Music and Singing in Church: Recommendations According to Phased Reopenings
By Diana Sanchez-Bushong
Music is a gift from God, given to all creation. It is a means of connecting with God and with one another by unifying not only our thoughts and understanding, but also our heartbeat and breath.
Worship of the Triune God involves our whole being.
Music is fundamental and integral to Christians’ worship experience. Worshipers are actively involved in the musical expression in worship, whether it is by singing, playing, dancing/moving, or listening.
Praising the Lord is a scriptural mandate (see Psalm 150, among many other scriptural references), and a primary way in which most Christians have “praised the Lord” is to sing together. When singing becomes a public danger, most of us immediately jump to questions such as, “How else can/should we praise God?” However, during this “singing quarantine,” it is important to think about and remind ourselves why we sing. Below are some key questions we should all be asking before moving on to the “how” or “what” questions:
- How can our heartbeats and breath unite in praise to God when it is dangerous to share the same air?
- Why is music-making so important to our worship life?
- Why is it important to maintain the traditions of congregational song we have inherited from the saints of the past?
At the writing of this brief, it is important to recognize the following realities:
- The current science on exactly how COVID-19 spreads combined with the current science on various instrumental music-making and singing is not sufficient to make strong conclusions or recommendations.
- The current interpretation of the minimal knowledge we do have seems to suggest that instrumental music-making that involves human breath (wind instruments) and singing are more likely to spread COVID-19 than normal speech.
- The Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions rely overwhelmingly on congregational and/or choral singing as the primary artistic means for praising God during corporate worship.
Given the current scientific knowledge we have at this time and the interpretations of that data by experts in the fields of medicine and choral singing, the following practices and guidelines are recommended, particularly for worshiping indoors in the usual places of worship for a given community of faith:
- Until the scientific community knows more or until a vaccine is available, there should not be any congregational or choral singing. There should also not be any instrumental music made using wind instruments (brass, woodwinds, and air-blown percussion).
- Non-singing congregational music-making practices are recommended and could include, but are not limited to:
- Humming along to a hymn/song
- Body percussion, such as clapping, tapping your thigh, and stomping
- Non-wind instrumental music making, including percussion instruments, such as shakers and bells, and string instruments like the violin
- Meditating on the words of a song or hymn while the music is being played
- Dance and other sacred and/or interpretive movement
- Use of American Sign Language (ASL) to silently sing a hymn or song text
- Intentional silence, such as performing John Cage’s 4'33" as a congregation
- Sing in quarantine and/or at home:
- Send hymnals or other songbooks home with your congregation for family use.
- Create playlists of repertoire for your congregation to listen to and/or sing in their cars and homes.
- Create virtual choir videos so that the congregation can see people making music together using this new digital tool
- Use call-and-response songs with a leader on video, leaving space or silent phrases that invite the viewers to sing and hear their own voices singing in response to the leader.
- Read hymns and songs as poetry.
- Study texts of hymns and songs as an aid for Bible studies and/or theological studies during digital small-group discussions.
Phases for Safely Reopening
These phases should serve to complement your own community’s guidelines for reopening. Each state, county, and city will determine the best timing for allowing people to gather once again. Please make every effort to follow the recommendations in your area. along with those of your bishop and district superintendents.
PHASE 1 - Virtual only; five or fewer gather; use of recordings; no live singing except in family groups
PHASE 2 - Virtual only; ten or fewer gather; use of recordings; no live singing except in family groups
PHASE 3 - Virtual, plus in-person with safe distance practices, up to fifty people. No live singing by leaders; no congregational singing
PHASE 4 - Virtual, plus in-person worship; No live singing by leaders; no congregational singing
Key Actions for Phased Reopening
- Refrain from in-person worship until Phase 3.
- Provide opportunities for virtual worship through Phase 4 and beyond.
- Remove Bibles, hymnals, and other shared worship resources until Phase 4.
- Modify common “high touch” practices of passing the peace, handshakes, passing offering plates, and other activities to allow “touch-free” alternatives.
- No live singing (congregation, choir, or solos) or brass and wind instruments until beyond Phase 4.
- Maintain safety actions, including face coverings, hygiene, physical distancing, and cleaning.
Preparing for Reopening
DISCERNING WHY MUSIC IS IMPORTANT AND PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
- Share some memories of singing together in worship. What made it so special? How did it make you feel? Whom do you remember being there singing with you?
- When you plan congregational singing, what are the most important considerations? Text and lyrics? Mood and rhythm of the music? Familiarity or new expression?
- If congregational singing is not allowed when we gather again, what considerations will be foremost in your planning?
- How can the congregation engage the music beyond singing (clapping, tapping, snapping, swaying)? Think of ways to engage the text more deeply through speech, prayer, and visual or performance art.
- Decide how many singers you can safely have in your choir loft, and then develop a singer roster rotation for each week.
- Plan now for these spatial considerations.
- Allow for fewer singers in the choir loft with more space between seats – this is for a visual effect until it is safe to sing again.
- Spread your praise band out as much as possible while still maintaining an ensemble – follow the guidelines on singing
- Consider what instruments are necessary and what instruments can sit out a while longer.
- Plan now for congregational seating that is spread out. Cordon off every other pew. Prepare your invitation to gather again with special attention concerning where people can sit.
“Conversation: What Do Science and Data Say About the Near Term Future of Singing,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFl3GsVzj6Q&t=139s
COVID-19 Resources, https://thehymnsociety.org/covid-19/ — A curated list of updates and resources specifically about worship music and COVID-19.
“The Essentials of Performing Arts Medicine,” https://www.nats.org/_Library/COVID_19_Resource_Docs/Halstead_-_NATS_Webinar_may_5_2020v_final_pps.pdf — Presentation by an otolaryngologist who also leads a major organization for the promotion of singing
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6919e6.htm — CDC case report on COVID-19 spread during/after a choral rehearsal
“Resuming Care-Filled Worship and Sacramental Life During a Pandemic,” https://is.gd/vYg11I
“Returning to Church,” https://www.wichurches.org/2020/04/23/returning-to-church/ — Wisconsin Council of Churches recommends against congregational singing without offering a timeline for when that should resume.
“Roadmap to Recovery: Maryland Strong— Faith-Based Recommendations,” https://goci.maryland.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/05/Faith-Based-Recommendations.pdf?fbclid=IwAR23CMo-cZvnxOn59YtEFdviuQ9C8t4_iaiNJMnbhgT7u1TWsvUr9Pcg3QA — Maryland’s Stage 1 re-entry guidelines include “refrain from congregational singing.”