Coronaclassical 17: Beyond the Costello Report

PANDEMIC COULD BE OVER WITHIN TWO YEARS!

screamed the headline from BBC News, followed immediately by,

CORONAVIRUS WILL BE WITH US FOREVER!

Cue many baffled posts on social media – couldn’t the BBC make its mind up? Presumably the posters must think that when they blow out their birthday candles, the phenomenon of fire is extinguished forever. The virus will outlive the pandemic.

Shoddy headlines and cack-handed government advice notwithstanding, sometimes you have to wonder if the ignorance is wilful. The music industry looks on with envy as sports events get back up and running. Why aren’t we allowed to go back to work too, musicians ask, conveniently overlooking the amount of time, effort and money that sports have put into adapting their ways of operating. They haven’t been “allowed” to go back to work so much as made a persuasive case about how they can do so with the minimum risk to their employees, and the smallest possible impact on wider public health.

Ten days ago, ENT surgeon Declan Costello and his colleagues published a scientific report into the aerosol concentrations produced by various types of singing, as well as by speaking and breathing. You can read the full thing here, and it’s very much worth a few minutes of your time, since it’s fascinating stuff. Many performers seized on it immediately as a green light to get back on stage. In fact it’s far from that, and as with any good scientific report, it raises at least as many questions as it answers. That’s how this works.

The results suggest that singing doesn’t produce a significantly greater amount of aerosols than speaking at a similar volume. Singing is safe! – cried those for whom it was crucial to believe that singing is safe. That’s not quite what it says, and the results demand closer inspection and further exploration, in particular for those of us whose job frequently involves being in poorly-ventilated rooms full of people singing very loudly indeed.

So it’s a start. We’ve established that there’s no need to live in specific fear of singing, so conclusions and strategies are transferable. What we need to look at is how we put what we know into practice for safe rehearsing and performing.

It would be helpful if we were more careful about distinguishing between the situation for performers (and those working alongside them) – which should be about ensuring a minimum-risk working environment – and audiences, where the question is far more about the impact on the broader spread of the virus.

For the latter, the recent study by Berlin’s Charité hospital should be seized upon by the industry, suggesting quite plausibly as it does that classical music audiences, being generally inclined towards disciplined behaviour when it comes to moving around, singing along, shouting and so on, should be safe enough if universally masked, and given a bit of thought as to possible bottlenecks during ingress and regress. Our audiences are used to being asked not to applaud between movements, or at the end of entire acts in the case of Parsifal, so they’d surely take this in their stride. In fact, ahead of the curve as always, audiences have been refraining from cheering during my curtain calls for several years now.

The possibility of a near-capacity auditorium sometime soon would be a genuine game-changer for theatres and concert halls, and gut instinct surely tells us that there’s a way of doing this relatively sensibly and safely, especially compared to a crowd at a rock concert or football match. Or indeed in a pub.

In terms of performers’ safety, we could do with seeing further detail from the WHO on the relative importance of heavier particles (where social distancing and hand-washing are crucial factors) and aerosol transmission (where masks and ventilation are the principal weapons). Assuming the former still play a role – and there’s no reason to think they don’t – we need to know, for example, whether singing and speaking at higher volumes increases the range of those particles, something which the Costello report by definition doesn’t explore. That would then inform us, for example, how far singers need to stand back from the edge of the orchestra pit when all guns are blazing. (Orchestral players don’t as a rule appreciate having to put their well-being on the line at work, and they’re absolutely right about that.)

There’s one truly shocking thing about the Costello report though: that this vital research has only just taken place, and even then we depended on the initiative and generosity of a group of medical professionals to get it done. If the honours system stood for anything, Declan and his colleagues should be nailed-on for gongs all round. But the fact that it took them to do it off their own bat is a shameful condemnation of our own industry’s collective lethargy since the crisis hit. Why was this study not commissioned by any of the hundreds of arts organisations now relying on it as a crucial piece of evidence, months ago and with a far more extensive remit?

Let’s not get stuck on the retrospective blame game for now, since the clock is ticking ever louder. Costello’s work suggests strongly that there’s no distinction between different styles of singing, nor indeed between singing and the spoken word. This means that every single branch of theatre – sung and spoken, commercial and subsidised – shares an urgent existential interest in examining this further. Most of the issues being equally crucial to all, our industry leaders need to bang their heads together, pool their resources, and get the science done. We hear from them almost daily of the billions of pounds the performing arts are worth to the economy. It would take a tiny fraction of that to commission the work needed to get us back up and running with a vengeance.

Initiative, co-operation, a small amount of investment; and huge potential dividends. If our artistic leaders didn’t know where to start or who to ask, they do now. There are no longer any valid excuses. We need fewer buts, and more Costellos.

PS The most eye-catching part of the report for me was lines 220-227, and the related data around the variations in aerosol generation between individuals. In brief, a few people emit more just from breathing than most do from singing or shouting. Given that scientists have been on the hunt for months for explanations as to how super-spreading occurs, this is surely worth looking at in far greater depth, as the report itself recommends.

PPS The flautist Kathryn Williams has very helpfully been in touch with a link to the global literature review on performance and Covid-19 she has carried out with Dr Jodie Underhill for the Incorporated Society of Musicians. It’s updated to 21st August 2020, available online here for free, and is very much worth bookmarking.

About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is Welsh and also Irish, and he used to be an opera singer back when that was a thing. He should be writing about the current state of classical music but might well digress into science, science fiction, politics, football, cricket, cheese, or driving unimpressive cars. You can contact him via comments here or at: paulcareyjones@gmail.com
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