Bidwell’s frustration is shared by the many thousands of amateur singers currently unable to rehearse and perform in community halls, schools, churches and clubs around the state.

But while singers are desperate to get back to making music and seeing friends, there are concerns that choral singing is uniquely problematic when it comes to the spread of coronavirus.

“Group singing is considered a high-risk activity due to the increased chance of spreading COVID-19,” said a spokesperson for NSW Health. “Singers inhale and exhale more air at greater air and moisture volume than when they are speaking normally. Virtual choirs are the safest option at this point in time.

“Singing groups consisting of vulnerable people are especially encouraged not to have face-to-face meetings.”

In one now notorious incident in March, several members of a 122-strong choir in Skagit County, Washington, became sick after a two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal. Fifty-three people ultimately fell ill and two died.

A joint review of that event by the US Department of Health and Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the virus “might be highly transmissible in certain settings, including group singing events”.


Recent work by a University of NSW PhD student, Prateek Bahl, underscores the potential risks. Bahl’s work focuses on visualising respiratory flows to understand how diseases are transmitted.

Using a high-powered light source, he filmed a subject singing the tonic sol-fa scale. The resulting video shows masses of tiny droplets, called aerosols, projecting from the singer’s mouth, particularly on the syllable “Fa”.

“We did not expect to see this many droplets from speaking or singing,” he said. “It was much higher than our expectations.

“Most of the droplets in the video are aerosols so they don’t settle down easily. They float and can fill an entire room if you are singing for hours.”

Stuart Davis conducts Timbre Flaws and two other community choirs. He has been devastated by the shutdown.

“Masses of my work disappeared over three days,” he said. “I had weekend workshops and day workshops and overseas workshops and they all just cancelled. My income has taken a catastrophic hit.”

However, he has managed to keep his three choirs running, staging online rehearsals via the conferencing application Zoom.

And when restrictions were relaxed recently to allow up to five visitors in homes, he began experimenting with streaming mini, socially-distanced choir rehearsals from his home.

“It’s kind of like you’re there and you’re hearing all the parts,” he said. “You’re just sitting at home but otherwise musically you’re getting the experience.”

Davis said he was “wracking his brains” to come up with a safe way of resuming mass rehearsals but so far hasn’t found an answer.

“People have said, ‘Why can’t we just meet outdoors somewhere?’ That’s conceivable but winter’s coming along and standing outdoors in the dark in the middle of winter … it doesn’t sound like a great experience to me.

“The question is whether they will open for everyone except choirs, with all the information coming out. They might end up saying, ‘Yes you can have football games and go to the pub – but you cannot sing in a choir’.”

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