firm who surveyed people about their willingness to return to certain activities once they’re allowed to (i.e., our audiences). On the hierarchy of things people were willing to return to, performances in enclosed spaces/theaters were at the bottom of the list.

    According to the given data, things that would need to be in place for audiences to feel comfortable attending concerts, etc:

    1. A vaccine
    2. Limited attendance
    3. No lines/congregating
    4. Access to hand sanitizer throughout venue
    5. Onsite health monitoring
    6. Venue being outdoors preferred

    Other legal/financial/risk considerations:

    • Changes to insurance policies. As insurance contracts come up for renewal, will choruses still be insurable since singing is considered HIGH RISK? What will insurance companies require going forward? We can’t yet know what those requirements would be.
    • Singers traveling to and from other states. Regardless of when each individual state opens up, when we have singers traveling in from all over it means they’re coming from places with varying levels of regulation. One singer may be from an area with few COVID cases, another may come from an area considered a hotbed, and this will continue to evolve as the virus moves around the world.
    • Rather than a focus on returning to business as usual, choruses should be considering ways to protect their assets, sustain operations, prepare for emergencies, etc. Choruses are advised to forge relationships with local health officials to help stay abreast of the situation in their area.

    Takeaways (for me):

    • Be transparent with your people and communicate often, have excellent communication protocol in place
    • Be nimble; don’t make any big commitments we can’t keep
    • This is a marathon, not a sprint
    • Be prepared for some singers to “go silent” until this is over, stop communicating with us
    • Encourage emotional connection in other ways (digital, etc.)

    Where do we go from here?

    Yes, there is much still to address. As a Society, we’ll keep finding ways to help you enjoy barbershopping, no matter forms it takes. (See our roundup of activities, resources and classes.)

    The very best any of us can do is to stay connected to the most important parts of our barbershop lives: our friends and fellow singers. We are a musical form founded in collaboration and mutual support. That shared trust, whether in person or in a Zoom meeting, helps us hold up one another through the hard times. Keep singing, and keep being together.