Performance Activities in the Circumstances of COVID-19
Efforts and Attempts by the Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo
Hiroshi Ando Secretariat, the Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo
Former visiting professor, College of Music. Mahidol University. Former director, President’s Office of Kunitachi College of Music
Hundreds of concerts have been canceled or postponed since the pandemic of COVID-19 was recognized in Japan. There are 4,997 amateur choir groups which join the Japan Choral Association. The Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo is the only professional choir founded in 1956 and standing at the top of them, holding more than 150 concerts in a year including overseas performances. However, more than 60 concerts, not only domestic but in China and France, were canceled from the end of February until July.
It is said that singing has most risk of spreading infection of COVID-19 among other music activities since it would make splash a lot. Even in schools’ music classes, singing has been prohibited. Local halls and studios for rent have suspended rental service for chorus rehearsals. All of the amateur choirs have lost their spaces for rehearsals. They have lost their way to sing with getting together.
However, as the only professional choir in Japan, the Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo (PCT) could not help doing anything even in this difficult situation that no one has ever experienced. As one of the leading choirs, we had to encourage choirs and amateur chorus lovers and show how to continue the activities.
Here are some efforts to keep activities by PCT.
1) Live streaming of the performance targeting high-school students in the country who could not sing songs at their graduation ceremonies.
All of the schools’ activities were suspended from the 2nd of March for almost one month by the government order. PCT performed songs favored by school choirs with “yell” to encourage them. The concert was held at a studio in March only for live streaming.
2) Remote performance
Since the State of Emergency by the government (2nd April), we could no longer get together for performing. We tried to sing remotely. Having recorded piano accompaniment first, members sang at their home hearing the piano.
3) Commissioned new compositions for humming singings
“Humming” is a singing technique by closed mouth, which means it would not make splashes. Therefore, it’s safe. We commissioned pieces for humming to three leading composers.
4) Produced new face mask “Mask for Singing”
Although these efforts have gained some recognition in social media such as newspapers and TVs, it was still impossible to perform at stages with audience. That is why we decided to perform wearing masks.
Mask is effective to prevent splashes. It has been scientifically proven. However, to sing wearing normal mask is not easy. We had to resolve three problems.
a. Do not attenuate the sound.
b. Do not interfere with the movement of the mouth and chin. –to be easy to breathe.
c. Prevent splashes.
We held acoustic tests with and without masks and found there was almost no attenuation when wearing masks. Also, we tested how masks prevent splashes using several types of the mask. The result showed that there are some differences depending on the types but most importantly every type of mask suppresses splashes drastically. Another problem we found was the aerosol (micro droplets) floating in the air. That is the reason why ventilation is important. We take a break every 30 minutes for ventilation at the rehearsals.
Through these tests, members of PCT started to develop new mask that should be safe and easy to breathe and sing.
The “Mask for Singing” was completed in June after various experiments and corrections. We resumed concert with wearing this mask on 31st July. It was the first concert with audience since the infection has spread.
Figure 1: a PCT member wearing Mask for Singing. She is one of the developers.
Figure 2: Illustration of the mask
Figure 3: PCT concert held on 31st July at Tokyo Metropolitan Theater
The concert showed a new standard of the choral concert in the age of COVID-19 --wearing masks, keeping distance between each singer (60cm~1m), and distance between singers and audience (5m~7m)---.
*For audience: Required to wear masks, to measure body temperature and disinfect their hands at the entrance.
As the impact of the mask was great and a lot of inquiries came to the office, the Mask for Singing was commercialized and now more than 40,000 people perform chorus wearing the mask in the country.
2020 was special year of Beethoven, the 250th anniversary of his birth. Usually there are more than 200 concerts of his 9th symphony in December annually in the country by all of the professional orchestras, many amateur orchestras and choruses. However, almost all of the amateur groups have canceled their concerts and even if they could perform, the member of chorus would have to be reduced to 20 or to 30, of which number is too small to perform with satisfied quality for amateur. Also, many concerts and events about Beethoven were scheduled in the year. If no COVID-19, 2020 would have been really a special year of Beethoven.
Vaccination has begun in some countries but no one has idea when the pandemic would end. Performance activities based on the new standard are likely to continue through 2021, sadly.
Finally, I would like to share a video with you.
“Akatonbo (Red Dragonfly)” is one of the most popular children’s songs in Japan. https://youtu.be/kvg9Pt43etI
The song was performed as an encore of the concert held on 8th September 2020, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater. The conductor, Nobuaki Tanaka (age of 92) is a founder and conductor laureate of the Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo.
The choir is performing with wearing the mask and keeping distance.