Richard Nickerson, a Maine choir director who works with multiple groups, outside his home in Windham on Friday. He said it was “frightening” to learn that music and medical experts don’t see a safe way for singers to rehearse as a group. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Long after churches, schools and theaters reopen, the choirs that have inhabited them are likely to remain silent.

There is no safe way for singers to rehearse as a group until there is a vaccine and a 95 percent-effective treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and it could be two years before both happen, a national panel of music and medical experts told choral directors this week. That message, delivered in a webinar on Tuesday night, sent shockwaves across the global music community.

As soon as he heard about it, Maine-based choral director Robert Russell corresponded with a colleague in Kentucky to compare notes. “We were both disconsolate. It was a sobering and staggering report that finally brings home the severity of this crisis,” said Russell, music director of ChoralArt and a retired University of Southern Maine vocal professor.

This week’s news will impact every church choir, community chorus, vocal ensemble, musical theater and opera company, he said, because proper singing requires vocalists to push the air from their lungs out into the performance space. “In singing, we teach athletic breathing. Of all the things I say to singers in rehearsals, the phrase ‘move the air’ is one that I am constantly referencing. You always want to be moving the air and always have the feeling the air is moving forward, so the phrase you are singing has forward motion,” he said.

At the micron level, the aerosolized virus could travel as far as 16 feet, a pair of experts told a national audience of musical educators on Tuesday night. Dr. Lucinda Halstead, president of the Performing Arts Medicine Association and medical director of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of South Carolina, and Dr. Donald Milton, an infectious bio-aerosol specialist at the University of Maryland, spoke on a panel hosted by the National Association of Teachers of Singing and other choral associations.

They said no amount of safe-distancing among singers will practically work and discounted the idea of singing through masks. An N95 mask would help, but singing through one could make it hard to breathe and lead to other medical complications, including decreased oxygen levels and headaches, they said.

Richard Nickerson, director of choral music at Windham High School and choir director at North Windham Union Church, called Tuesday’s news “frightening.” He said traditional school chorus rehearsals probably won’t happen at the start of the school year. Instead, he will focus on student’s individual skills, such as sight-singing and music theory. “When we get through this, we may not end up with better choirs, but better musicians,” he said.

The lack of singing at church will be especially hard, he added. “I think you will see church services come back like society, in phases and steps, and the traditional church choir will be the final element to come back into the service.”

Oratorio Chorale director Emily Isaacson believes that creative thinking could make way for opportunities to sing together again sooner. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Emily Isaacson, artistic director of the Oratorio Chorale, Maine Chamber Ensemble and Portland Bach Experience, also felt gutted after Tuesday’s webinar, but by Thursday she was thinking about how to adapt. As artistic director of the Portland Bach Experience, Isaacson has found unconventional ways to present music, including spacing performers on different levels at Bayside Bowl. She rejects the “doomsday social media” prediction that live music is dead, which followed Tuesday’s news.

She also believes the news impacts more than singing groups, including any art form where people are close together “using and expunging breath – wind and brass instruments, maybe even black-box theater.”

But it does not mean live performance has to pause for two years or until there’s a vaccine and cure, she said. “I accept their premise and concerns, but I do not accept defeat,” Isaacson said. “Let’s use this as an opportunity to really re-envision what we can do. That webinar assumed we all live in New York City and we all perform at Lincoln Center. That is not true. This is an opportunity to adapt and be creative, and not just put on another Beethoven seven because that’s what we have been doing for the last 150 years.”

In the United States, the spread of the virus has been linked to singing since March when 45 of 60 attendees at a chorale rehearsal in Mount Vernon, Washington, got sick. At least two have died. Other outbreaks have been linked to funerals, church services and other gatherings that involved singing, including karaoke bars in Japan, according to media reports.

The other challenge in returning to group singing is the lack of rapid testing for large groups and a false negative test rate of 3 to 5 percent, the researchers said. Until both a vaccine and drug treatments are available, “social distancing, including masks, gloves, and spacing, is key,” Halstead said, and social distancing on stage would make it impossible to perform.

If singing groups return to rehearsal and performance, they must accept the risk of getting sick and rely on home-screening and symptom-screening at the door, while recognizing that some people who spread the disease are asymptomatic.

Carolyn Nishon, executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, said she and her staff are monitoring the situation. “As information about COVID-19 evolves, we continue to learn more each day. We will continue to follow state, local, federal, CDC and League of American Orchestras’ guidelines as we prepare for our 2020-2021 season. Our priority is to protect our orchestra and community. Health, safety, and well-being first,” she wrote in an email.

Nicolás Dosman, director of choral studies at USM, video-conferenced with his colleagues of the American Choral Directors Association on Friday to discuss how to move forward. “We all agree that music will never die, despite the limitations placed on us due to the pandemic,” he said. “And the way that happens will be assisted by technology. Singing will happen and technology will be our friend in making that happen.”

The pandemic highlights the need for better access to high-speed internet across Maine, he added. “The state of Maine has talked about this need for a long time. Now we have to put it in high gear, not just for music but for all education,” Dosman said.

A video of the webinar has been seen 65,000 times, and 5,000 people registered to watch it live, said Allen Henderson, executive director of the association that hosted discussion. “Obviously, we knew it was going to be a long-awaited session, and our aim was to bring and hear directly from the scientists and medical professionals who deal with these diseases every day. It was an important message for our community to hear, and it was important to hear the facts directly from them,” he said.

The association will host another webinar in three weeks to present new data, additional information and to talk about a way forward. As difficult as they are, these sessions will give choir directors and teachers the information they need to communicate with parishioners, principals, parents and others associated with group singing.

Bruce Fithian, music director of the early music ensemble St. Mary Schola and also retired from USM, characterized the situation as “grim.” He’s already rescheduled a spring concert for the fall, and now assumes everything will be on hold or pushed into 2021 or beyond.

He’s grateful to be retired and to have experienced a singing career that has taken him around the globe. If he were younger, this situation might force him out of the profession. “My heart goes out more to the young folks, the voice majors, the music education majors and instrumentalists. That is what is disheartening, because it all seems so grim.”


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