Bienen Choir and Orchestra concert drives the spread of COVID-19


After the Bienen School of Music concert, “The Last Message Received”, Bienen second year Greta McNamee learned that she had stood right next to the first positive case of COVID-19 reported during the event. The performance took place on April 30 in the packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

By the time she went to bed that night, eight other choir members had tested positive.

Over the next few days, the concert featuring the University Choir, the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble and the Symphony Orchestra became a very popular event. During the week of April 29, Northwestern reported a positivity rate of 7.40% with 302 new positive cases.

According to McNamee, almost a third of the entire choir was included in these figures. She said she felt alarmed, but given the lack of a mask mandate and testing enforcement this term, she wasn’t surprised.

“For this concert, we were encouraged to unmask, which I think was an irresponsible choice on the part of the choir team,” McNamee said. “They should know after more than two years of the global pandemic that singing is a relatively more dangerous activity, and that additional measures should be taken.”

McNamee said the choral team encouraged unmasking on the assumption that students would take the tests before the concert. However, Bienen junior Mark May said no one had enforced the requirement for students to test three times the previous week.

May said he thought the choral team valued masking in general, as members wore masks at nearly every rehearsal until dress rehearsals.

“A lot of people were excited to perform in a normal environment and not have to worry about masks,” May said. “But for people who wanted to wear masks, (the choral department) even offered black masks to anyone who wanted them.”

McNamee pointed out that a few masks couldn’t be effective when the majority of the choir was singing without a mask. Of the people she knew who were singing with masks on, she said half of them had still been infected.

“While it was a very worthwhile effort on their part, it clearly didn’t make enough of a difference, which is really devastating because these are the people who are trying very hard to limit exposure,” McNamee said. “Yet they are the ones being punished.”

McNamee said she and many others believe it is unreasonable to ask students to compromise their health for the required attendance at an event that counts toward graduation. She said her teacher, who specializes in vocal pedagogy, warned of the long-term consequences of COVID-19 on the lungs and voice.

Bienen Professor Donald Nally, who conducted the concert, also expressed his frustrations about the event.

“The past week has been painful and frustrating for the choirs, orchestras and teachers at the Bienen School, not only due to the stress and disruption of illness, but also our collective desire to produce Puccini’s opera. La Bohème and ensuring that our student recitals take place,” Nally said in an email to The Daily. “We are a strong and resilient community; we are going to solve this together, doing everything we can to make all these important events happen.

University spokeswoman Erin Karter said NU’s COVID response team Bienen and NU leadership have been working together to monitor the situation.

“Bienen has canceled three performances in recent days due to student performers testing positive, and will take further action as necessary in consultation with University health officials,” Karter said.

According to May, the choral department has halted rehearsals for the Bienen Contemporary Ensemble and the University Choir for the remainder of the year.

In a follow-up email, the choral department expressed a willingness to help those infected, but McNamee said he doesn’t hold himself responsible. She felt like Bienen’s Instagram post about the event illustrated why people were upset.

McNamee said she communicated about the spread after the event in the second Bienen GroupMe chat and participated in student-led efforts to track cases through room maps.

May, on the other hand, felt that the resulting student reaction was unprofessional. He approved of the choral department’s response but was still saddened by the cancellations. Since masks were not required on campus, May felt the choral program was doing all it could.

“It was a great response, and it was kind of nice — they offered to help people who had COVID, they were really reassuring, and they canceled a bunch of things preemptively,” May said. “I’m looking forward to doing the choir — it’s a fun class and I can work with my friends. It kinda stinks of not having a whole class because I think (the choral department) almost had to be forced into it.

McNamee said she thought the choral department’s decision to cancel rehearsals was a good one and felt the department’s response was generous.

She believes the problem stems from the University administration and wants to see the reinstatement of more testing requirements and enforceable COVID safety measures.

“I don’t want to completely throw the choir team under the bus, because as vocal as they are about not masking up, they’re very nice,” McNamee said. “They are doing what they can. They could do more, but there are only a limited number of resources due to how COVID masking and testing guidelines have been enforced — or certainly not enforced — this quarter.

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Twitter: @jennajwang

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