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U of M Choir Directors Still Unsure of How to Keep Student Singers From Becoming Super Spreaders

As choral students transition back to in-person learning, faculty members in the choral department at the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music are looking to data, as it develops, for guidance on how to safely teach students to sing. 

Early in the pandemic, health officials tagged choirs as possible super-spreader events, and faculty have been vigilant in balancing choral activities with student health and safety. 

Directors from all six choral ensembles have worked to avoid shortening rehearsal times, instead emphasizing and reinforcing COVID-19 protocols.  

Mask requirements, social distancing, sanitizer stations, and heavy-duty air purifiers are standard practices for all departments, especially choir, as it requires more vocal exertion and, typically, less personal space. 

“So much of music is collaborative. It’s about being in each other’s presence, but it’s important that we’re taking all the necessary precautions,” said Dr. Francis Cathlina, the director of choral activities at the music scool. 

For instance, to protect students in vulnerable situations, the school has required that choir students keep a distance of six feet between one another and wear masks at all times.  

In previous years, Emily Frizzell, a choral music education professor and director of the tenor and bass choir, would place students in small group circles according to their section, an activity she now fears would be “inappropriate” to ask of students.  

“It’s complicated because we sing, and singing is stigmatized right now,” said Frizzell. 

In August 2020, a team of researchers for Aerosol Science and Technology found that the median number of respiratory particles emitted while singing exceeded 690. Surgical face masks used in the study reduced the emission rate to 410, similar to normal talking. Alarmingly, if SARS-CoV-2 behaves like other coronaviruses, it could take just a few hundred particles to transmit the virus.  

Frizzell also referenced several studies that have called singing a “super spreading activity.” 

One such study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March 2020 described choir practice as a “super spreading event."

In this particular study, one practice session resulted in the infection of roughly 52 of the 61 attending choir members and two deaths. The practice took place on March 10, 2020, one day before the virus achieved pandemic status. 

All attendees were unmasked due to the global naivety of the virus at that time. 

Considering the effectiveness of face masks and the introduction and administration of a vaccine, the CDC has taken a less strict stance on the dangers posed by group singing.    

Although the choral ensembles are preparing for upcoming performances, an exact protocol for concerts and performances has yet to be determined.  

Professors hear different things from different people, Frizzell said.  

“We’re all reading the research as it’s updated and talking to colleagues and friends from other places who do similar choir directing jobs,” Frizzell said. “By the time we do a concert, hopefully, we’ll have something more concrete.” 

Taylor Stumph, a senior music education major and member of the University Singers and Chamber Choir, said she is still apprehensive about being around others. 

“But I’m trying to be as safe as I can so that we can continue to do what we’re doing now,” she said. “It’s been really refreshing to come back.”

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