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Choirs In The Coronavirus Era Look To Science To Find Ways To Perform

A choral group wearing black and white performs outdoors.
Courtesy Larimer Chorale
This fall, members of the Larimer Chorale performed their first in-person concert since the pandemic began.

When introducing himself, Lee Cord likes to make a little choir joke.

“Lee Cord. C-o-r-d. There’s no ‘h’ in Cord,” he said. “Sorry, I lost it somewhere.”

A member of the Larimer Chorale for 16 years, much of Cord’s life — including his sense of humor — revolves around music.

“I have a genetic predisposition to singing,” he said.

Which is why Cord and other members of the choir have struggled with what to do when group singing became a potentially lethal activity due to its link to spreading COVID-19.

One of the first reported cases of a coronavirus superspreader event during the earlier days of the pandemic was a choir rehearsal in Washington state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since deemed group singing in an indoor setting to be one of the most dangerous things people can do right now.

“There are really strong relationships between singers and you just form a bond when you sing together,” Cord said. “I’m sure people have studied that.”

In fact, there are studies saying exactly that. At the University of Colorado - Boulder and Colorado State University, studies are also underway to find safer ways of getting people back to singing and performing together.

This summer, CSU researchers began looking specifically at bioaerosol emissions from performers. In non-technical terms — how can singers, musicians, actors and dancers keep from spreading the virus to other performers and their audience?

“These particles can travel very far in the indoor environment and they can come out in the thousands over time, and so we know that those emissions vary a lot from one person to the next,” said John Volckens, a professor of mechanical engineering at CSU and director of the Center for Energy Development and Health. Volckens is one of the leaders of the study.

Participants enter what looks like a large, walk-in refrigerator, he said. This unique “clean room” is actually a human exposure facility. There they perform with and without masks so that researchers can measure aerosol emissions, as well as exposures, with varying factors.

A man seated behind scientific equipment plays a trombone inside a chamber with windows.
Colorado State University
A trombone player performs in CSU's human exposure facility. The unique chamber allows researchers to study the amount of aerosol emissions emitted during various performing arts activities, including singing and playing musical instruments.

Speaking and singing are two big culprits when it comes to spreading aerosol emissions, partly because those are done for long durations. For actors and singers trying to project on stage, that amount can go up because of the need to increase their volume. Most performing arts groups, including choirs, have moved to doing virtual shows or gone on hiatus while they wait for a safer time.

“We cannot eliminate the risk of exposure right now in the indoor environment, but if we dramatically reduce the risk — just like how a mask reduces your risk by 80 or 90 percent — that may be enough,” Volckens said.

The study slowed down due to threats of contamination by smoke from recent wildfires. Volckens says they hope to have sharable results by December.

Colorado State University
CSU is wrapping up a study on bioaerosol emissions in regards to the performing arts. Researchers say they hope to have shareable results by December.

But studies like CSU’s are already giving the Larimer Chorale something to go on. Enough that this fall — after months of rehearsing virtually — 60 members felt safe enough to gather together and sing for a live audience.

Wearing a singer-style mask that forms a box in front of his mouth, Lee Cord was definitely ready for his solo.

“I find that those flatter masks — I tend to inhale them when I breathe,” Cord said. “And this mask is from a company that supplies music folders and I thought I’d give it a shot. It looks rather odd but that’s OK.”

The group performed in the outdoor screening area of Fort Collins movie theater The Lyric. And while that meant occasional traffic noise — including honking horns and ambulance sirens — to the members of the Larimer Chorale, there was no sweeter sound.

“It’s more than a hobby, it’s a community,” said Heather Smith, the group’s executive director. “It’s a way for them to connect with other people, and what this pandemic and COVID really drove home was that we desperately need our communities.”

To ensure that all 125 members feel safe, Smith said they offered several options. Singers could take the year off, participate in Facebook Live rehearsals from home, or sing with the group in person.

“But with a bunch of different guidelines that we are following — socially distanced, wearing masks, and we were outside for all of those rehearsals,” she said.

Kathleen Vesta has sung with the chorale for five years. She said she clearly remembers the apprehension she felt when the pandemic first hit and their concert was cancelled just days beforehand. But Vesta said once the chorale found good, science-based ways to perform as safely as possible, she was never apprehensive about singing with the group in-person.

“Because we take good precautions — singing into the mask is the biggest thing. And, I’ve got my mask, I’ve got hand sanitizer on standby if I need it. We’re all being temped (and) everyone’s below 98 today,” Vesta said. “We’re not going to be a superspreader event.”

"I’m just really excited that we have found a way to sing together and to do it safely."
Jean Thompson, Larimer Chorale assistant director

Assistant director Jean Thompson was decked out in a mask and face shield as she checked performers’ temperatures before the concert. Since March, the chorale has mostly had virtual rehearsals but Thompson says this concert is special.

“You know, as I look at them on the risers, I’m just really excited that we have found a way to sing together and to do it safely,” she said. “It’s just so important and heartwarming and we have some really good songs that kind of address how we’ve all been feeling.”

As the days get shorter and the weather colder, Thompson says they will look for other options. For now, concerts have moved back online, but rehearsals are in person. Still, they’re keeping an eye on the changing protocols from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“We’ve got a bit of a moving target as far as the health precautions, but we’re really on top of those things and doing our very best,” Thompson said. “ We’ve got to keep our singers safe, so when this is over we can get back and do what we do.”

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