March 22, 2020, may go down in history as the day the music died—not just in concert halls, local pubs and other entertainment venues—but also in the Church. As the government began closing down all public gatherings, including those in places of worship, we liturgical musicians suddenly found ourselves without an outlet.
In the early stages of quarantine, some of us took to doing impromptu concerts on Facebook Live or other forms of social media. Others enjoyed the break from the routine—here was a chance to sleep in on a Sunday and watch Mass in our pajamas without having to worry about what key we decided on for the Offertory song or if we really remembered the harmony part we learned just a few days ago.
But as one week spilled into another, the realization began to sink in that this wasn’t the four-week or even two-month blip in our schedules we thought it was going to be. COVID-19 is not going anywhere—not for a long time—and it’s going to be a while before an effective treatment or vaccine is available.
Meanwhile, we’ve been given the green light to open up our churches again cautiously, with lots of guidelines about social distancing, wearing masks and using bucket loads of hand sanitizer.
But it’s the guidelines regarding music that have stopped me in my tracks. The role of music is to be greatly reduced in the liturgy for safety reasons. The Diocese of Covington has stated that, for now, there can only be a single cantor. Instrumental music is allowed, but choirs may not gather and sing together. Congregational singing also creates additional risk.
The fact is, in the midst of a pandemic, especially one involving a virus as contagious as COVID-19, singing is a dangerous activity. The force that singers use to project their voices and sustain notes generates six times more aerosol particles than are emitted during normal talking. According to a study posted on the Chorus America website, singing is equal to coughing in terms of the number of particles released.
Reports of COVID-19 outbreaks among choir members in Washington State and Germany appear to back up the research.
So now what?
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As I ponder what this means for me personally, for the Contemporary Ensemble and the Mother of God parish community as a whole, my first concern is for everyone to be safe and healthy. My second instinct is to find creative ways of sharing music that won’t put anyone at risk. (We are open to ideas.) And finally, I want to let you all know that we—the Ensemble—feel blessed in our ministry and remain committed to it.
I started this story with a reference to the death of music. But, as a Christian and a Catholic, I believe in resurrection. So, I prefer to think of this time as a period of transformation—when what seems to be dead is merely hidden from our sight, evolving into a more enlightened and glorious state. These troubling times will pass, and when they do and we are able to gather again and raise our voices together in song, it will feel more precious to us than ever.
— Cindy Duesing
Director, Contemporary Ensemble