Greetings from The Man At The Front

Hello everyone. I hope you are well and starting to spread your wings a little in a responsible fashion, whether at 2m or 1m with mitigation. Isn’t it so good to even be thinking about meeting family and friends and I hope you enjoy getting out, or staying in if that’s preferable! Some rum things happening around the place which are disappointing and rather worrying, shaking one’s faith in human behaviour, but we’ll not dwell. I promise in today’s blog, to avoid all political references and any temptation to make pointed remarks about leadership qualities (offer limited to one week only!). Heartening to see our ‘High Streets’ opening gradually, despite some contrary advice, but I deeply regret that Nail Bars are not included. How am I to lecture a devoted crowd on a point of music theory or the merits of pencil ownership?  Good luck getting a hair appointment, if that matters to you. I have not been near a pair of scissors since before our Christmas concert, which will probably matter to everyone except me! Owing to the sheer amount of material to share this time, the music clips are limited. There are a couple at the end, but the next blog can feature more music and less chat perhaps.

So, to business: I am delighted to be in a position to update you on progress and developments towards CNCS being able to get together again – hurrah! Like the regular (and now much lamented) daily government briefings I will of course over promise and under deliver, just to comfort you with a false sense of security (oops, hint of sarcasm, apologies).

In the blog of 12 June I included my letter to Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, drawing the department’s attention to the needs of amateur music groups and encouraging the DCMS to consider when we can function again. His department responded this week:

Dear Mr Hunt,                                                                                 June 23

Thank you for your correspondence of 11th June to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, regarding your concerns over local choirs during the current pandemic. I am responding as a member of the Ministerial Support Team. This has been an unprecedented time for the arts and culture sector, and the department is fully aware of the difficulties many singing groups are currently facing. The government recognises the huge contribution the cultural sector makes, not only to the economy and international reputation of the United Kingdom, but also to the wellbeing and enrichment of its people. Local choirs are vital to the lives of so many people across the UK, providing a creative outlet and strong sense of community for choir members and excellent entertainment for those that attend their performances. The government published its COVID-19 recovery strategy on 11 May, which can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-plan-to-rebuild-the-uk-governmentscovid-19-recovery-strategy.

I appreciate the difficulty the pandemic is creating for community arts groups, particularly for singing groups. For now, practicing (sic – ed.) in a virtual setting is the best option for choirs. The current published guidance suggests that activities such as group singing should not restart yet, and this position will not be revised until a future review of restrictions indicates that it is safe to do so. The guidance can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/furtherbusinesses-and-premises-to-close/further-businesses-and-premises-to-close-guidance.

The department’s priority is to work with the arts and cultural sectors to address the challenges of reopening, as and when it will be possible to do so. From the information we have been receiving from various organisations and professionals, we know that the picture is nuanced across the country, with different organisations facing different challenges when it comes to the question of reopening. The government recently announced that representatives from the arts, cultural and sporting worlds will be joining a new taskforce aimed at helping to get the country’s recreation and leisure sector up and running again. The Entertainment and Events working group, which is one of the eight working groups that will support the government’s Recreation and Leisure Taskforce will include Arts Council England and other organisations from the arts and culture sector. Community arts will be one of many issues discussed. Alongside this working group, the department has had ongoing engagement with a number of organisations and individuals who represent the hugely diverse nature of the cultural sector, including representatives of voluntary and community arts. This is of course a fast changing area of work, and so we would advise that the best way for you to keep up to date with the situation would be to subscribe to our weekly bulletin capturing recent government announcements associated with the arts and cultural sectors and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Please sign up by emailing the following email address: arts-and-libraries-covid19@culture.gov.uk.

Yours sincerely, Ministerial Support Team Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

This is the kind of reply I expected and is as encouraging as it’s possible for them to be right now, but they do need to consider more carefully the evidence relating to singing and possible viral contamination, and be flexible in their interpretation. The advice to practise (see sic) virtually is limited but there are online opportunities to keep singing going this way. This hasn’t floated our boat so far, but it’s an option. I have signed up to their weekly bulletin to keep us informed.

Since I wrote, there have been more letters to the DCMS – from John Rutter et al and two significant interventions under the banner Singing Network UK which represents 27 organisations involved with singing in choirs. This network connects with pretty much every singing group in the UK and has the authority and clout to represent us very strongly. They make the case well and this higher profile is going to help the process:

Making Music (to whom we re affiliated)

https://naturalvoice.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/letter-from-Making-Music-to-Oliver-Dowden-MP.pdf

Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD)

https://www.abcd.org.uk/news/2020/06/Voicing_our_support_of_the_performing_arts

The ABCD submission includes an excellent research paper by Martin Ashley (Editor in chief of ABCD Choral Directions Research) called Where have all the singers gone and when will they return?  It wasprepared during the Covid-19 lockdown and contains extensive references to recent publications and research relating to virus transmission and infection rates etc, shedding light on the science which is influencing the strategic decisions which will produce the policies for safe return. It is very informative and well worth reading and highlights many contradictions about air-borne virus transmission. The full report is 31 pages long; I have provided links to the conclusions and an information sheet for the fainthearted!

Where have all the singers gone? – full paper

https://www.abcd.org.uk/storage/Choral_Directions_Research/Where_have_all_the_singers_gone_publication_version.pdf

Here is a single page of conclusions. I’m not a researcher but they read more like reflections and thoughts to me. Helpful all the same

https://www.abcd.org.uk/storage/Choral_leader_resources/ABCD_Where_have_all_the_singers_gone_-_conclusions.pdf

The full report has a lot to say about aerosols and droplets. It’s looking like the future of group singing is coming down to our understanding of the risk level posed by air-borne particles and how to mitigate their impact! This is a clear and useful summary.

https://www.abcd.org.uk/storage/Choral_Directions_Research/Aerosol_Information_Sheet.pdf

Still with me? To break the intensity for a moment here is a quiz question, to which you will know the answer if you have read the full research!

Q: When was the first time that (as now) choirs were silenced totally?

A: The English Civil War! Recruitment of singers was banned and there were no sung services from 1652 to 1660.

Interesting facts: Neither of the world wars silenced choirs in England. The King’s College Cambridge Nine Lessons service was broadcast despite all the stained glass and heating having been removed from the chapel. During WW1, the boys singing matins at St Paul’s were disturbed by the sound of anti-aircraft fire and a bomb landing 150yds from the cathedral. They continued singing and were commended for their ‘calmness under fire’. Plucky eh?

What are the immediate challenges for us?

Any activity contains risk. We need to assess the risks of singing together, take a considered view (‘wisdom and judgement must step in at the limit of knowledge’) and set out clear guidelines for activity and behaviour from what we’ve learnt, that enable us to function effectively, whilst minimising these risks to our health. Statement of the bleedin’ obvious, but it’s important that the route map to the new normal meets our needs and enables us to enjoy what we do. There is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. We need to be proactive, hence this analysis of the research to keep us informed, close monitoring of the campaign, and  beginning to sketch out a plan. I hope the govt can be persuaded that our type of activity needs assessing separately from the professional arts (theatres etc) as the considerations are very different. If we are in a queue behind the West End it could take a while!

What does the research tell us?

There is much uncertainty about the nature of immunity from Covid-19. Breathing and speech can carry viruses, likewise singing. The action of speaking, shouting and singing are the same – mucous lining the lungs and vocal tract ‘ bursts’  and moisture particles are released and travel through the air (see aerosol info sheet above). Opinion is divided about particle size and the extent of the virus carried, but aerosol particles (the smallest) are likely to travel furthest and linger longer, particularly in enclosed spaces. Currents of air circulate in random directions, so if aerosol particles DO carry virus, and DO ‘remain active in the rehearsal room for at least an hour’ then a closely spaced choir is at risk of infection.  The louder you sing and the more you project then ‘singing would appear to be at least as harmful in this respect as loud speech or shouting, possibly more so.’

Some research and reports have declared singing to be safe, but this evidence is less robust (sample size), and ‘most authors with relevant knowledge, but whose work has not been peer-reviewed, have declared singing to be unsafe’. One paper stressed the significance of asymptomatic transmission and that the danger posed by this meant ‘there are at present no conditions under which choirs could safely resume rehearsal.’

Masks? Where do we stand?

There is insufficient evidence to make a recommendation on the use of masks to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory virus. One review revealed evidence that ‘the retention properties of masks used during deep breathing in vigorous exercise can lead to infections that would not happen without the masks’. Masks might also contribute to difficulty in breathing, particularly for older people. Experts are divided on this but the consensus seems to be that any protection could make a contribution to limiting infection spread, so: ‘Recently, due to the lack of clear evidence….the use of masks has been promoted due to applying the ‘precautionary principle’’ . The jury is out on this, but if masks are to be used, they must be proper surgical ones and not ‘homemade fashion statements’! Wearing masks in rehearsal would be challenging for singers and would compromise the results, but if we consider it worthwhile/essential we could manage this with the way we rehearse (e.g. not always singing the words)

The certainty of Social distancing (which I prefer to call ‘physical distancing’ as socially we are all still very close – but there you are!) seem unequivocal and was set at 2 metres for the UK which is regarded as a minimum by many researchers. Two reports conclude that ‘any environment that is enclosed, with poor circulation and high density of people spells trouble’ and that ‘social distance guidelines don’t hold in indoor spaces’. There is support for the view that contagion can be mitigated when singing indoors by keeping the air as fresh as possible (open windows/doors) and limiting numbers so that spacing can be adequate with no singers facing each other.

The European Choral Association (ECA) represents choirs in Europe (and beyond) and has been studying and surveying the effect of the pandemic on choirs and singing. I have only dipped into their report but found much useful information about what European countries (+ others) are doing, consideration of the issues and some fun musical clips. Worth looking at sections 2.1.3, 2.1.4 and 2.1.5 if nothing else. Two German women model a very practical face mask (see last item at 2.1.5)!

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QHhJbirrbPWQ6CFxbj-uy_3QwjNvXlPptchFvVoLlHg/edit#heading=h.tfh434q70g2s

Where to next?

We need a route map ready for our journey out of lockdown once approval is given. We know the likely challenges, so armed with information presented here and available widely, it’s possible to lay the foundations for a swift start.

The following are my suggestions for our planning. The committee is responsible for final decisions.

Large venue – e.g. School hall, Town Hall, Church or other. It is unlikely that at start-up all +/- 80 singers could meet so we could consider splitting the choir in half (2 lots of SATB) and meet on two nights each week.  Crucial to the venue is plenty of space and ventilation. Sadly the music room is too small to allow for the appropriate distancing

Hygiene – If required, a small squad of volunteers could wipe down surfaces such as hand rails, door handles etc and check loos prior to use. Hand sanitizer on entry. Venues with two entrances (e.g. school hall and TH) could have separate in & out.  

Spacing – Each singer would have a 2m square, with chair; no physical contact allowed

Masks in rehearsal – Preferably not (because of the effect on singing quality and audibility), but it would be an individual choice

Activity – Until we know the likelihood of being able to perform a concert, rehearsals would consist of singing a range of varied repertoire for fun and engagement to get back into the habit of singing. Once we have our future programmes agreed we can start work as appropriate. Warm ups would be based on our usual approach without compromising the health risks, e.g. gentle movement/stretching, humming, avoiding high volume and explosive consonants. Particular attention will be given to limiting the mobility of tongues and lips (!).

Rehearsal length – Possibly 7.30 – 9.00 with short ‘comfort breaks’. If necessary we could consider some online learning aids too

Attendance – Once underway, regular attendance would be expected; anyone unwell should not attend

Future programmes – Re-establishing our meeting again is the priority. Performances/concerts present another layer of risk assessment and management, and in this regard we are more closely aligned to public venues generally and will have to wait for a steer on that. If our Christmas concert can proceed we could for example make it short and offer two or three ‘sittings’, late pm into evening. It is unlikely that the Rossini will be possible in October as rescheduled so will be considered for the spring, or later.

If you are still here – thank you for reading!

I’m sure the committee will be happy to hear your thoughts and I encourage you to keep abreast of developments. Any decisions are OURS, but in line with national expectations.

I have included links to some additional articles for those with time to spare!

This is fascinating but quite technical and a tad more yawn worthy, about aerosol emissions during human speech:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-38808-z

From Australia this is a gentle read with some interesting ideas, including a video of two tenors singing behind plastic spit shields. Absolutely NO WAY will we be going down this road……

https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2020-06-14/how-can-we-resume-choir-practice-without-spreading-coronavirus/12344812

A little light music. We have all seen many examples of online choruses which have painstakingly constructed performances from individual voices. This one captures the challenges in ‘The Birth of the virtual choir’

How can I keep from singing? This traditional song has been given a nice groove and really lifts the spirits.

I hope you are managing to sing somehow, and if you are having to ‘keep from singing’, be patient and keep the faith – it won’t be long now.

Best wishes to you all.