Wanting to sing—Waiting to sing again!

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by Jane Best

MANITOULIN – Singing together in groups is a happy, encouraging, community-building activity which many people here on Manitoulin are anxious to resume. Whether in community choirs, church worship, Guiding and Scouting meetings, around campfires, or in school, singing is a big part of how we enjoy ourselves socially. We know it is good for our minds and our bodies. We miss it.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have learned that the drops of moisture in our breath can transmit the virus. The more forcefully we exhale, the farther our breath spreads.  Singing is like vigorous exercise- we expel a lot of air in the process.  

I want to resume singing together again. I don’t think we can right now. But until that is safe, here are things to do:

Keep listening to good music, and sing along at home. Stay hydrated. Have some healthy exercise in your life like going for walks, stretching, chair yoga when the weather closes in (there are a lot of free videos on the internet).  Take a break from screens every now and then, stretch, roll your shoulders, focus your eyes on the distance, loosen your jaw.  Read music!  There is a large amount of music online, such as choir pieces with pdfs you can open while you listen to mp3s, or with videos which scroll as you listen. You do not have to buy it to read the samples online.

At the beginning of the pandemic, musicians and church organisations banded together to share research about safe ways to make music together, yet distantly.  We have all seen choir videos and recordings which are beautifully made, for which each individual singer contributed a recording made separately at home. The tracks were then edited together in a time-consuming and laborious effort creating the finished work, very lovely sounds we can enjoy repeatedly.  I am grateful for the technology which made this possible.  I have participated in a Zoom choir from Houston which created these types of recordings for people to use in their online church services, and to hear at home and be encouraged. I also ran Zoom choir meetings last year for a small group of people from the Manitoulin Community Choir who wanted to keep singing but not record. 

 Distanced group singing over Zoom or other internet technologies is chaotic because we all have slightly different speeds of transmission and reception.  The result is that one person can sing with the microphone on, and the whole rest of the group should participate with their mics muted. Although they can hear the one singer, the group does not hear each other.  When we rehearse this way, we keep ourselves singing while ensuring that we do not lose skills completely. We can enjoy a portion of the music-making we like, but we are not together, we cannot lean on one others’ voices, nor hide our own voice in the wall of sound, nor do we feel like we are part of a greater whole.  It’s not nothing, but it is not the group singing we love.  

I long to begin singing in person again. There are groups in southern Ontario and other places which have begin to sing together again.  Some rehearse outdoors, or in large indoor parking lots cleared for the occasion, masked and 6 feet apart. Some have enough space in large auditoriums to do this inside, but this depends heavily on modernised air exchanges.   We don’t have huge recent buildings here with modern HEPA- filtered air, and I don’t even know how to find out about the “air exchanges” in older buildings with oil furnaces and windows that open…

Professionals who most certainly want to resume singing again have done research and published recommendations. I have included a few online resources below, for those who wish to read them.  Summed up, I have taken the following things to heart as a person who wants to keep my community safe:

It is possible for students who move from class to class in cohorts to sing together in a well ventilated room, softly, masked, 6 feet apart, for half an hour, and then the room must be cleared and air exchanges must happen before more people enter.  This requires modern ventilation and HEPA filters or instead, singing outdoors while masked.  Schools do screenings and know how to contact everyone.

It is possible for a group of people to gather indoors  for worship with a masked soloist doing the singing, gathered for a half hour or less, with no group verbal responses and no group singing, hugging, shaking hands, etc.   Since numbers would be based on the size of the room, reservations might be required.  Screenings and hand sanitizer would definitely be required.  Masks need to be worn correctly, please.  Clean the microphone before sharing. Clean everything that is touched, from doorknobs to seats to washrooms.  No paper handouts or books.  It would be best for the group if everybody eligible has been fully vaccinated.  

This makes sense in a group of people whose gospel intention is to love one another and to lay down their lives for each other, and to love their neighbour as themselves. This would not work in a group striving for individual exemptions for other than health reasons. Also, since church congregations or community choirs do not move in cohorts, folks would need to remain 6 feet apart at all times, even when going through hallways or doorways.   An additional complication is that we cannot insist on screening, testing, and vaccination protocols in order to safeguard our participants. Doors, washrooms, stair railings, and chairs would all have to be wiped down and no books or music handed out. Chatting in clusters or going out into the hallways together could not happen.  Car pooling is not recommended.

I believe that it is not currently possible for our community choir to gather together safely for singing indoors.   Even if we could require that only vaccinated people attend, and even if we sang softly for only half an hour, our rehearsals have taken place at the public school for many years.  Public use of schools is on hold right now because of the pandemic- for obvious reasons.  The community hall in Gore Bay has a sign on the door saying “max capacity 15 people”.  The lovely old church buildings in town have unknown air exchanges.  Below are links to some very clear documents.

Resuming Care Filled Worship and Sacramental Life During a Pandemic (an Ecumenical guide). Page 13 has some protocols, but the whole document is filled with caring thought.

Congregationalsong.org provided by the Hymn Society’s Center for Congregational Song.

At  the website www.omea.on.ca sesarch for Safe-Singing-and-Playing-in-Ontario-Music-Programs_S2-1.pdf. 

The Ontario Music Educators Association’s Congregationalsong.org/resuming-worship-a-guide/drive.google.com/file/d/1DhfgclYRUomeWApWtRGPr_tZJ4pe5ew6/view.

Bottom line, I want to sing with people again. I want to sing choir music. I want to sing church music. I want to sing with children.   But until then, I want to do my best to help my community stay safe.  Let’s all mask, follow the vaccination guidelines, and keep our hearts full of song.

Jane Best is the founding director of the Manitoulin Community Choir and a retired educator. She is the author of hymns published in the United Church of Canada hymnary, ‘More Voices.’ Ms. Best lives in Gore Bay.