Coronavirus cancels singing in church

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: singing in church.

As churches plan to bring back corporate worship in person, it won’t be quite the same, not at first. 

No more shaking hands, no hugs. No sitting too close. But at least we can still sing together, right?

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Well, maybe not. New recommendations from medical experts say choirs and soloists need to hold off at least until we have a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19. But the recommendations seem to implicate congregational singing as well.

WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett has our report.

BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: Mark Williams is the parish musician at Christ Church Anglican in Savannah, Georgia. After learning about the new recommendations, he weighed his options.

WILLIAMS: The questions for me became where and when and how we might best move forward with any kind of future singing in Christian worship.

When Christ Church Anglican reopens in mid-June, services will not include public singing. No choir. No congregational singing. Williams says those will be among the last elements restored.

WILLIAMS: The science is pretty clear what would happen if we tried to get together and sing in a room.

Donald Milton is a researcher in respiratory epidemiology at the University of Maryland. He cites multiple studies that reveal the path of particles in exhaled air. The smallest respiratory droplets travel the farthest by drifting on air currents. A 1 micron-sized particle is 100 times smaller than a strand of hair. Milton said that one can carry 1,000 coronavirus particles.

MILTON: The better trained singer you are the more you are going to use all of your air capacity, your total lung capacity. And by using that last bit of air you’re going to collapse small airways and then take a deep breath for that next measure, open up those airways, and generate fine particle aerosols that are going to hang in the air quite effectively…

Lucinda Halstead is a physician specializing in voice and swallowing disorders at the Medical University of South Carolina and president-elect of the Performing Arts Medical Association. Based on Milton’s studies, she recommends choirs not rehearse or perform until we have a cure or a vaccine. And she recommends churches skip choral or congregational singing once they return to in-person worship services. 

She says churches that insist on public singing must be willing to accept the risks. She cited incidents in Germany, South Korea, and the United States in which the coronavirus infected the majority of choir members who rehearsed and performed together.

HALSTEAD: The whole group has to agree what the risk is going to be. So, for example the Mt. Vernon choir where there were 65 singers and 45 of them tested positive or were ill with symptoms after the choir practiced. Three were hospitalized and two people died. So, that was two-thirds of the singers sustained infection and 3 percent of the choir died.

She said that risk is compounded in churches as congregations add their voices to the choir’s.

First Baptist Church Edmond, Oklahoma will resume in-person worship services May 31st with congregational singing but no choir. Fine Arts Pastor Keith Haygood says leaders did not make the decision lightly.

But asking church members to remain silent when their souls want to sing seemed impossible. Especially in light of the pastor’s recent sermons.

HAYGOOD: He’s been preaching in Exodus, and he spoke about the Song of Moses when they crossed over the Red Sea. And it even said they sang the Song of Moses, “the horse and his rider they have thrown into the sea.” And the whole point of the pastor’s message was God designed us to sing. And to praise him with our voices.

The church will have three services instead of the usual two. That will allow for social distancing and hopefully reduce the spread of particles in the air.

Both Haygood and Mark Williams are resigned to the fact that Sunday morning worship services will be different for a time.

WILLIAMS: You know, it’s been helpful for me to place this whole difficulty in the context of more eternal verities, or principles, than just COVID -19. Those eternal principles for me are that the saints are still singing around the throne of God through eternity no matter what happens here on Earth…

Halstead understands the reaction her recommendations have provoked within the choral community and among people of faith. But she says the medical advances made in only a few months offer hope that restrictions won’t last too long.

HALSTEAD: Being able to worship and express your soul and express your spirit and join with other people is so vitally important. But we don’t want to lose any of those people. That’s why I speak out of an abundance of caution and an abundance of appeal for patience because its coming we just have to be patient.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett.

(iStock) Rochester, England – July 2018 : Close up of mens choir members holding singing book while performing in a cathedral in Kent, UK

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Coronavirus cancels singing in church

  1. Gloria says:

    As a singer, I already knew about the distance particles can travel while singing (opera throws them the farthest!) So I am glad to hear that churches have the topic on their radars. Yet while I love to sing and miss congregational singing, the bible also refers to other musical forms of worship, such as playing cymbals and even clapping hands. I’d really like to see some worship leaders find a way to incorporate such options in a way that the congregation can participate. Take the Gaither’s Trees of the Field tune and clap the word parts, as a simple example. Add in some dancing – sure, most of our churches today only sit or stand – but there’s a lot of dancing in the Bible, too. Change can be good – these kinds of things don’t have to stop when the coronavirus threat is over. There are options in addition to singing!

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