Lockdown changed the way funerals were held in the UK literally overnight. From major gathering of sometimes hundreds of people in a church, they became a distanced groups of just close family and friends, if at all. Even as the Church of England announces that churches have the choice to host funerals after Monday (15 June), they will still need to be safe and observe health guidance and social distancing.
We sang at some of the few funeral services that allowed singing soon after lockdown, which mainly involved singing outside to minimise the risk. Then the story of the Washington choir broke in mid April, when one rehearsal with a COVID-19 infected member resulted in 53 of the 61 members went down with the virus. Other choirs reported multiple infections after concerts in Amsterdam and Yorkshire.
The physics of aerosol particles
Suddenly, singing was in the spotlight as a possibly accelerated way the virus could spread through aerosol particles breathed out. However, fluid mechanics expert Professor Christian Kähler of the Military University, Munich wasn’t convinced that the singing was the primary cause of viral transmission. He investigated how strong the airflow was from singers:
“We studied singing in low and high frequencies and all sorts of things like that. We also studied different instruments. And based on the flow analysis we did of these performances we could clearly see what was going on.”
Interestingly, small bore wind instruments like a flute or oboe were very efficient at projecting air flow, but singers were not.
“We also found out that singing is quite safe. It was not the cause of the outbreaks of Covid-19 at these (choir) concerts. Air was only propelled about half a metre in front of a singer, and that is not far enough to cause the infection levels of these outbreaks.” (1)
Singing per se is not the problem
Instead Professor Kähler believes that the virus was spread by close contact between choir members before and after practice.
“Choir members probably greeted each other with hugs, and shared drinks during breaks and talked closely with each other. That social behaviour was the real cause of these outbreaks, I believe.”
Professor Adam Finn of Bristol University wants to see how gatherings without singing compare.
“Without data from comparably large groups who interacted in the same way but didn’t sing, it’s hard to be certain that the singing was responsible.”
According to the report by Skagit County Public Health, the Washington spread could also have been due to people known as super-emitters, who release more aerosol particles when they speak. (2) This means that people they talked to at close quarters would be more at risk.
The curious case of the UK coughing choirs
Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary was alerted to a group of choirs who has all suffered COVID-like symptoms – in January. One of the members has a partner who had recently returned from Wuhan. Whilst the choir rehearsals came under the spotlight as how the virus spread, the choir’s Christmas party is always held in January. According to the BBC:
“By all accounts, the members of the choir are very friendly. They socialise as well as sing, and there is plenty of hugging. Simon Rochester (choir member) describes it as ‘an ideal breeding ground’ for infection. And it’s likely they passed their virus to some outside the choir as well.” (Including the landlady of their usual pub for post rehearsal drinks.)
Why choir rehearsals and funerals are different for singers
In response to the choir infections, many countries viewed singing as a potential health hazard, without considering the many differences between a rehearsal, a performance and a funeral service.
Concerts and rehearsals last much longer than the average funeral service, with choirs in the same space for around 3 hours. Add on the social time before and after, any mid-rehearsal tea break, and possibly an afternoon rehearsal for a concert too, then the exposure period will be considerably longer.
As Brett Weymark, Artistic and Music Director for the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, says:
“Three-hour rehearsals are very long. And once you add to that 100 people in the room, and the body heat and [aerosols] staying in the atmosphere a lot longer because singers are breathing deeply and they are using the air that comes out in a much more highly energised fashion, there are obviously risks that are involved [for choirs].” (4)
In contrast, full church-based funeral services rarely lasted for more than 1 hour total in pre-COVID circumstances. Now, they are much shorter, at around 40 minutes inside. Outside, timings generally are a little more generous due to the reduced risks by being socially distanced in the open air.
2. Frequency of singing
In a choir concert, most of the singers will be actively singing for much of the programme, and the same during rehearsals. At a funeral, a choir might sing for just a few minutes total, the rest of time just sitting and breathing normally. This is also true for a solo singer.
3. How singers breathe
Much has been written about how singers breathe out, but they also breathe in and hold breath in their lungs in a different way to regular breathing. This means that should they inhale aerosol particles breathed out by a fellow singer, they will draw this further into their lungs than during regular breathing. This places choir members at more risk than those singing solo.
4. Aerosol travel
The vast majority of droplets breathed out don’t travel more than 2 metres beyond the body. Only the very finest aerosol droplets travel further, and not by much. (6) So, the major threat to singers in the choir will actually be their fellow singers, not those attending, and vice versa.
5. The social side
If the social aspect of choirs is removed, which is possible in a funeral service, the major point of transmission may be removed. University of New South Wales Professor and senior medical virologist, William Rawlinson, said
“Most of the evidence is that singing in and of itself is not dangerous. There has been a couple of outbreaks in choirs that have been well documented but it is important that most of those are either in areas where there has been a lot of transmission or where they occurred prior to the introduction of social distancing.” (5)
6. Numbers of participants
The precise number of participants at a funeral does vary between authorities and locations. We have sung as part of 10 people inside a crematorium with 2m spaced chairs, and outside with a group of 30 people in the open air, again well distanced. That is far fewer people than in the average community choir size (as per the cases cited above) or even the average church choir. Under the current Government guidance, there is no specific number as to who can attend a funeral. Beyond those involved in an official capacity (and that would include singers), funerals are generally limited to household members, family members and “a modest number of friends” (7). Equally,
“Venue managers may set maximum numbers based upon the ability of each mourners to observe social distancing guidelines.”
Minimising the risk – a solo singer for a funeral service
Now more than ever, you really don’t need to have a choir to have live singing at a funeral service. A solo singer can sing all the music you wish, from hymns and sacred solos to songs with special meaning for you and your family. A solo singer can easily distance themselves well away from those attending, even in a smaller space, and won’t be singing for more than four minutes duration for each item.
As classically trained opera singer, Toni and Kirsty can project their voices to fill almost any space, using their training and highly efficient breathing. Years of singing in spaces as small as living rooms and large as opera houses means they can adjust their voices appropriately, and without the need for microphones either inside our outside.
So you can have add the special touch of living singing at a funeral and maximise the numbers who can attend, without having to account for choir members in your numbers. This also assumes that choir members might be willing to attend a funeral service held inside or out of church, or indeed any funeral services. Many church choir members who are available during weekdays for funerals are over retirement age, and therefore in the higher risk category, and may not choose to sing as a result.
No organist required
To further minimise the risk, our soloists come with our own professional backing tracks played through our own, discreet wireless Bose system. This comes with us in our small music bag, we control it via a handheld iPad, and it doesn’t require any power supply. So only we touch our kit, there are no cables or sockets involved, and all our equipment is sanitised both before and after each service. Our wireless setup also means an organist is not required, and the system is loud enough for people to sing along with the hymns if the venue/authority allows this. (Some are not at present.)
Singers for Funerals at your service
As we move towards the “new normal”, we want to bring live singing back to funerals. So call us with your requirements, and we can discuss how to include your music choices according to your situation.