The possible dangers of singing and coronavirus

May 11, 2020
Royal Choral Society at Royal Albert Hall

After weeks of coronavirus lockdown, churches in Germany are finally holding services, but in addition to wearing masks and social distancing, members of the congregation are banned from singing amid fears it spreads the coronavirus more easily. We may have heard about the possible dangers of singing following the report in the Los Angeles Times describing how 45 members of a 121 member choir in Washington State became infected after meeting to rehearse. Tragically, two members died. It isn’t the only case suspected of transmitting the virus. In Daegu, South Korea, authorities identified the outbreak of Covid-19 to the Shincheonji Church. Infectious disease specialist, Dr Leong Hoe Nam said “There may be practices within a church, like weeping or the belting of songs, that would encourage droplet transmission.”

According to an article in The Guardian,  59 out of 78 singers from the choir of the Berlin Protestant cathedral caught Covid-19. Lothar Wieler, the head of the German government’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute states,

Evidence shows that during singing, the virus drops appear to fly particularly far,”

and warned that singing is ill-advised. Indeed, leading epidemiologists go on to warn that communal singing is as dangerous as coughing for spreading the virus. The Guardian reports that draft guidelines drawn up in Germany ban both communal singing and wind instruments from services over the “amplified precipitation of potentially infectious drops.” Whilst the guidelines have been backed in principle by Protestant leaders (who point out the differences in space between vast cathedrals and small village churches), Catholic heads are opposed.

Of course, there is a lot to learn about Covid-19 and scientific research will change the way we behave and interact socially. But why is singing significant?  An article published by Vanity Fair , ‘Five Surprising Facts About the Novel Coronavirus’, references a 2019 study in Nature’s Scientific Reports. The research found that “the rate of particle emission during normal human speech is positively correlated with the loudness (amplitude) of vocalization.”  It also found that “a small fraction of individuals behaves as ‘speech super emitters,’ consistently releasing an order of magnitude more particles than their peers.” It also said that saying “aah” for 30 seconds releases more micron-scale particles than does 30 seconds of coughing. Virologists also believe singers could absorb many more particles due to their deeper breathing, drawing more air into their diaphragms than they would during normal breathing.

Woodwind playersWith the warnings about communal singing and the possible spread of coronavirus, singers, and surely woodwind and brass musicians, need to be aware of the potential safety issue of the forceful transmission of potentially infectious drops when playing/singing in ensembles, bands and choirs. There doesn’t appear to be much information out about this yet. Perhaps we need more research and evidence before guidelines can be issued. In the meantime, along with the standard Public Health England recommendations about covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze etc., Stephen Wick, an MIA (Music Industries Association) director, has put together some useful hygiene guidance specific to brass instruments here, (but the advice applies across the board). Hygiene and other practical advice for musicians about coronavirus can be found at MusicRadar.




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