Reopening Decisions: How Choral Leaders Are Bringing Singers Back Together
In the U.S., Canada, and across the globe, choral leaders are grappling with challenging questions as they prepare to emerge from the pandemic and gather in person to sing together again. Difficult decisions about masks, distancing, vaccinations, waivers, and other safety protocols need to be made and, in many cases, re-evaluated over the course of
the season. Themes emerging from conversations with a cross-section of choral leaders and industry experts suggest a framework that may help your decision-making process.
Morna Edmundson has been a choral director for more than four decades. She has won numerous honors and awards, directed countless hours of rehearsals, and serves on the boards of both Chorus America and Choral Canada. But none of this experience adequately prepared her for the decisions she has to make in a pandemic. As artistic director of two choirs in western Canada (Elektra Women’s Choir and EnChor Choir), she just isn’t sure about the best course of action for reopening. When should singers start gathering in person? What safety protocols should be required? How do the board and leadership even decide? What do we tell the singers? Edmundson believes “these communication steps are the most important. What are we going to say, and when are we going to say it?”
More than 3,000 miles away, Boston Gay Men’s Chorus executive director Craig Coogan is putting off some of these decisions for several more months. During the pandemic, the chorus has been a pioneer in many respects, he feels. “We have been on the front lines for many historic things coming out of COVID. However, we're not going to be one of the first returning to singing together. We are happy to make sure that it is safe before we all come back.” Coogan has already determined that the chorus will not return to rehearsing in person until February 2022, in preparation for a June performance.
In the San Francisco Bay area, Martín Benvenuto, founder and artistic director of 21V, is preparing for launch. The new ensemble will feature “soprano and alto voices of all genders and all gender identities with a focus on 21st-century music of the Americas,” he explains. Interested singers are submitting audition materials now, with a plan for rehearsals to start in October and a first performance in November. He knows that safety protocols will be required for in-person singing but hasn’t yet decided exactly what they will be. Because inclusivity is a core value, Benvenuto intends also to open up auditions to singers outside the Bay Area, who would be able to participate in virtual projects. “I'm anticipating that we would have an in-person project roster and a virtual one as well.”
In the U.S., Canada, and across the globe, choral leaders are grappling with incredibly difficult questions as stay-at-home orders are lifted, vaccinations go into arms, and COVID transmission rates shift. While the decision to close down choir rehearsals at the start of the pandemic was imposed by national and local officials, opening back up is the responsibility of each individual organization. “The shutdown was hard because it was just out of the blue,” says Edmundson, “but the restart is proving to be harder, because it's more subjective and on us. Then we have to communicate this decision to our singers, as opposed to ‘they told us we're not allowed to do this anymore.’”
While the questions facing leaders—about masks, distancing, vaccinations, waivers, and other safety protocols—may be the same, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Even the decision-making process may differ, depending on the chorus location, organization, and individual singers and leaders. Themes emerging from conversations with a cross-section of choral leaders and industry experts suggest a framework that may help you work through your decision-making process—or at the very least, assure you that you are not alone.
COVID-19 Updates and Additional Resources
Chorus America continues to track news and collect information and resources about reopening and new COVID-19 developments from our members and partners. Find the latest guidance and resources, as well as examples of waivers and other documents from member choruses on our COVID-19 Resource Page.
With So Much to Learn and So Much to Decide, Where Do You Start?
Imagine a set of three concentric circles, with your choral organization at the center. Start with the broadest context, jurisdiction, before narrowing the focus to your community and finally your specific chorus. This approach may help you address very difficult questions in a structured way, taking you past the broad and overwhelming, “What should we do?”
The first step requires a leader to consider what is allowed or not allowed under applicable laws—including federal, state/provincial, and local ordinances. (Note that the experts interviewed for this article are providing general guidance only and cannot provide legal advice.)
An individual state or province might have very different rules or legislation from the next, so it is important that you understand what is applicable to your organization. For example, Quebec is a civil jurisdiction and operates very differently from other Canadian provinces. In the U.S., Florida has recently passed legislation specific to COVID-19 that makes reopening decisions there different from other states. Always consult an attorney to confirm what laws are applicable to your situation and location.
Your local community is the next level of consideration. Think about factors such as transmission rate, availability of vaccinations, and general community culture and demographics. The best decision for a choir located in the center of a large metropolitan city might be different from another group that operates in a rural area of the same state, even if the same laws apply to both.
Finally, consider your individual group—the singers themselves and your organizational culture. Bear in mind the ages and other characteristics as well as tolerance for risk. How many singers are part of your ensemble? What is the level of familiarity and trust? A tightly knit group that has been singing together for years might come to conclusions different from a large community chorus with 50 percent turnover each season. Consider also your values, which might include artistic expression, community engagement, or inclusion. Being clear on your priorities will help shape your reopening plan.
What Are the Key Decisions You Must Make?
The decisions required for reopening range from legal to logistics, health and safety to artistic and financial. For the purposes of this article, we are choosing to home in on the specific decisions required before bringing singers back together, focusing on those that might be the thorniest because of legal implications: vaccinations, masks, and liability waivers.
Probably the most burning question for choral leaders today is whether to require singers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before allowing them at in-person rehearsals. Let’s look at this question through the framework of jurisdiction, community, and chorus.
First, is it legal to require vaccinations in your jurisdiction? As always, consult a lawyer, but the prevailing thought seems to be that in most U.S. jurisdictions outside Florida, an employer or organization is not prohibited from requiring vaccinations as a condition of either employment or participation. “I think organizations are getting more comfortable saying, ‘If you're not vaccinated, you can't be part of this group,’'' says Charles Berardesco, Chorus America board member and retired general counsel most recently of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. “I’ve advised boards to tell people that they have to be vaccinated.”
Allison Tremblay, a labor and human rights lawyer and partner at Victory Square Law Office in Vancouver, British Columbia, explains that in general, the situation is similar in Canada. “I can't say that there is any specific prohibition on an employer requiring a vaccination. It's just not been adjudicated in that way.” Beyond that, she notes that British Columbia’s Workers’ Compensation Act requires employers to “ensure the health and safety of their workers. So, depending on the particular workplace at issue, I can imagine a scenario where an employer believes that in order to ensure the health and safety of all workers, it needs to mandate vaccines.”
Bob Middleton, director of the Arts Insurance Program, sees that scenario playing out among the 5,000-plus U.S. clients his company claims—opera, dance, and theater companies, festivals, touring productions, and more. “Many of our employers are requiring vaccinations, and from what we understand, in most of these cases the attorneys or insurers are taking the stance that it is legal and something they can require due to the overall safety of their employees.” He adds that exemptions to the vaccine requirements for health, including disability-related, or religious reasons “are being addressed individually.” In the U.S., under federal law, choruses with employees that make exemption requests for these reasons need to determine whether not being vaccinated poses a direct threat to others and, if so, whether the chorus can provide a reasonable accommodation to the employee.
Recent legislation in Florida provides an exception. Jan Smith, Tallahassee Community Chorus singer and board president, explains that “Florida law prohibits organizations and businesses such as ours from imposing the requirement that volunteers and employees produce proof of vaccination.” Smith says the law poses problems for the chorus. “We have folks on our board who feel very strongly that people should not be able to come to an in-person rehearsal if they're not vaccinated, but there may not be a whole lot legally we can do to prevent that. We’re wrestling with it.”
Many choral leaders are asking if the statutes regarding employees also apply to volunteer singers. In the U.S., as long as your volunteers are classified correctly, they do not have standing under employment law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that volunteers are not necessarily entitled to the same considerations for health and religious exemptions. As always, it’s important to contact your attorney to understand the laws that apply to your specific situation.
“In a number of different respects,” says Trembley, Canadian laws “don't treat volunteers that much differently than employees.” But, she notes, “for other purposes, they do. For example, whether a volunteer is a true volunteer for the purposes of the workers’ compensation rules might depend on very specific facts about types of compensation singers might receive”—e.g., food or small gifts of appreciation. Other laws might take a different view. As always, contact your attorney for your specific jurisdiction and situation.
When it comes to children and youth choruses, jurisdiction resides with the parents. For children under 12, vaccine requirements have not been an issue because, at this writing, they are not eligible for vaccination. But for older children, the parent is involved in the vaccination decision. Both Andrés Holder, executive director of Boston Children's Chorus (BCC), and Robyn Lana, managing artistic director of the Cincinnati Youth Choir, emphasize the need to engage the parents in the conversation. Holder works with children ages 7 to 18, so his singers are “divided smack down the middle” in terms of vaccine eligibility. Asked whether BCC will require vaccinations for the older children, Holder responds, “That's not something that we feel comfortable saying one way or another. I think we need to listen first, and we'll be talking to parents.” Lana stresses the need “to respect the household just like we respect other faiths. You've got to respect reasoning for not doing something or doing something. We're not going to require a vaccine, because I don't think that's our business to do so. We're a community organization. I will not eliminate a child from the program who really needs to be there.”
Additionally, Holder feels it’s important to consider the vaccination question through an equity lens. “Access to vaccines for me was easy because I have all the digital devices I need, I have PTO [personal time off], but what is that like for people who don't have all those things? Are we erecting more barriers? It's certainly a question that we're exploring.”
After considering the implications of jurisdiction and community, the final step is to consider chorus and culture. For Edmundson, it was important to survey the views of the singers. “I did an anonymous survey with one of my choirs to see how people were feeling about possibly starting again in September. One of the questions was, ‘If we required that everyone was fully vaccinated, would you expect to be coming back in September?’, and 98 percent said yes. If we don't require full vaccination, the response was something like 50 to 60 percent.”
Chorus and culture were top of mind for J. Donald Dumpson, artistic director of the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, as he considered vaccination policy. “I deal with a large number of African American singers,” he notes. A Pew Research Center study found that 34 percent of African Americans have low trust in the vaccine research and development process, an attitude that stems in part from documented abuse of Black people in medical experimentation. Dumpson felt the need to understand the level of skepticism that might be present among his singers. “It was important that the vaccine became something that my community trusted. Trusting that the science is being authentically accurate for this community is something that I really had to seriously investigate.” Although concerns were raised “about privacy and other issues,” he says “there was a clear statement from the choir that vaccination is a major priority. We're going with 100 percent you must be vaccinated.”
Considering the organization culture was also especially important for Coogan and the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. “We have a culture of welcome and inclusivity, so how do we maintain our culture and stay accessible with our primary responsibility of being safe with an airborne disease in a chorus of 220 people? The simple answer is we're requiring vaccinations, but it’s important to acknowledge that we're putting a barrier up and do whatever we can do to maintain our culture of inclusivity.”
In Florida, Smith’s community chorus is considering participation options for those who are not vaccinated. “One of the things we've discussed is giving a virtual option for those people who tell us that they're not vaccinated. If they still decide they want to sing with us, they would participate virtually until fully vaccinated, with the understanding that performing in the concert may not be possible for them.”
Inquiring about vaccination status
Before getting to the question of whether to require vaccinations, many choral leaders are wondering how to ask singers about vaccination status. Is it even legal? Berardesco provides a straightforward response: “There is no legal issue with asking somebody if they have been vaccinated, unless you're in Florida.” Tremblay agrees, to a point. “It's never going to be illegal to ask,” she says, but “whether someone is obligated to answer is a different question.”
Staying in compliance when asking about vaccination status has more to do with the answer than the question—particularly the way the answer is recorded and stored, which may be subject to laws in your jurisdiction. The general consensus among U.S. legal and health care experts is that the act of asking about vaccination status—yes or no—does not violate Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy regulations. “Health information is particularly private and has a higher status attached to it,” says Tremblay, “so you have to take particular care with that information and make sure that you are storing it and using it properly in accordance with your jurisdiction’s privacy laws.” Another worry is that you will end up with your own private Pandora’s box, says Tremblay, with access to more information than intended. “Because now not only do you have their vaccination status, but you may also have other very private information [religious group affiliation or health information] that you might not be entitled to.”
The Cincinnati Youth Choir will ask about vaccinations, “but we won't say, ‘If you're vaccinated, you don't have to wear a mask,’ reports Lana. “All are going to be in masks. We will let parents know the percentage of our youth-age singers who are vaccinated.”
Several of the choral leaders we interviewed who are planning to require singers to be vaccinated are still determining the appropriate method for verification. “Some sort of objective proof will be expected,” explains Benvenuto, “not for lack of trust but more for transparency.” Because it won’t resume in-person singing till early next year, Coogan says the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus doesn’t face an urgent need to finalize its verification system, “but, in talking with my colleagues and other large choruses, the standard emerging is that members are asked to submit a digital version of their vaccination card, and it goes into some secure database.”
Mask mandates can change quickly and vary by jurisdiction, and even if masks are not required by law, some choral leaders may choose to require masks nonetheless. As a youth choir director, Holder looks to the U.S. Department of Education for guidance. “We are modeling our service after them and are going to be masked. If they change guidelines, we will follow suit.” Lana also reports that her youth chorus will be masked and distanced, although vaccinated staff will not wear masks. Dumpson’s Philadelphia Heritage Chorale will require masks “at the beginning” and hopes to ease the requirement over time.
The choral ensemble Ember, which performs in Manhattan and Montclair, New Jersey, performed masked outdoors last September and continued the practice when it resumed live indoor performances in April. The chorus continues to rehearse in masks in preparation for a December performance. In an effort to enhance comfort and artistry while maintaining safety, artistic director Deborah Simpkin King went to great lengths to design a custom mask for the singers. “I worked with the studies on fabrics and filtration, constructing a mask that—to my view—is still the most highly filtering mask of any that are available.”
Benvenuto agrees that safety is the highest concern. “If we’re going to use masks, let's use what the science says as the safest way of preventing transmission.” Smith reports that her community chorus in Tallahassee will most likely require masks, “simply because we don’t know who is vaccinated and who isn’t. I don’t think we have any choice.”
While the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus is waiting to rehearse in person until the new year for a number of reasons, they don’t plan to use masks when they do. Coogan states, “We believe that choral singing is at its best unmasked, so masking will not be something that we utilize.”
The practice of asking singers to sign a waiver of liability (stating that the singer/participant understands the risks and will not sue the organization if infected) has both supporters and detractors. The law is complex and waivers can be difficult to enforce, so Tremblay recommends that any chorus considering a waiver requirement get specific advice for its jurisdiction. Introducing a waiver specifically for COVID can be “a bit of a minefield,” she adds. “It's also a matter of optics. Are you really worried that your singers are going to sue your choir? What does that mean for your singers in terms of their relationship with you?”
Local legislation may make waivers for a particular jurisdiction unnecessary—at least from a legal standpoint. According to Smith, “a recent law passed in Florida protects organizations and businesses, including nonprofit organizations, from civil liability in the event they should be sued because of someone using their facility or their services catching COVID-19 or suffering from the virus. That helps us and also helps our venue, which is a church.” British Columbia has similar legislation protecting essential workers, which includes arts and culture groups. “While you can always sue, you will be statute-barred in recovering against your choir, both as an audience member and as a singer,” explains Tremblay. “A waiver would not be required while that legislation exists.”
From an insurance standpoint, a workers’ compensation claim that someone contracted the virus through a particular business, organization, or location is likely to be very difficult to prove. In fact, Middleton explains, “we've seen 10 claims submitted so far, all through the state of Texas and all for performing arts organizations, and none of those have actually been covered.” However, he recommends that employers “always put in the claim,” regardless of the individual situation and whether you have a waiver. “Your insurance carrier's job is to define a claim that's compensatable, and you should protect yourself by making sure that you put that claim in and let the insurance company do their investigation.”
Among a number of choruses it’s been longstanding policy to ask that members sign general participation waivers, a practice that Berardesco recommends. “The power of a waiver in this context is really just to say to the singer, ‘You're assuming the risk if you want to come here. We've told you what we're doing.’” Coogan notes that his chorus members “already sign a waiver for a number of issues, including our ability to record and use their likeness and their voice.” With that kind of understanding in place, an addendum or additional waiver about the risks of COVID may be easier to implement. “We have drafted an update to more explicitly outline the potential risk of a COVID world,” Coogan says.
Some of the leaders interviewed for this story see the waiver as an effort for transparency or to start a conversation. Dumpson says the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale already has a general waiver and will soon send singers an addendum about coming back. “The verdict is out about how valid waivers are or not, but I support anything we can do to foster more clarity.”
Who Makes the Final Decisions, and How?
How should choral leaders go about making these difficult decisions of how to return to in-person singing? All of the leaders we spoke with are engaging others to help, either their board, a special task force, local experts, focus groups of singers, or all of the above.
Getting advice and consulting experts
“I don't have a board, but I have a group of close collaborators that have been helping me,” explains Benvenuto. “I've used a lot of virtual singer focus groups. We have conversations, do research, and bounce off ideas.” Dumpson agrees that it’s important not to do it alone. “I'm the director, but what does the board feel, what does the membership feel? I want to really canvas, ask questions, and not have to have all the answers, but to seek the answers based on the feedback I'm receiving.”
In making decisions about what is allowed in your jurisdiction, once again it’s best to consult a local attorney. Middleton recommends always working with a labor attorney regarding human resources issues and how you’re operating as an organization in general. “We have many clients that are using firms to help them navigate the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] or state HHS [Health and Human Services] guidelines to make sure they're doing what they need to do.” Many of the leaders interviewed are gathering information directly from the scientists, both about the virus transmission in general and also about local community infection rates. “We feel that the CDC is an appropriate barometer to use and gauge what's going on,” says Dumpson. “We're not experts on science and we know there's reason for some to not trust, but we need something to use as our guidepost.” As decisions are made, adds Lana, share the data that guided you with singers and parents “so that they know we're not just moving blindly forward.”
“There's still an awful lot we don't know about this virus, but there's some really good material from Chorus America and other organizations—slides that give visual displays and graphs,” explains King. “I extracted various slides that I felt applied to our situation. It bases the conversation just on facts, not on how we feel about the facts.”
Surveys and gathering information
Every choral leader we spoke with described doing some kind of information-gathering from chorus members, either through informal conversations, a formal survey instrument, or both.
Some choruses engaged in town-hall-style Zoom meetings to gather input on plans for gathering in person, including the singers’ feelings about timing and safety protocols like masks and vaccinations. “We didn’t do Zoom rehearsals, but we’ve had a Zoom meeting every four to six weeks with a bunch of breakout rooms,” explains Coogan. “We didn't do formal polling, but we have certainly had a lot of engagement to make sure that we are hearing where people are. In addition, four times over the last two years every single member got a phone call from somebody in leadership, checking in.”
King used a similar, informal approach. “Every week, we would have discussions about how people are feeling and comfort with interaction.” Eventually, those conversations surfaced a desire to find a way to sing again and perform for others, so a small task force was formed to start investigating the possibility.
Leaders of community choruses have an additional challenge of not necessarily knowing in advance who will be singing each year—even during a “regular” season. Tallahassee Community Chorus typically surveys past singers over the summer to determine who is likely returning. “This time, instead of one survey, they'll get two,” explains Smith. “We did the initial, ‘would you be comfortable coming back in-person?’ survey, and we'll do another in the next several weeks to get a little more information.”
Holder utilizes a robust combination of smaller, more informal focus groups and formal surveys sent to a larger group. “We have done surveys that surface information, both quantitative and qualitative, which provides a structure for multiple small group conversations. Once we’ve heard from these key groups to get a temperature read, then we survey the bigger group, to see if it aligns or is totally different. Then we take that thinking to a third group—normally three or four small focus groups—and then we share more broadly.”
Even with plenty of surveys and other input, the decisions, and the responsibility, can be overwhelming. It’s not surprising that many choral organizations are simply waiting to see what others do. “I console myself slightly by thinking this is temporary, this is not forever,“ admits Edmundson.
Priorities and trade-offs
There is no “perfect” solution for a choir that meets all of every stakeholder’s needs. Wearing masks reduces transmission risk and also the artistic quality. A live performance with reduced audience capacity might not result in the needed revenue. Distancing might mean that your usual rehearsal space can’t accommodate your choir.
“The artistic director just really wants to get people back together,” admits Smith, “and I think that's a fairly universal feeling. To me, the issue will then be, how much are you willing to do to make that happen? People are so anxious to get back together that I'm thinking we'll have a pretty good showing, and then we'll have to deal with the expense. We've checked a lot of other different venues just in case we need another location to split rehearsals.”
Resources have been challenging throughout the pandemic. “We are trying to see if the season will work with minimal people in the audience, which is a huge financial challenge,” explains Edmundson. But Holder believes more money isn’t the perfect answer either. “Even if we had all the money in the world—which we don't—we still wouldn't satisfy and mitigate risk and provide comfort to every single person, given this pandemic. It's just not possible.”
Dumpson’s intent is to put people first, and he says “that will really help calibrate when it's people versus the building, people versus the concert date, people versus the budget. When we are mindful of the needs of our people holistically, we make different decisions.”
Every leader spoke about the need to put singers—their health, safety, and comfort—at the center of decision-making. The challenge, of course, is that a singing organization is made up of individuals who may not agree on what is “safe” or “comfortable.” In King’s experience, even when the group reached consensus on gathering in preparation for an outdoor performance, that didn’t mean that everyone was comfortable taking part. “We had very strict protocols, and we agreed on them as a group,” she says. Still, “some people said I'm not ready—in fact more said I'm not ready than said they were.”
“Some of these nuanced decisions are going to put our inclusivity values to the test,” suggests Benvenuto. “Are we as leaders going to ensure that every single singer in our ensemble is comfortable with the protocols in place?” Ultimately, after gathering information from experts, singers, and other stakeholders, you’ll need to make a decision. While coming to grips with reopening protocols, “I'm going to be moving within the ‘safe, safer, safest’ continuum,” explains Benvenuto. “Right now my instinct is to move towards the safest.”
Perhaps trade-offs are endemic to a choral organization. “Steve Smith said it best in one of the Chorus America conference sessions,” says Coogan. “The inherent nature of choral music is that you give up a little bit of yourself to be in a whole. The voice, the oneness, is what's important, and you give up individuality to a little degree.” Dumpson echoes that feeling: “When you deal with a group of people and a group of people's needs, there's no singular me,” he says. “How do you hold space for all the different expressions of ‘me’ in terms of a community of singing?”
How Should Decisions Be Communicated?
Even once you’ve made the difficult decisions, your work is not done. Leaders know that it’s not enough to have a policy or plan—you need to communicate that plan in a clear, understandable way. We heard the message over and over again: communication should be frequent, consistent, transparent, and caring.
Berardesco has been working with multiple organizations and has seen this first-hand. “An organization right now should be thinking about what they are going to require of singers to sing in person, without a mask, and be very upfront and consistent about it from minute one. Decide what that policy is going to be, and communicate that clearly to your chorus members well before you start rehearsals to allow people to object and/or make sure they are in fact compliant.”
“We always take a moment to acknowledge the pain, the loss, and the difficulty of this time,” says Coogan. “So many of our members have been on the frontlines, have suffered sickness or family deaths, and it's been a trauma.” For Benvenuto, transparency, simplicity, and caring communication are on the forefront. “Being honest about where we are and the uncertainty about how exactly we'll move forward—I think that actually builds trust,” he says. Trust is an important aspect of communication for Dumpson as well. He tries to convey the message “things are okay, and you can trust that we are being really thoughtful about our plan.”
None of this is easy. “This whole experience has just been really humbling for me,” Holder confesses. His advice to others: “Leading with humility and just being open to making mistakes, having thick enough skin to accept the mistakes. Listening, and actually taking the correction of a thing to consider—this has been a saving grace in this process. None of us have the right answer. We're all making it up and doing our best. We're all stressed.”
Communication and culture are inextricably linked. “It's about trying to bring the whole group together,” Edmundson acknowledges. “Assuming there are some people who don't come in person for one reason or another, how do we make them still feel like they're part of this organization, so that when we're past all of this, they haven't gone away, or felt misunderstood or not respected?”
It’s a tall challenge, and each unique community must chart its own path. “The one thing that is not going to change is how we treat each other,” emphasizes Dumpson. “We’re not going to change our intention to really bring to light what we call a choral community—its essence, its purpose and reason why we gather.”
Holly J. Kellar works in marketing and consulting. She is a lifelong singer and was previously chief marketing officer of the Barbershop Harmony Society.