Singers Can Be Coronavirus Superspreaders, Say Experts Schools, faith and community groups as well as professional musicians are all struggling with the risks of singing. Experts present the most recent research and offer strategies to mitigate the risks.

Is Singing Together Safe In The Era Of Coronavirus? Not Really, Experts Say

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Before the pandemic, some people found community in singing together. What do they do now that scientists find that singing in a chorus poses a big risk? Here's NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Getting together to sing was everything to the Young People's Chorus of New York City.


THE YOUNG PEOPLE'S CHORUS OF NEW YORK CITY: (Singing) Give us hope, my voice is calling. Can you see? Look in my eyes.

TSIOULCAS: They haven't been able to do that in person since March, so they started chatting on Zoom. It's all they had, says the chorus' founder and artistic director Francisco J. Nunez.

FRANCISCO J NUNEZ: Community is the most important thing that we have. And just seeing each other online was something that helped the socioemotional learning of our young people.

SHELLY MILLER: Singing in a room for an extended period of time in close contact with lots of people and no ventilation, that's a recipe for disaster.

TSIOULCAS: That's Shelly Miller at the University of Colorado Boulder, who's conducting a study of singers and other musicians. Her colleague, Jose-Luis Jimenez, explains why it's so dangerous via Skype.

JOSE-LUIS JIMENEZ: There is some liquid that's lining all your respiratory system. And when the air is going very quickly, it can basically grab a little bit of that material and put it in a particle, and then you expel it out into the air.

TSIOULCAS: Jimenez says that because singers breathe in and out so forcefully, those particles shoot out into the space around them. And it gets even more gross.

JIMENEZ: You're also moving your vocal cords. Vocal cords are wet. They're covered in this fluid, and they're vibrating. And that can also produce more particles.

TSIOULCAS: Back in March, singers became concerned after a chorus in Washington state made national headlines. Sixty singers showed up to a 2 1/2 hour rehearsal. Fifty-three of them became sick. Two died.

JIMENEZ: There have been cases of super-spreading in choirs in the Netherlands, Austria, Canada, Germany, England, South Korea and Spain. And those were just the ones that we found.

TSIOULCAS: His colleague Shelly Miller's research is funded by a consortium of organizations from Opera America to associations representing high school bands and choruses, who are all trying to figure out how they can get back together safely. Miller says if you have to rehearse, do it outdoors. If you can't...

MILLER: What we're recommending is definitely 6 feet apart with masks, with good ventilation, with very short duration of 30 minutes, with breaks to air out the room.


THE YOUNG PEOPLE'S CHORUS OF NEW YORK CITY: (Singing) Oye. Are you listening? Oye...

TSIOULCAS: Young People's Chorus director Francisco J. Nunez says that as weeks of lockdown turned into months, their Zoom chats weren't enough.

NUNEZ: The longer it lasted, the more sad the children became. And the conversations were starting to get difficult, so we needed to do something. That's when the singing started to happen.

TSIOULCAS: At home - Nunez and his team started stitching together individual videos that the kids sent in of themselves. There are about 2,000 singers across the city, and their first virtual project celebrated the essential workers across New York.

NUNEZ: So many of our parents were essential workers. And our children were so afraid that when they left home, they would not come back.


THE YOUNG PEOPLE'S CHORUS OF NEW YORK CITY: (Singing) When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high.

TSIOULCAS: Nunez says he's tried to embrace the possibilities of online collaboration.

NUNEZ: Look. Classical music is undergoing a transition. Children's education is going to go in a transition. I think it's a wake-up call for us to see how else can we reach children that I could not reach before.

TSIOULCAS: The group's final concert of the season debuted on YouTube last month - its title, "Forward Together."

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

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