by Robin J. Freeman

The Orthodox Church is a singing church. We express our faith through song. For weeks or months now, many of us have been unable to attend services because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We miss hearing our hymns, and singing them—praying them—together.  We yearn to enter our churches once again and lift our voices in song. But singing together may not be possible for some time—even after our churches reopen.

While research is rapidly changing what we know about COVID-19, mounting evidence strongly suggests that singing significantly increases transmission of the disease.  Scientists and medical professionals classify singing as a high-risk activity due to the manner in which singing encourages aerosol spread. This classification is not new; singing has long been known to increase the spread of airborne diseases such as tuberculosis. Singing (and even loud talking) has been shown to increase the amount of aerosol a person emits. Aerosol particles are light enough to remain suspended in the air for hours at a time, and can travel anywhere from three to twenty-seven feet from the “emitter.” When those aerosol particles carry COVID-19, they pose a serious risk for anyone unlucky enough to breathe them in. Singers are therefore considered “super-spreaders.” And exactly how far each person emits is unpredictable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, choral conductors are at particularly high risk of contracting the virus due to their customary position in front of the rest of the group.

On March 17, 2020, just less than a week after the WHO declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic, sixty-one people gathered for a choir rehearsal in Skagit County, Washington. They took all reasonable precautions, using hand sanitizer and practicing social distancing as they understood it at the time (Skagit County Public Health had just issued new social distancing guidelines on the same day as the rehearsal, but did not expect immediate widespread community knowledge of the recommendations at the time when the rehearsal took place).  Although no one knew it at the time, one of the singers was COVID-19 positive. In the days that followed, 87% of the group contracted COVID-19, and two people died. More recently we’ve learned that a chorus of 130 singers in Amsterdam performed a concert on March 8, five days before the country went on lockdown. After the concert, 102 singers fell sick with coronavirus, and four people associated with the chorus died. The conductor fell ill and was hospitalized.

It might be tempting to think that church services are safe from these dangers, particularly in relatively self-contained communities, such as monasteries. But recent headlines about outbreaks in religious communities in America and in Orthodox countries like Ukraine suggest that the high risks associated with choir rehearsals and concerts are present anywhere people gather and sing.

Recently, the choral community was rocked by a webinar co-hosted by the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) and the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) entitled, “What Science and Data Say about the Near-term Future of Singing” (view the full 2.5 hour webinar here, and an accurate written summary here). The medical experts laid out some difficult facts, concluding that there is no safe way for choirs to sing together until a vaccine is widely available or a 95% effective treatment is in place. Masks do not sufficiently contain the aerosol spread caused by singing. And because singers breathe deeply, wearing a mask increases the carbon dioxide they inhale. Nor does the customary 6-ft social distancing recommendation protect singers from the virus, due to the varying aerosol clouds emitted by singers. As such, these experts recommended that all in-person group singing activities be postposed through the fall and perhaps longer. As a result, many choral groups around the world are now suspending their rehearsals, performances, and in-person singing, either opting to postpone gathering in person until it is safe (which could be 1-2 years, in the estimation of some experts), or choosing to pivot to online formats.

All this means that as we prepare to reopen our churches, we must carefully consider the high risks associated with choral singing. For Orthodox churches, such high-risk activities also include any form of chant, the exclamations of the clergy, the reading of scripture or other texts with raised voices, and even the faithful singing along with “Lord have mercy.” This is difficult news for many of us.

When we return to church, how will we strive to protect one another? Reducing the number of clergy and singers to a bare minimum seems like an obvious starting point.  One isolated chanter replacing the choir will undoubtedly help reduce risk. Beyond this, will we embrace more silence in our services? Will we suspend congregational singing completely, as others have done? Will we utilize microphones to avoid raising our voices and amplifying the aerosol spread? Can we encourage paraliturgical activities to supplement our services, such as singing at home with our families or gathering with parishioners online?

This is a time for robust dialogue and creative thinking. We Orthodox often speak of the beauty of our churches, icons, and sacred music. But during this difficult time, let us also seek beauty in our love for one another. For “if I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).

Robin Freeman Director of Music at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary