By Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian | Declan Costello, an ear, nose and throat surgeon with an interest in voice disorders and a side career as a tenor, is looking back on the year. “Six months ago, if you’d said, ‘You’re not going to be doing any clinical work or singing, and your mates who are professional singers are going to be driving Tesco vans instead, and you’re going to be in an orthopaedic theatre on a Sunday morning watching flutes being played into funnels’, I would have thought you were mad.”
Early in the year, Costello also learned “some rudimentary intensive care skills” and developed and crowdfunded a novel piece of PPE to shield healthcare workers from infection during the intubation process. But that is a story for another day.
On this particular Sunday morning in July we are indeed in an operating theatre, in a London clinic, dressed in scrubs. No one’s on the operating table, though. Instead, Sue Thomas, a flautist and piccolo player with the London Philharmonic, is playing Happy Birthday into devices that are measuring the size and number of droplets and aerosol particles she generates. Around her hover similarly dressed researchers led by aerosol specialist Jonathan Reid, professor of chemistry at Bristol University. As Thomas plays, they carefully reposition the funnels and take measurements.
All of this is to discover how dangerous singing and playing woodwind and brass instruments are in the spread of Covid-19. Serious outbreaks of the virus were linked to choirs from countries including South Korea and the Netherlands this spring. Most notable was the terrible case of a choir rehearsal in Skagit County, Washington state, on 10 March. Out of 61 attending practice, 52 people fell ill. Two died.
Given these tragic events, singing, as well as woodwind and brass playing, have been regarded as “higher risk” in England and by many other administrations. And, although professional rehearsals and outdoor performances are now allowed under strictly limited circumstances in England – somewhat lagging behind other parts of Europe – the guidelines issued for the nation earlier this month specifically forbid amateurs from “singing in groups or in front of audiences”. (The governments in Scotland and Wales have not yet published their rules for resuming the performing arts.)
Yet there is no secure, peer-reviewed data on the dangers of singing itself – taken in isolation, that is, from other potential contributors to outbreaks, such as close contact, shared drinks and snacks, as well as poor ventilation. It is a question on which the livelihoods of professional musicians and the enjoyment of audiences depend, not to mention the wellbeing and emotional health of thousands of amateur singers in Britain.
The study that Costello has set up with Reid and other colleagues – funded by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and sponsored by Public Health England – aims to insert some facts into the discussion. The researchers hope to publish their findings in a matter of weeks – incredibly fast by the usual standards of peer-reviewed academic publishing.
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Aerosol, however, is made up of much smaller, invisible particles that hang about in the air until they are blown away (hence governments’ emphasis on being outdoors, or ensuring good ventilation). There is still a lack of certainty about the precise role these smaller particles play in the transmission of Covid-19, but opinion is tending towards the view that the virus could be transmitted this way.
There are high hopes that the study will result in a further unlocking of singing. Leslie East, president of the Association of British Choral Directors, says there are 40,000 choirs in Britain. For a lot of people, says East, especially the elderly, belonging to a choir is the most important thing in their life: “Choirs bind communities together.”
Singing is a lifelong practice, enjoyed by everyone from young children to those in their 90s. It’s a world in which amateur and professional cannot easily be untangled. Choruses such as the Hallé Choir in Manchester consist of amateurs who perform alongside some of the best professional orchestras in the world. Costello himself, a former choral scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, sings professionally but is also a member of a top-flight amateur choir, the Holst Singers, which in turn is directed by one of Britain’s most respected professional choral conductors, Stephen Layton.
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• This article was amended on 22 July 2020. An earlier version incorrectly stated that David Crown was a conductor of the Cheltenham Choral Society.
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