At BYU, 320 Students in Six Choirs Kept Singing Through the Pandemic. How Did They Do It?
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
By Zach Finkelstein
Professional singers in America spent the last year, by and large, underemployed and at home, counting the days until theatres reopen.
The American choral community reached a consensus early in the pandemic, quickened by a devastating outbreak in Skagit Valley, Washington. Without a widely distributed vaccine, many considered live group singing a “super-spreader event,” a public health hazard, and an insurmountable challenge. As a result, most professional choral ensembles and leading choral presenters like the Oregon Bach Festival at the University of Oregon moved entirely online until at least Summer 2022.
Yet in the Fall of 2020, 1-in-4 (27%) American colleges and universities opened in-person to students, faculty, and staff. The decision to bring students back to campus provided some music schools an opportunity. With students already there, with strict health and safety regulations instituted in partnership with government health authorities, with approval from the powers-that-be, and the financial means to reduce student risk, some music programs used their resources and expertise to explore live group singing.
Brigham Young University (BYU) figured out how to make it work in a big way.
The Choral Conducting and Ensembles Division, under the direction of Drs. Andrew Crane and Brent Wells, with the blessing of School of Music Director Dr. Diane Reich, did their homework and concluded that live rehearsals, with the proper safeguards, could be conducted with acceptable risk.
The choral division enrolled roughly 320 singers into six separate choirs and found a way to rehearse these choirs safely.
Out of 42,000 people in the “campus community,” Brigham Young University currently has only 74 confirmed active COVID-19 cases (0.18%), and, out of 19,161 entry tests in January 2021, averaged less than a 1% (0.71%) positivity rate. (For a frame of reference, our Seattle neighborhood shows a positivity rate six times higher than the BYU campus.)
According to Drs. Crane, Wells, and Reich, no known cases of COVID-19 have been traced back to exposure in the music ensembles.
How did this happen? How is it even possible?
Through interviews with the choral faculty, the administration, and music students, Middleclass Artist will show how BYU managed six large choirs in the pandemic; how the School of Music showed an extraordinary level of due diligence and care regarding the health and safety of its students; and how BYU provided a “lifeline to students” in their hour of need and a roadmap for professional ensembles to get back to work safely.
Spring 2020: “A Momentary Blip”
Andy Crane is considered by his peers as one of the leading university choir conductors in the United States. In an average year, as coordinator of the Choral Conducting & Ensembles division at BYU, he oversees more than 600 student singers: the BYU Singers, Concert Choir, Men’s Chorus, Women’s Chorus, and the non-audition University Chorale.
In February 2020, the BYU School of Music closed out another banner year with two sold-out Carmina Burana performances, followed by a choral and orchestra showcase in Salt Lake City on March 5 at the Western Division of the ACDA (American Choral Directors Association). Crane remembers, at the conference, “people were starting to talk about the pandemic.” An ACDA rep told him, “we’re not even sure if the other regional conferences are going to happen.”
Shortly after, BYU shut down in-person classes through the summer, “encouraging students to leave campus and return home to finish the winter semester through remote coursework.” The announcement effectively canceled the remainder of the BYU choral season.
The student president of the Men’s Chorus, junior Jared Ashby, describes feeling at the last rehearsal, “like one of those rollercoasters where you’re attached to a crane, and it goes out, and then all of a sudden the floor drops out beneath you. We had so much anticipation, so much excitement for that final concert, and all of a sudden, we had our last rehearsal.”
Senior Daniel Clegg found the “out-of-the-blue” news “especially disappointing.” His professor, Rosalind Hall, planned to retire at the end of the 2020 school year, after 21 years as a director of the BYU Men’s Chorus and the Concert Choir. Her grand finale would be two final concerts, one at a Salt Lake City cathedral and the other at the Tabernacle in Temple Square. The school canceled them. As a member of both ensembles, Daniel felt “that opportunity to sing with her one last time was ripped out from underneath us.”
Lindsay Bastian, a Master’s student in piano performance and an avid choral singer, took the sudden announcement hard:
“It was rough. Choir at BYU has been my family. I just fell in love with singing as an undergrad [at BYU] and have continued ever since. As opposed to being a piano major, where I’m by myself in a practice room all day, choir is that place where I get to make music with other people and have that community that I don’t get otherwise. It’s one of my favorite things to do and my favorite place to be, so to lose that in a matter of hours was really difficult. I remember thinking, well, maybe this will just be done in a few weeks, and we can go back to school. But here we are, and it’s been a year.”
Chorister Bekah Johnson considers the Women’s Chorus, led by Dr. Sonja Poulter, “a place of home and a place of safety for us. For that to be taken away, was really hard.”
Dr. Crane organized a “goodbye meal” with his students and finished a choral recording session the last day before BYU “kicked them out.” He remembers it as a painful and strange way to end the year, but he figured they’d all be back to normal in the Fall- a “momentary blip.”
"Doomsday" and the Colorado Studies
During what Crane calls the “period of uncertainty,” he strategized on what to do for the Fall. Crane talked every day with new choral conductor hire Dr. Brent Wells, texting back and forth about their findings, asking, “what are the dangers, what’s new, what is the recent thinking on COVID?”
At the time, all the conductors heard stateside was, “choral singing is over.” Both Drs. Crane and Wells referenced the Washington state outbreak that left “three-quarters of the choir testing positive for COVID-19 or showing symptoms”, as well as a “doomsday” May 5 panel hosted by the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), ACDA, Chorus America, and the Barbershop Harmony Society that concluded, "based on what we know now", “there is no safe way for singers to rehearse together until a COVID-19 vaccine and a 95% effective treatment are in place.”
Everything Crane and Wells read suggested they could not have large choirs on stage, a hallmark of BYU’s popular program. But they refused to accept the “worst-case scenario,” asking, “Is anyone making it work? What is possible and still safe?”
The choral conductors consulted an extensive shared Google document from European choirs, what they called “The Hub,” which provided details on how European ensembles were rehearsing, including social distancing measures, hall size, and mask use. They investigated downsizing their 180-person choirs to as few as 12 singers, as well as social distancing options ranging between six and 12 feet. They tested every singer’s mask prototype on the market for their choirs, settling on the impressive Resonance mask.
For the latest science on singing in the US, Crane and Wells reviewed cutting-edge research from Colorado on the performing arts. The first, an interdisciplinary study out of Colorado State University, focused on the effects of COVID-19 on the performing arts: ‘Reducing Bioaerosol Emissions and Exposures in the Performing Arts: A Scientific Roadmap for a Safer Return from COVID-19.’ Led by professor of mechanical engineering Dr. John Volckens and Dr. Dan Goble, the CSU’s director of the School of Music, Theater, and Dance, it focused primarily on back-to-work logistics for performers, answering questions like “how far apart should the trumpet section be from the trombone section?” and “how many singers can rehearse together or perform on a school stage?”.
The preliminary results from the study, conducted over the summer of 2020, tested 28 singers, actors, and dancers as well as 72 instrumentalists and showed evidence that the use of masks while singing “reduced vocal emissions of aerosols by 90% or more...with variability from person to person.”
According to the study, different conditions, such as the length of rehearsal time and the room’s ventilation level, could significantly impact the risk of spreading infectious respiratory aerosols. For example, in the case of the Washington state “super-spreader” rehearsal that left most choir members testing positive or showing COVID symptoms,
“The researchers found that shortening the rehearsal time in the Skagit Valley event from 2.5 hours to 30 minutes would have dropped the rate of infection from 87% to 12%. Wearing masks, improving ventilation, using portable air cleaners, and rehearsing for half of the duration combined could have dropped the number of people infected down from 52 to only 5.”
A second 'Performing Arts Aerosol Study', led by Dr. Shelly Miller at the University of Colorado Boulder and Dr. Jelena Srebric of the University of Maryland, also showed promising initial results for mask efficacy and solo singing:
To apply those findings, Drs. Crane and Wells relied on the ‘Aerosol Transmission Estimator’, a tool created by University of Colorado-Boulder chemistry professor and CIRES fellow Dr. Jose L. Jiminez. Based on the latest peer-reviewed COVID-19 research, it showed that, by entering environmental parameters, such as the dimensions of the room and air turnover, and the parameters related to people and activity, including the number of people present and the percentage of people with masks, one could reasonably estimate the risks of live singing.
Like any model built on assumptions and simplification of a complex problem, the tool had its limitations. The model “did not include droplet or contact/fomite transmission,” it assumed at least six feet of social distancing is respected”, and it focused “only on the propagation of COVID-19 by aerosol transmission.” The research also relied on estimated numbers, such as “how many infectious viruses are emitted by an infected person.”
Dr. Jiminez qualifies the work as follows: “we trust the order of magnitude of the results and especially the relative strengths of different actions, such as increasing ventilation and wearing masks, but not the precise infection probabilities. Different actions have very different costs, so the hope is that the tool can help allocate limited resources to reduce the risk of infection most effectively.” He also notes in a disclaimer, “The exact numerical results for a given case have more uncertainty. For example, if you obtain a 1% chance of infection, in reality, it could be 0.2% or 5%. But it won’t be 0.001% or 100%.”
Despite those limitations, the model proved an extraordinarily effective tool to estimate relative risk and the magnitude of that risk given the adoption of crucial safety measures, like wearing masks. With the Colorado research in-hand and the means to estimate the effects of aerosol transmission, Crane and Wells felt they could propose a reasonable risk assessment of conducting live choral rehearsals.
The BYU School of Music proposal showed two numbers: a “typical” rehearsal, 45-minutes in length with their recommended safety measures, assuming one infected person in the room; as well as a “doomsday” scenario, with an “asymptomatic super spreader” present, no HEPA filters, and an 80-minute rehearsal.
The model estimated their “typical rehearsal” as having a 0.29% infection rate for BYU students. The “doomsday” scenario estimated a 3.95% infection rate.
Crane and Wells felt that, under the conditions recommended in the Colorado studies, in-person rehearsal of young singers at BYU would be possible and an acceptable risk.
A Greenlight for Live Singing
Dr. Diane Reich became Director of the BYU School of Music on July 1, 2020, and made student and faculty health and safety her top priority. In a video message to the School of Music, she said with regard to setting protocols, “you don’t want to see how close to the edge you can be. You want to be as far away from the edge as possible.” Reich also followed the research on singing and COVID-19 closely as a voice teacher, “watching all the webinars and reading all the articles. It was challenging to filter through and figure out what we could really do.” Reich felt, “there’s got to be a way we can sing again, although it might look different.”
Over the summer, the School of Music received the “green light” from BYU to return to on-campus learning. According to Crane, BYU’s official stance was that “everyone had to wear a mask with six feet of social distance.” BYU also made mandatory daily symptom checks through an app called ‘Healthy Together’ in partnership with the Utah County Health Department.
Beyond those campus-wide restrictions, BYU gave the School of Music leeway to make their own decisions on in-person learning. According to Dr. Reich, “we had general guidelines from the university, but not specifics for music because they really wanted to allow the departments and schools to figure out what was best for them and their discipline.”
Reich worked closely with ensemble directors in weekly meetings to set additional safety policies for the School of Music on topics ranging from foot traffic to practice rooms. For example, they settled on a “middle ground” for handling practice rooms: each student could practice for a four-hour, then a masked student would clean the room and leave the door open for an hour. That allowed for three practice blocks a day per room. While “not ideal,” Reich calculated this would allow each student the opportunity to practice three times a week in the facilities. The blocks didn’t fill up, according to Reich, because of the students’ consideration for one another: “those who had means to practice elsewhere stayed out of the rooms and left it for students with no place to practice.”
The School of Music measured every rehearsal space in the building and calculated the maximum capacity with six feet of distancing: 40 for instrumentalists and 44 for singers, including the conductor. The ensemble directors of the orchestras, bands, and six choirs split their groups according to room size, rehearsing the same repertoire separately. The ensembles would only play together fully when they could schedule an onstage rehearsal or at the performance.
Before rehearsals could begin, though, Dr. Crane and Dr. Wells had to settle student auditions. “Our live audition process is nuts,” Dr. Wells said. “For three days, there are hundreds of kids milling around the choral hallway, going through a multi-stage audition process- how are we going to replicate that? How are we going to audition these kids?”
The school “built the whole thing from the ground up” in an online module that included sight-reading, range tests for high and low extremes, tonal memory, and a solo portion for each singer. The choral conductors spent weeks and weeks setting up the module and sifting through online auditions.
As an additional precaution, Dr. Reich instituted a policy across the entire BYU School of Music: no one would rehearse live for the first four weeks of classes. She intuited that the Fall return to campus might swell the number of cases (It did.) Reich wanted to ensure the School of Music did not contribute to an outbreak. A four-week start on Zoom, Reich stated, “would give us an idea if we were on the right track with the protocols we had in place.” Dr. Reich also did not want students’ hopes dashed a second time; as chorister Jared Ashby said, “They didn’t want us to practice and rehearse a lot of music that would have to be canceled again.”
During the first month, the choral classes consisted of Zoom guest speakers and discussions about the repertoire. By the end of the month, Crane felt it had run its course- “It’s tough to sell talking about how great choral music is but not being able to do it.”
Master’s student Lindsay Bastian “hoped and prayed” live classes would happen and felt grateful for the month on Zoom. She said, “The BYU choir directors did an awesome job of setting up speakers over Zoom with some big names and people that are important to us as a religious community.”
To start in-person rehearsals, Drs. Crane and Wells, in consultation with Dr. Reich, set forth strict guidelines:
Students must first complete the daily health check through the campus-wide “Healthy Together” app
Singers and conductors must wear Resonance Singer Masks for every rehearsal and performance.
Singers must be spread 6' apart at all times.
Singers enter the rehearsal space from different floors to reduce crowding upon arrival and exit the rehearsal space via the opposite side of the room they entered.
Every singer sanitized their space with wipes upon arrival and has a specifically assigned chair in the rehearsal room.
Any student displaying COVID symptoms would be required to stay home and attend rehearsal over Zoom and follow BYU standard protocols for testing and quarantine.
A temperature check is required at every rehearsal.
All concerts are live-streamed and performed in an empty hall.
The choral division also installed 12 Medify Air MA-40-B1 V2.0 purifiers with H13 HEPA filters and placed them “strategically throughout the rehearsal space” based on square footage. It cost thousands of dollars to put air filters in the room but based on the Colorado study’s risk assessment, turning over the air would be critical to managing infection.
With all these measures in place, the conductors could fit about 40 singers in the rehearsal hall in the mornings and evenings and credibly maintain social distance.
Instead of roughly 600 choral singers in the program, the BYU School of Music pared it down to six choirs of approximately 320 people:
40 BYU Singers (same size).
40 singers in the Concert Choir (down from roughly 90).
Two sections of 40 singers in the Men’s Chorus (down from 180).
Two sections of 40 singers in the Women’s Chorus (down from 165).
A University Chorale daytime choir of 40 that rehearses in the School of Music and a University Chorale evening choir of 34 singers that rehearses outside the School of Music in a smaller hall. (Note these are two different auditioned choirs based on unique curricula. Before the pandemic, each section contained roughly 120 members with sign-up by "first come, first served", not audition.)
The 80-person choirs met on alternating days, split into two groups of 40. Half the choir would be live one day, and the other half would be on Zoom, muting themselves and singing along in their dorm rooms. The next day it would flip. The choir’s two halves stayed separate, except for three rehearsals a semester combined in the 1800-seat hall and the concert.
The conductors instituted a zero-tolerance policy if anyone had a “whisper” of a symptom: “if you wake up and you have a scratchy throat, you’re on Zoom,” Dr. Wells said. “Our response was always the same- play it as safe as we possibly can.” The choral program also had to significantly pare down the length of rehearsals and the number of performances. BYU choir “typically runs a busy semester,” Crane said, “with multiple concerts per semester and a busy touring schedule. In the Fall, with four weeks less to learn repertoire, we only had one concert with no live audiences, all live-streamed.”
“It’s not ideal,” Crane said. “The first couple weeks were weird live, and we wondered ourselves, is this going to work? The singers weren’t used to singing apart and, in the mask, that was a learning curve.” Now, to Dr. Wells, singing in a mask and social distancing “seem almost invisible.”
Graduate student Lindsay Bastian said the first rehearsal “was like coming home”:
“It was a mix of, ‘I’m so happy to be back and to feel this energy together,’ and ‘This is so much harder.’ It’s this interesting dichotomy the way we’re singing with masks and socially distanced- in one sense, we have to be so much more independent as singers. At the first rehearsal, I felt like I couldn’t hear anybody. And at the same time, we have to rely on each other more. We have to trust each other, that, ‘this section, they’re going to come in when they’re supposed to, even if I can’t hear them, I have to trust them so I can sing my part.’”
Lindsay finds singing in a thick, heavy singer’s mask frustrating, but it’s something she’ll “gladly” do if it means she can sing in person. The other precautions, like temperature checks at the start of rehearsal or wiping down her seat or the piano every time she plays, “aren’t a big deal.”
Senior Daniel Clegg remembers the first rehearsal as a “breath of fresh air”: “that first day was just beautiful. Even with masks.”
Jared, a junior in the Men’s chorus, found the transition to half-Zoom/half-masked “really hard” at first, “particularly going from 180 to 40 people, there’s a big difference.” But he sees it overall as a positive experience: “there have been some benefits from it. It requires each singer to be more confident in individual parts. You’re singing on an island; you can’t rely on someone else. And you really have to pay attention to the singers near you wearing masks standing six feet away. I think our singers have come out stronger as a result of that.”
While Jared missed out on the social bonding of post-concert parties and regional choir tours, he also saw it as an “invitation and a challenge, to find new and unique ways to socially interact, given the restrictions.”
Senior Bekah Johnson found that “once the choir started getting into our rhythm, it’s been so good, I found so much peace and safety. ‘Oh, I’m back in choir! Back in my safe place.”
After nearly a year of live-streamed concerts, weekly rehearsals, and high-quality recording projects, Drs. Crane and Reich reported that no known cases of COVID-19 had been traced back to exposure in the music ensembles. The Winter 2021 semester at BYU has shown a less than 1% positivity rate on over 19,000 tests.
Andy Crane is grateful for the support from the School of Music and the state: “we’re privileged to make it work,” he said, “and it’s a privilege not everyone else had.”
Daniel, the senior chorister, also felt “so privileged” to be able to sing live. He added, “I know a lot of people can’t. I look forward to the day we can sing with no masks as close to each other as we want.”
Singer Lindsay Bastian felt grateful for the “incredible support” from all the faculty and feels everybody in the choirs “has been so conscious” of the safety measures, “not only for themselves but for each other.” She added, “it works. These safety precautions work. I hope that other people can learn from that and say, ‘we can actually have choir, and we can do it safely.’ And I know it does take a lot of resources. We’re very blessed to have that.”
Dr. Reich feels “overtaken by appreciation and pride for her kids, seeing how much effort they were going through to make music in a strange situation.” She continued, “one of the perks of this is that the students have recognized how much they want to make music, and it reminded them of how great a privilege it is.”
A Lifeline to the Students
For the students, singing live has been a saving grace in an impossible time.
Dr. Wells notes that every Thursday, his choral rehearsal begins with a devotional, a sharing of feelings. Dr. Wells said the students talk about how singing “feeds the soul, and even though we can’t be our normal big choir, we still have this great community, singing impactful music.” For at least one student, it was “a ray of light in the darkness.”
Dr. Crane says, from his private conversations with his students, “the fact that they have been able to sing in choir has literally saved their life in this time. All their other classes were online, but this is the one thing that got them out of the house, that got them interacting with people, and of course, the music itself is so healing. There’s not a day that goes by where there isn’t gratitude expressed to be able to sing at all. I try to say it all the time from the podium. You don’t realize this in Utah, there are so many people out there that can’t do this.”
Graduate student Lindsay Bastian calls choir “her home”, “her family.”
She found out a few days ago her last stint in the choir, the summer 2021 choir tour, is canceled. Lindsay called it devastating: “I cried a lot about it, if we’re being honest.” At the same time, Lindsay feels “grateful for the experience” she’s had with the BYU choirs and “how much choir has impacted her and helped her grow as a person and helped her make it through so many uncertain moments. ‘I don’t know what the world’s going to be like, but I know I have these friends, and this music, and this experience.”
Chorister Daniel Clegg would “absolutely” sing in the choir another year, even with the same restrictions: “singing is such a cathartic experience for me personally. Even with masks and social distancing, the feeling of joy I get singing with people is the same.”
Senior Bekah Johnson is “much more grateful for choir” after the last year: “I had so many moments in choir where we’ve been performing or rehearsing where I’ve just felt this togetherness. Through the music and through all the efforts through the BYU staff to help us feel included, I’m still able to get that sense of fulfillment.” She would “absolutely” sing in choir again, even with restrictions: “I need choir for my sanity. I need a place where I can feel valued and where I can contribute, and other people can help me back.”
Junior Jared Ashby saw rehearsals, for him and his peers, as a “lifeline”: “this is the class that gets them seeing other people doing an activity that they really enjoy. Music is already a lifeline to so many students who sing here at BYU, it’s a really positive experience, but even more so with the restrictions going on.” Jared looks forward to another year singing at BYU, even if the same restrictions are still in place: “I value the opportunity to sing and participate much more than any of the costs of restrictions.”
“There’s a power to music that people need,” Jared said, “particularly right now. Finding any way you can to safely allow people to participate in that power of music is worth it. There’s something about music that touches our souls and that’s what the world needs right now.”