Voice Lessons in the COVID-19 Era: Is It Safe to Sing Together Again?
Updated: May 14, 2020
With slowing rates of infection in a lot of areas, the world is slowly inching back to "normal." Some schools are resuming, stores are re-opening, and even gyms and dance studios are opening their doors. But is it safe to gather to sing together?
Before I answer this question, I will say that I am not a scientist and I'll leave most of the jargon to the experts. At the bottom I've linked some comprehensive (and fascinating) articles and videos. In addition, there's just so much we don't know about the COVID-19 virus. With that said, I'll share what research I have found, what the singing community is saying, and what I've personally decided for my music studio to be the safest approach to getting back to lessons in person.
Why is singing different?
Let's get right into it. The issue at hand is that singers expel air from their lungs in much larger volumes and at higher speeds than a person just sitting at their desk or walking around the grocery store. During exhalation, the air expelled from a person's lungs contains aerosols and respiratory droplets that will transmit COVID-19 from an infected person, even if they have no symptoms.
Image produced by University of Maryland School of Public Health
Aerosols, while smaller than droplets, can still contain many virus particles that get transmitted via the air. Aerosols have been found to linger in the air for hours and can travel much farther than the recommended 6-feet social distance. This is the case even for someone in a resting state, who is just breathing or talking normally. For singers, studies show that sustained vocalization produces a higher concentration of aerosols being sent into the air than with regular speaking or breathing. Louder volumes can also increase the number of particles emitted from the respiratory tract. This translates to a potentially higher risk of spreading the infection for people really pumping out their air, like singers!
Check out this 3D simulation from the NY Times of how this aerosolization works.
So what do we do?
When we sing we need to move our jaw, mouth, and face. Wearing a mask is not super practical for voice lessons, and some would say maybe not so effective, due to the volume and speed of air projected. Given this information, many in the singing community have resigned themselves to the sobering idea that we may not be able to sing together in groups for quite some time, possibly until there is a COVID-19 vaccine.
The National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) recently hosted a webinar with a panel of scientists and voice experts to discuss the issue (I recommend watching the segment on how transmission occurs). The consensus from the experts seems to be that we need to wait longer to return to our singing gatherings.
I have personally made the decision for my studio to continue online voice lessons for the foreseeable short term and will reassess the situation for the Fall semester. I know we are all itching to return to our in-person singing lessons, not because video lessons are "less than" (I actually think they're great), but because we all are missing that human connection. I'm right there with you. Hang in there, and I hope to be singing with you in the studio soon.
In the meantime, we're still "Zooming" in for voice lessons, so please join me!