I noticed it for the first time during the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil.
Despite being focused on a lot of words and a lot of notes, despite being unnerved by singing to an empty chapel on what would have been one of the most well-attended nights of the Church year, I still registered the glob of saliva that flew out of my mouth and landed on my music.
Turns out I spit a lot when I sing.
Since then I have rushed to sanitize my music stands and microphones after mass before anyone can touch them. I’ve insisted on having a spot to myself rather than sharing with other liturgical ministers. I’ve had a few eye-rolls and been laughed at a bit for my diligence, but what choice do I have? As a singer, I have more than music coming out of my mouth.
I knew all this, but I was still shaken this week as some experts shared their advice that singing in groups will likely not be safe until there is a vaccine for the coronavirus. The virus can spread in molecules too small to be visually detected. Masks aren’t effective and distancing would have to be far more than six feet. Another dream of “normal” that we hoped to return to quickly was snuffed out.
As a soloist, I’m not overly worried about my own career. I can still practice and make recordings, I’m invited to sing for livestreams and can sing safely from a distance, I have other income sources and I pack my own disinfectant wipes. I miss how much singing I was doing before, but it doesn’t feel like a professional crisis (yet). As an educator, cantor and conductor though, I’m crushed.
It wasn’t clear to me until I started to process this bad news how much of my life is about encouraging other people to sing. I can’t say “please join in singing” when I know that the congregation could make each other sick by doing so. I spent more than a decade trying to build a culture of singing at school and now we have to slam the brakes. What if no one misses the singing?
My mind feels like a pitchfork with many tines, each one shooting off into a different possibility. What if we can spread out? What if there are tests? What if we learn something new about transmission? I can’t plan, but I can prepare, and I keep the tracks of my mind full of ideas, ready to implement them when we know enough to make choices. Meanwhile I worry that after all this time of developing expertise, I won’t be able to adjust to what may come. My heart sinks when I imagine having to tactically and mentally start over.
During one of these heart-sinking moments I realized how essential it has been for me to take things one day at a time. It would be irresponsible to deny that things will have to change, but I don’t have to spend all day flitting among the various “what ifs”. So I imagine for a moment, and then I take a break. Someday we will know more, and today we don’t.
Today I can be grounded in breath, that very thing that makes our music a threat. As my mind races ahead of me, deep breath reminds me that what I have is now. So I breathe, one beat at a time, knowing that in singing that’s the most important thing we do to prepare.
Click here for a summary of some of the most recent suggestions about the safety of singing during a pandemic.