Choir Singing Again with Careful Protocols
When Dr. David Palmer was asked to serve as the physician for The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square following his retirement as a second tenor in the Choir, little did he know that his experience as an ear, nose and throat specialist would be key to the Choir’s response to COVID.
For months during the pandemic, he has been communicating with Choir organization members about latest news and trends with the COVID virus. Now under the direction of new Choir president Mike Leavitt, he heads up a team of medical and science professionals from the Choir that have been planning how to bring the ensembles back to performing with as few risks to the musicians and audience members as possible. Once the protocols are confirmed, they will be expanded to the Orchestra and Bells as well.
COVID shut down rehearsals and performances of the Choir beginning in March 2020. Nineteen months later--555 days as of September 21, 2021--the Choir is back in the loft and rehearsing to sing for three general conference sessions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But it will look different, with only half of the Choir singing at each conference session to allow for social distancing in the loft. That means two separate rehearsal groups of Choir members, one preparing for the Saturday conference session and the other for the Sunday sessions.
In order to ensure as much safety as possible, the Choir is taking extra precautions. National studies recently conducted by the American Choral Directors Association show that most choirs in the country from professional and symphony choruses to community, barbershop, youth, and other ensembles, require some verification of vaccination and other protections. The Choir, with 360 members, has chosen a more stringent strategy—the Swiss cheese model explained recently—with multiple protective measures, including constant testing and screening, proof of vaccination, social distancing, face coverings, self-reporting, and the better ventilation afforded by the spacious Conference Center.
Working out the logistics of testing has been led by Barry Anderson who has for years handled the intricacies of taking the Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square on tour. Working with President Leavitt and Dr. Palmer, he contacted the Church and the Utah State Health Department to set a clear course for what was required to administer tests and record the data. He found additional help from Choir member Dr. Keith Wilmore, director of the BYU Student Health Center.
Just getting the volume of test kits needed was a challenge. Working together with Wilmore produced the desired result. Anderson was relieved when he got a call late on a recent Monday afternoon from a driver who was circling Temple Square trying to find the address of the Choir. “I’ll meet you outside the West Gate,” Anderson said, grateful that the tests would soon be in his hands. The boxes were unloaded and stored in the Choir office.
Here’s how the testing is being conducted. An hour before the regular rehearsal time, Choir members meet in the floor level seating in the Conference Center in groups of 20. They are required to wear masks from the time they leave their cars in the Conference Center parking facility. Medical professionals, including seven physicians and seven nurses who are members of the Choir organization plus some additional volunteers, administer the tests and record results.
Because the process is broken into small groups, the testing moves forward swiftly, and results are quick as well. If there are positive tests, those Choir members are excused from participating in the conference choirs. Carpools have been discouraged during this initial period, so no one is stranded as a result of a positive test.
Before every rehearsal or performance, all Choir participants are tested in the same groups. Only when singing do Choir members remove their masks and put them back on when they are finished. For general conference performances when dressed in concert attire, Choir members will be issued a uniform black KN95 mask with the new Choir logo.
“We will know within weeks if our plan is working,” Dr. Palmer has said. “Then our advisors and leadership can determine when we return to our regular schedule of broadcasting and concerts with the Choir and Orchestra.”