EAREST musicians, colleagues, and friends: In recent days, a bomb has been dropped on the choir world. I can feel the collective trauma — the inexpressible groanings of despair. Musicians are already hurting economically, spiritually, and artistically. These three areas are a struggle in normal times.
Immeasurable pain is not unwarranted. Resonance with others in voice and in shared humanity is irreplaceable. This hurt is compounded by the recent NATS/ACDA webinar (National Association of Teachers of Singing/American Choral Directors Association): A Conversation: What Do Science and Data Say About the Near Term Future of Singing. The general conclusion that currently there is no safe way for a choir to sing and rehearse together in the same room or church. Cementing the despair is a projected timeline of eighteen to twenty-four month timeline for resuming usual activities. (Keep in mind, is a guess, and there are hopeful efforts to accelerate this timeline.)
This conclusion of regarding safety was not a surprise to those who had opportunity to read this from Dr. Heather Nelson: Singing, the Church, and COVID-19: A Caution for Moving Forward in Our Current Pandemic. A vocologist and a voice teacher with a PhD in Vocal Pedagogy and Voice Science, Dr. Nelson also loves singing in church. She corroborates many of the conclusions of the NATS/ACDA. I recommend reading this.
I watched the entire NATS seminar — all two and a half plus hours of it. I found it to be presented knowledgably and earnestly with the best interest of the people at heart despite its heartbreaking conclusions.
But both of these sources emphasize the following: There is much we don’t yet know. The science has not yet been peer reviewed and as such, we must remain on the side of caution.
Both sources discuss in part the science of aerosols emitted from singers and its potential impact on the transmission of the disease. The difficulty of this is the six-feet apart rule may not be nearly enough space for singers who may be super emitters of aerosols potentially spreading far greater distances. We so not yet know the full impact of transmitting the disease through aerosols. But we must consider it seriously and act cautiously.
Since Holy Week
As such, since Holy Week, I have had only a single cantor for our televised Masses. Yes, we miss singing polyphony and chant with a schola. I miss singing hymns and songs of praise. We all do.
For this coming Sunday I have taken the step of keeping the cantor with me in the choir loft for the entire Mass including the Responsorial Psalm. This is one less person at the ambo (and it takes a pandemic to get me to keep the psalmist away from the ambo!)
I do this more to protect the lector, the deacon, and priests (and Cardinal) from the singer than protecting the singer from them. Overprotective? Perhaps. I’m not apologizing for it. As it is, we are already sanitizing the ambo and its microphone in between each reading. That doesn’t account for the air anyone is breathing at the ambo.
I also recommend you make use of your choir lofts if you can for added social distancing. I know my singers feel safer.
Sanitizing keyboards, microphones (avoid relying on microphones if possible), music stands, doorknobs, etc. is another difficult daily necessity. I prop as many doors open as possible to allow me and my cantor to move about without touching doors. Yes, we are in a place of micromanaging most every aspect of daily movement.
Germany’s recent ban of congregational singing was greeted with alarm in recent days. This decision sounds less unreasonable with current information. In the United States where a few dioceses are opening under limited parameters, congregational singing is encouraged in some places and discouraged in others. With so little data and experience to be had, extreme caution is warranted.
Hope for the Timeline?
Regarding the despair of the projected eighteen to twenty-four month timeline for resuming usual activities. One must understand that this is a guess, if perhaps a realistic expectation at this time.
However, I am an optimist in this case. The motivation worldwide to produce a vaccine or a treatment with perhaps 95% efficacy is higher than we can imagine — for reasons both altruistic and otherwise. Even in the NATS webinar, Otolaryngologist Dr. Lucinda Halstead expresses this heightened motivation by the brightest in the world.
For example, the New York Times reports human trials of a possible vaccine have begun, describing the race to find something faster than eighteen months. We Shall see. There are also hopeful efforts at Oxford University among others all around the world. The race for a vaccine and treatment is on. This should give us hope.
Keeping your sanity
Consumption of news and information can impact your mental health: Please guard your own mindset and do not get sucked into the void or endless news and updates—as I too know how easy this is to do. Especially now, when we are home more.
I am reminded of a golden piece of information I received about thirty years ago — the “keys to the kingdom” in keeping such things in perspective:
I was attending the “New Music Seminar” in Manhattan around 1990. Many songwriters were complaining about the quality of the music so often heard on the radio.
A radio executive, who was sitting on one of the panels parted to us this piece of eternal enlightenment. He said:
“I need to remind you that in radio, we are not in the music business. We are in the business of selling advertising.”
Let that sink in.
That was not news then and it is not now. When you surf the web, or social media, keep in mind that all news outlets (regardless of political leanings) are not entirely in the business of selling news—if at all. They are very much in the business of selling advertising. They need clicks to drive traffic to their website in order to attract clients to advertise on their site. (I won’t get started on webbots and the mining of your data to create algorithms designed to manipulate your engagement.) To varying extents, all news is colored by this reality.
Furthermore, keep in mind that it is an age-old newspaper practice that the author of an article (save this one) does not write the headline. The editors reserve that right and do so to attract more readers. Hence the term “click bait.”
Just keep all this in mind when consuming information. Own your mind and heart, reserve judgment, and decide for yourself in due time.
The Wounded Healer
Finally, I’m reminded of Henri Nouwen’s classic, The Wounded Healer – Ministry in Contemporary Society.
Nouwen’s book recounts a story from the Talmud, summarizing:
“The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, binding his wounds, one at a time, waiting for the moment when he will be needed. So too it is with the minister…he is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after his own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.
”Jesus has given this story a new fullness by making his own broken body the way to health, to liberation and new life. Thus like Jesus, he who proclaims liberation is called not only to care for his own wounds and the wounds of others, but also to make his wounds into a major source of his healing power.” (The Wounded Healer, pg. 84, Doubleday and Co.)
So, the general premise of Nouwen’s books is that through our wounds, through our brokenness, pain, hurt, and perhaps even human imperfection, we are capable of helping others heal.
I greatly suspect that in time, our ministry and service to each other will provide greater healing than ever. You are all called to be healers—despite and because of your wounds you suffer now.
Oremus pro invicem
Let us pray for each other