Music Australia News

NSW bans choirs and group woodwind playing in public schools

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplah
Graham Strahle
| August 23, 2020

The NSW Government’s announcement on 17 August that all group activities involving singing and the playing of wind instruments are to cease in public schools comes after weeks of uncertainty over what many have felt were mixed messages coming from authorities. On the one hand, NSW Health advised a month earlier that choral singing in schools was not allowed, but on the other, NSW Education stated on 7 August saying that school choirs were permitted to continue in Term 3. This led to widespread confusion and fears that school choirs would be banned altogether.

Well now they have been, and at least those inconsistencies have been settled with this latest announcement. It is reasonably clear in what it states: “All group singing and or other chanting activities, as well as the use of wind instruments in group settings are not permitted.”

However, what it means by ‘chanting’ is vague, because this term can signify very different things. One is rhythmic shouting or singing in unison by a crowd, while another is the quite unrelated practice of melodic singing to scriptural texts, typically as happens not only in churches but also in some NSW church schools (as for example here and here).

Yet this new directive gives no reasons or explanatory details as to why these restrictions (along with others) have now been imposed, other than that they are to “ensure school communities remain safe inside and outside the school gate”.

Many questions and grey areas remain. For instance, would a group of three singers pose a much of a risk to the spread of coronavirus as a choir of, say 50? Does chanting of the sing-song variety used in junior primary classrooms present as much of a danger as the loud kind of chanting at sporting events when spectators cheer on their team?

Furthermore, do wind instruments such as recorders, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and saxophones really pose a greater risk than, for example, brass instruments like horns, trumpets, trombones and tubas that also rely on breath pressure?

And why is group sport allowed when choirs and wind instrument groups must stop. On face value, contact sports such as rugby and Australian rules and limited-contact sports including basketball, netball and lacrosse, present what would appear to be a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission than music does, but they are not excluded in these new restrictions.

Other than in Stage 4 lockdown as is presently the case in metropolitan Melbourne, any risk of transmission cannot be entirely eliminated when school children are in close proximity. So the question then becomes what degree of risk is acceptable?

An impressive document has been released by the UK Government to assist people in that country who work in the performing arts during the pandemic. These include such as teachers, singers, musicians, actors, dancers, directors and allied personnel. Titled ‘Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) – Performing arts’ (updated 13 August 2020) and running to 46 pages, it this document provides extensive advice about managing risk, that is, reducing risk “to the lowest reasonably practicable level by taking preventative measures”, and instituting a range of measures toward that end.

Among the measures it recommends are:

  • using back-to-back positioning of individuals where possible
  • opening doors and windows to improve ventilation in closed spaces
  • limiting the duration of rehearsals and performances as far as possible, i.e. keeping activity time to a minimum
  • preventing congestion from occurring in areas such as doorways
  • rehearsing and performing outside

Furthermore, this same document describes how the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) actually eased its restrictions on singing and playing instruments on the basis of the scientific advice it received. It explains this as follows:

“Additional mitigations, such as extended social distancing, were previously required for singing, wind and brass given concerns that these were potentially higher risk activities. DCMS commissioned further scientific studies to be carried out to develop the scientific evidence on these activities, which has allowed us to reconsider appropriate mitigations. Both professionals and non-professionals can now engage in singing, wind and brass in line with this guidance. People should continue to socially distance from those they do not live with wherever possible and venues, performers and audiences matched to ensure 2m distancing applies wherever possible. Social interactions should be limited to a group of no more than two households (indoors and out) or up to six people from different households (if outdoors).”

Implicit here is the idea that different degrees of activity present different gradations of risk, and that scientific evidence should inform the response.

Music Australia believes this country deserves nothing less in terms of scientifically informed policy as affects music education. In its announcement it states:

“If the NSW government has any evidence to support their stance, we are interested in seeing it. It opens the question whether the UK places a higher value on music as part of the curriculum and is prepared to work harder to enable its continued inclusion, while the NSW government has taken this attitude towards sport but not music. Music Australia encourages an equitable and evidence based approach to restrictions, and a re-assessment and relaxing of restrictions where there is no evidence to suggest that there has been a significant heightening of risk.”

The degree of risk must continually be reassessed by the latest scientific advice. New research in the UK indicates that the volume at which singers or speakers vocalise has a major bearing on the amount of respiratory particles they project. A team at the University of Bristol measured the amount of aerosols produced by 25 professional singers and found that singing at the lowest volume produced a similar quantity as happens when breathing. Speaking or singing loudly multiplies the amount by 24 and 36 times.

What this study therefore shows is that singing at quieter levels presents no more of a problem than speaking at a similar volume. Read more about the study in this BBC report. The study is yet to be peer-reviewed, but the authors’ preliminary paper can be viewed here.

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