The Caged Bird Sings

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, every household in Ireland has turned to the arts for relief. We are listening to our favourite bands, reading dog-eared literature, dusting off vintage record players, painting in the kitchen, penning isolation Haikus, and hungrily scouring Netflix for the next fix.

It is art that sustains us when we seek spiritual sustenance (whether secular or religious). Art helps connect us to ourselves in times of confusion, providing a soulful outlet for philosophical questions. Indeed, these are philosophical times and often poetry reaches where our ordinary language cannot. We find meaning in the work of artists who understand our struggles and ask similar questions.

Considering the struggles of humanity in harder situations than our own, art can humble us too. Many masterpieces and works of timeless beauty were created during periods of war, slavery, and oppression. We might better understand - or appreciate - our own plight when we delve into great works of art. For instance, we can appreciate the depth of meaning and hope when American poet, Maya Angelou, wrote with such clarity and poignancy that “the caged bird sings of freedom”.

Our need for music has been evidenced by the stampede of performers sharing their music live online and for free. And we the billions who need to listen. Singing is maybe the most universal of all musical activities, and it has been particularly affected by the public health crisis we face. It is thought that Covid-19 is mostly transmitted through the air, through aerosols and droplets we spread when sneezing and coughing, but also when talking or breathing with your mouth open.

On 17 May, The Guardian reported on the link between singing and the spread of coronavirus. Professor Adam Finn of Bristol University stated that “evidence for a link with singing and spreading the virus may look compelling”. Speaking in the context of a localised outbreak of Covid-19 after a choral performance in Amsterdam (102 members of one choir fell ill), he argued that this link remains “anecdotal"

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 [for the outbreak]”

Researchers around the world have been exploring the likelihood that singing may heighten the risk of transmission. However, choirs do not necessarily pose a greater threat at present than, say, speaking loudly in a room with other people. The links are unclear and experts have yet to agree.

According to an open Google document published by Europa Cantat, the European association for choral singing, a risk is heightened during “an activity where you speak loudly, shout, sing, breathe heavily / breathe in more deeply and is considered… dangerous, especially when this happens in a closed room full of people.”

Speaking at a webinar entitled “A Conversation: What Do Science and Data Say About the Near Term Future of Singing”, organised by the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) and the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), among others, conductor Timothy Michael Powell proposed that “there is no safe way for choirs to rehearse together until there is a vaccine or 95% effective treatment in place.” This might take a number of years. He added that:

masks and spacing DO NOT protect singers from contagion.” - Timothy Michael Powell

In a recent RTÉ piece on group singing during the pandemic, Scottish conductor Kathleen Cronie made an astute point:

“Virtual choirs are exciting projects, but they're not a sustainable way of keeping singers engaged in choral singing.”

Sing Ireland, the national organisation representing singers in Ireland, made a statement on 22 May stating that “the health of singers/choristers, conductors and accompanists, and their families, must always take precedence” and recommended that “all rehearsals, events and other meetings are cancelled until at least the 10th of August and probably until the end of August.”

This means teachers should be able to resume their school choirs in September at the beginning of the school year. However, time will tell and these plans may change.

The Irish Institute of Music & Song (IIMS) has taken an active role in contributing to the national conversation on the role of musicians during the pandemic, and their podcast - a series of conversations with musicians in Ireland, the USA and Canada and the UK - now attracts weekly listeners in 23 countries across four continents.

IIMS co-founder, Dónal Kearney, explains the hardship of Irish musicians:

“Anyone who loves music is struggling right now. Festivals have been cancelled and we can’t see our favourite bands or even sing with friends and family at home. This is tough. But, for anyone who made their living as a musician at the start of 2020, this is devastating. It will be very difficult for musicians to recover from this. We want to support musicians as much as possible by providing quality resources and educational opportunities. Our new online courses are part of this.”

A brand-new online beginner course in Choral Conducting has been designed for primary and secondary school teachers, musicians and singers. It is the first of its kind to be launched at the Irish Institute of Music & Song and will be facilitated by co-founder Michael T. Dawson, award-winning conductor & music educator.

Michael worked at National University of Ireland (NUI) Maynooth. Under his leadership, the NUI Maynooth Chamber Choir won several international titles, including "Choir of the World" at the Eistedfodd in Wales. He is currently finishing up a doctorate in choral music from the University of Southern California where he also taught for 3 years as a teaching assistant. He has studied with the top choral conductors in the U.S and previously toured the world as a singer with Anúna.

Michael said: “Course participants will learn how to source suitable repertoire, teach healthy singing and use the latest technology to make their rehearsals as efficient, engaging and easy as possible. Spaces will be limited due to the interactive nature of the course so participants will be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. No previous experience is required!"

To reflect the situation of choirs across the world in 2020, this course will explore ways for conductors to overcome the challenges of social distance singing and Michael will give teachers and conductors tips and tools for running a productive rehearsal during a pandemic.

The next few years may be challenging as we adjust to a new cultural era, but there is no doubt that it is art that will sustain us in the process. Although rehearsals may be limited, the voices of Irish singers will not be silenced. They will take to the internet to express themselves and share in the beauty of music, until such time as they can sing in a room again, together, albeit with a more profound appreciation of their art.

Maybe we can find hopeful solace in the poetry of veteran English solder, Siegfried Sassoon: “the singing will never be done.”


©2019 Irish Institute of Music and Song.