Melanie McDonagh

Rejoice for the return of the church choir

Rejoice for the return of the church choir
(Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
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Not all coronavirus research sounds like fun, but wouldn’t you just loved to have been at the session where 25 choristers were asked to sing Happy Birthday at varying volumes to determine whether or not it would be safe for choirs to get back to business. The exercise was carried out by academics collaborating with Public Health England (while it lasted) and the Department for Culture. And you know what? It turns out that the quieter the singing, the lower the risk of transmitting droplets.

The researchers found that singing did not produce much more aerosol than speaking at a similar volume, but singing or speaking loudly increased the production of droplets by a factor of between 20 and 30 compared with lower volumes. “Just by singing a little more softly you really reduce the risk. Singing itself doesn’t carry a disproportionate risk,” said Jonathan Reid, professor of physical chemistry at the University of Bristol.

The upshot is that choirs can safely return to business in cathedrals, which have enormous spaces and room for quite a lot of social distancing (though managing to space out choristers in old fashioned choir stalls will challenge the choirmasters.) We can go back to something like normal liturgical life in cathedrals - so long as the music is quiet. We’re talking psalms and Thomas Tallis If Ye Love Me rather than Stanford’s Te Deum. And that’ll be fine by me.

The lesson here is that blanket restrictions are actually pretty stupid. If we go to the trouble of conducting research we can find out what’s risky and what isn’t, rather than scaring people off any kind of gathering.

Now the Church of England can come out of hiding and do its job, which is to hold services of prayer and worship and bring people together in a sanitised, socially distanced sort of way. The withdrawal of the churches from public life at the very time they were most needed was a scandal. Now there’s no excuse not to have nice, quiet, choral evensong – not quite as normal, but something close to it.

Except in Sheffield, mind you. There the cathedral choir is being disbanded for reasons of “diversity”. But that’s down to otiose, politically-driven stupidity. And that’s far harder to tackle than Covid.