Town Common Songs

and media
** Coronavirus Transmission **
** and Community Singing **

Not Re-Entry Yet, But Something New

Presentation to the Country Dance and Song Society, 8 July 2020

Below is an expanded script of the presentation I gave in a web conference organized by the Country Dance and Song Society, including links to scientific research and sound journalism. [In time, more recent research will be added, and a simple bibliography will be created.]

I'm Will Quale, a longtime singer in pubs, choirs, folk clubs, and camp weeks; an ethnomusicologist (University of Sheffield, UK) and research librarian (Drexel University, Philadelphia) by training; and a former public policy writer. None of those make me an expert in virus transmission, though I've learned a lot about that in relation to singing in my role as co-organizer of a daily sing in my village — 113 days in a row (as of 8 July; we started on 18 March) — a singing community which did not exist prior to COVID-19, and one which has worked together to discuss, develop, implement, and re-evaluate best practices informed by evolving scientific understanding and by our changing local environment.

I've learned a lot about being a song organizer in a very short time, too — I wouldn't say it's the direct equivalent of running a weekly sing for two years or a monthly sing for ten, but then that doesn't usually come with building something from scratch that's largely shaped by a public health crisis — so one takeaway is, you can too.

More on us in a minute: First I'm going to hit the high points of some very recent research and news on virus transmission and singing — much of it within the past week — but it's going to be fast: you can find discussion of these articles and more, and links to them, at our website, Town Common Songs dot ORG. Then I'll tell you more about us — what we do and how we developed our practices — and offer guidelines that may help you develop a new safe sing in your local community.

The key takeaway is: don't think about this as "re-entry". Think about this as an opportunity to start something completely new that won't be what you're used to or what you expect might it to be, but that can be both fulfilling and safe if you go about it carefully. I hope to give you both cautions and inspiration, and lots of resources!

Don't try to come up with a re-entry plan for your existing song swap, pub session, choir, shape note sing, or even for your specific community of singers: your group is almost certainly too large to be safe and you probably live spread out across multiple towns or urban neighborhoods, traveling some distance to convene for several hours weekly or monthly. Not to mention, your group meets indoors in a pub, community hall, or church, and none of those indoor spaces — none — are adequately ventilated for singing: not only do you sing there, but you shuffle around, moving past each other on your way to the bar, walking through a corridor on your way to the toilets. These are all terrible and terrifying, perhaps for the next nine or twelve months.

You probably heard about the tragic March 10th rehearsal of a Seattle choir, at which 53 out of 61 attendees were infected, news of which went viral at the end of March. That super-spreader event is re-visited and put in the context of three further months of scientific study in How Exactly Do You Catch Covid-19? There Is a Growing Consensus (Wall Street Journal, June 16). In short, they did almost everything you shouldn't do and created a perfect storm.

(If you encounter problems reading any of these articles -- paywalls and the like -- please contact me at towncommonsongs AT gmail DOT com and I'll find a way to help you read them.)

Even if you think you can mitigate risk factors by limiting attendance, spacing yourselves out, and wearing masks, doing so indoors will be a problem. It is Time to Address Airborne Transmission of COVID-19 is a nine-page open letter signed by 239 scientists appearing in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases (July 6) following widespread news coverage over the weekend. Empirical evidence corroborates the science: Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases (New York Times, July 8) cites over 600 new cases traced to church services in the past month including many that "struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers."

Meanwhile, Did Floyd Protests Lead to a Virus Surge? Here's What We Know (NYT, July 1) emphasizes the difference of being outdoors (even in a large active crowd): "Epidemiologists have braced for a surge of coronavirus cases. But [despite widespread focused testing of protest participants] it has not come yet." Being outdoors and wearing masks when in close proximity are effective, demonstrated both experimentally and empirically.

Specific to singing, the Journal Of Voice (July 1) published Safer Singing During the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic: What We Know and What We Don't, a literature review and set of recommendations by a team of researchers from the Department of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School. It's current, thorough, easy to read, and well-cited for those who really want to dig into research studies: it is the best thing you can read right now. Among their top suggestions:

  • sing outdoors;
  • wear masks;
  • keep your group small and well-distanced;
  • keep sings shorter than you're used to;
  • limit extraneous activities.

And, so obvious it hardly needs saying, if you even think you might be sick with anything or might have been exposed, stay home.

There are some other singing specific resources: the National Association of Teachers of Singing's A Conversation: What Do Science and Data Say About the Near Term Future of Singing? (May 5) is worth checking out, though note that it like nearly every study focuses entirely on singing indoors particularly because it's classroom-oriented. Also, keep an eye out for a study by the University of Colorado, Boulder, on virus transmission specific to singing and theatre: preliminary results expected around July 25th. When it comes out, we'll add it to our resource page at Town Common Songs dot ORG where you can find discussion and links to everything I've mentioned and much more.

So, think about this as a "who are the people in your neighborhood" sing. You may find teachers, choir members, hospice volunteers, shape note leaders, summer camp alumni and parents, Gilbert & Sullivan enthusiasts, folks who know tons of Pete Seeger or Sweet Honey & The Rock songs, and maybe even a morris dancer. (Amazingly, my village center has all of these.)

Collectively, you'll form something new, and as a group, what you sing is what you are.

Most days we're 5-9 people; occasionally (torrential rain) just two, and on maybe a dozen days 10-12. We've probably had forty different singers show up at least once: two of us nearly every day, another five or so 3-5 days a week, many regularly but less often, and some just once or twice ever. We sing at 2pm every day, form a circle and expand to let people join as they arrive, aiming for 10-12 feet between adjacent people, 20-40 feet across the ring.

Anyone can lead a song, briefly teaching anything new. Initially I imagined we'd wind up with a few dozen songs; instead we've probably passed 400 different songs by now, and we've all got new favorites.

What we sing day-to-day varies with the number of singers who show up, the size of our circle, the amount of traffic on the road adjacent, the amount of rain: some days, we can only sing call-and-response or rousing shanties, while other days we can sing rounds and tight harmonies. Some days every song is a different genre; other days, we go on a tear through Primitive Baptist hymns or Rodgers & Hammerstein or songs of justice and freedom.

We sing for about an hour and, knowing we'll be there again tomorrow, most days that's fine. Everyone knows for certain that two of us are going to show up, which leads to enough other people coming out each day. It helps that at least a dozen of us live about a five-minute walk or cycle from the common, and almost everyone else only a five-minute drive: that's what I mean when I say "hyper-local".

If you've never organized a sing, this is your opportunity. We've got a resource for you, which starts with encouraging you to read CDSS's resource on starting a sing (you'll see the link to it there). Since that was written "in the before time", we've updated it with guidance specific to the present day for choosing your outdoor space, thinking about frequency and duration and attendance, and finding the balance between being inclusive of your community and being protective of your safety and others'.

How did we arrive at our safety practices? The key point here is that our practices continue to change: they're informed by both our current circumstances and the latest research, which lead to discussions among the group about safety and health, and how best to protect our safety while maintaining community. We talk about this between songs; we share articles over email and check in with each other by text message. I've never been in a singing community that was so pro-active and inclusive in our logistical conversations.

One example: why aren't we wearing masks?

Many factors went into what we're doing now: we are blessed with geographic good fortune SO FAR, with four cases in our entire town since mid-May and one per day across our entire county over the past 45 days; we sing in an extremely rural open-air space (aerosols disperse faster than they would in an urban open-air space); we're hyper-local, most of us work from home, and when any of us venture anywhere to do our necessary shopping and limited errands, we are all vigilant mask-wearers. On top of that, we prioritize emphasizing distance at our sings as described (and seen) above.

(Note that on this particular day, with nine singers including myself, this is a larger ring than we would have with five singers present, but even then, we try to be this well spaced around the perimeter, and the diameter of the ring is still about twenty feet.)

Would masks make things even safer? Yes. But so would not singing at all. We've looked at our risk factors, assessed risk as individuals and as a community, and collectively decided that putting a very strong emphasis on distance, while not wearing masks, is a level of risk tolerance that works well for us now.

What we found was that with masks (we've experimented with singing masked a few times in various ways), in our outdoor location and maintaining a 20-40 foot diameter circle, singing as individuals is possible, but singing together was not. We lost the ability to hear others at distances particularly over environmental noises, we lost the ability to read mouths across the circle, and with that we devolved into a group of individuals rather than a community that could sing in unison or harmony. We could sing together if we came closer together, trusting the masks to enable that, or we could move to a smaller or less well situated location (possibly quieter); but everything is a trade-off, and factoring in all of the above plus an ongoing scientific literature review, we've decided that for now, this is the balance that works best for us now.

(Finding an ideal outdoor venue is one of the greatest initial challenges you'll have. One of your top considerations is: where can we be this large, but still hear each other? For more thoughts about finding your space, visit our resources for song organizers page.)

Note the "now": this is a question we revisit, along with revisiting our other safety practices and potential risks, as new people join us, as new statistics or guidelines are released by the weekly town meeting or by the state governor, as new research studies are published as they are several times a week. As our circumstances may change at any time, as the science is growing and evolving, so our practices are dynamic and always open to questions, discussions, and changes.

Whatever safety practices you develop, this is how you should (constantly) think about them: please don't just copy what we do, but please do follow a similar practice of ongoing informed discussions of risk assessment in your community.

(And again, to be clear: when we're not singing, I think we all sport masks when we are out-and-about in any context that takes us indoors anywhere or into any non-distanced situations!)

So, I strongly recommend you don't try to get your existing pub sing, folk chorale, or regular event going again — not for a long while. Instead of re-entry, think about whether you can start something new:

  • outdoors,
  • ideally fewer than ten singers,
  • ideally extremely local,
  • inclusive, and
  • shorter but more frequent than you're used to.

Visit Town Common Songs dot ORG (congratulations! you're here! and huge thanks for reading through this) where you'll find links to all the research I mentioned and more, plus further discussion of it and more details about how we developed our practices. You can email me at towncommonsongs AT gmail DOT com. I hope in addition to science, cautions, and guidelines, you'll also find some inspirations from looking through our repertoire or from listening to us sing, and explore the possibility of becoming a safe singing organizer in your community.

Last update: 8 July 2020