The American Choral Directors Association and Chorus America (among other organizations) hosted a webinar about the near-term future of singing in the COVID-19 world on May 5, 2020. Among those in attendance were Dr. Donald Milton, a leading researcher in infectious bioaerosols, exhaled breath analysis, and development and application of innovative methods for respiratory epidemiology, and Dr. Lucinda Halstead, an otolaryngologist and President Elect of the Performing Arts Medical Association. Both were able to give a wealth of information about how the virus can spread while singing, which you can view in the webinar. The devastating takeaway is that singing together may not be possible until a widely available and effective vaccine or treatment is available.
There are two instances of choirs meeting in March that had disastrous outcomes. A community choir (much like ours) in Skagit County Washington rehearsed on March 10 while practicing social distancing and 87% of the choir was infected, resulting in two deaths. You can read the results from the CDC article here. The second instance comes from a chorus in Amsterdam that performed Bach’s St. John Passion on March 8 resulting in 102 of the 130 singers falling ill and four people died (one chorister and three of people associated with chorus members). You can read more about this instance here. While these two instances are anecdotal and it is still too early to know exactly what happened, the outcomes are frightening.
In addition to this information above, the HCS board discussed many different scenarios and reasons for suspending our season:
- The health of our chorus members is our number one reason!
- The age of our chorus members and audience
- Inability to socially distance in our space or in concert scenarios
- Our rehearsal space may not even be available for large groups
- The ever-changing and emerging information about the virus and the unknown outcomes
- Financial implications
The financial implications were also key to our decision. While the HCS financial situation is not currently dire, we want to be financially responsible so we can survive and continue to sing for another 125 years. Our income comes from membership dues, ads and patrons, and concert ticket sales. We anticipate that all of those aspects would be low this coming year. Our strategy would be to cut nearly all expenses just to remain afloat so we can start back up when it is safe to do so.
We did consider only suspending for half of the year and trying to start in 2021; however, we came to the realization that many new challenges would come from this scenario. What would the budget look like for half a year? How would ads and patrons work in a half year? Would members feel comfortable coming back if there was not a vaccine? Would anyone be able to attend our concerts? The answers to these questions were too uncertain. We actively tried to be as decisive as possible knowing that there is much uncertainty at this time. After much discussion, the board unanimously agreed that the suspension for the entire season is the best course, long-term.
Thanks to our recent outpouring of history for our 125th anniversary season, we know that the HCS has had “breaks” in the past. One of which came about during World War I and the Spanish Flu outbreak over 100 years ago. Our resilience as an organization has weathered storms before and we are confident that we will come out of this pandemic a strong and healthy organization.
Just because we are suspending normal activities does not mean we are going dormant. Instead we are going to focus on what we CAN do, not what we CAN’T. The board will continue to meet monthly to talk about updates and plan for the future. We would like to engage the membership as much as possible to continue the community aspect that comes with singing in a choir. Possible situations include zoom hangouts with listening parties, game nights, or even a virtual choir project.
While the realization of this decision leaves us with grieving hearts, there is no doubt this is the right decision for the health of our singers and the survival of our organization. We want to be ready to hit the ground running with a financially sound foundation and healthy singers so we can continue to grow with confidence. Please let us know if you have any questions.
The Board of Directors of the Harrisburg Choral Society
and Dr. Kyle D. Zeuch, Music Director, Harrisburg Choral Society