COVID-19 forces college musicians to turn to wind instrument masks and other precautions to keep playing
Trombonist Jerrell Charleston loves the give and take of jazz, the creativity of riffing on other musicians. But as he contemplated his second year at Indiana University, he worried that measures to avoid sharing the coronavirus could also prevent students from sharing songs.
“I and a lot of other cats were seriously considering taking a year off and practicing at home,” said 19-year-old jazz student Gary.
His worries evaporated when he discovered that music teacher Tom Walsh had invented a special mask with a hole and a protective flap to allow musicians to perform in masks.
The students also received masks for the ends of their wind instruments, known as bell covers, allowing them to play in person, albeit six feet away.
“It’s amazing to play together,” said Charleston. “Music has always been my safe space. It’s what’s in your soul, and you share that with other people.
Making music powered by human breath involves blowing air — and possibly virus particles. An infamous choir practice in Washington state led to confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19 in more than half of the 61 attendees. Two died.
Musicians are therefore taking it upon themselves to reduce the risk of coronavirus without silencing the music. With pantyhose, air filters, magnets, bolts of fabric and a fusion of creativity, those who play wind instruments or sing improvise masks to keep the band together.
A consortium of performing arts groups commissioned research exploring ways for musicians to perform safely. The group’s preliminary report from July recommended that instrumentalists wear masks with small slits, use bell covers, face the same direction while playing, and stay six feet apart. for most instruments – with nine feet in front and behind the trombonists. Other research has shown that cotton headliner covers on brass instruments reduce airborne particles by an average of 79%.
Jelena Srebric, a University of Maryland engineering researcher involved in the consortium study, says it’s also best to play in a large space with good ventilation, and that musicians should take a break after 30 minutes to allow the air to clear.
“Nothing is 100%,” says Srebric, but it “gives a way to engage with music, which is fantastic in our time of desperation.”
Dr. Adam Schwalje, a National Institutes of Health researcher at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, is a bassoonist who has written about the COVID risk of wind instruments. He says a combination of bell covers, social distancing and limiting playing time together could help, but the effectiveness of bell covers or masks that musicians can wear while they play is “completely not proven”. Schwalje’s article said it is not possible to quantify the risk of playing wind instruments, which involves deep breathing, sometimes forced exhalation, and possible aerosolization of mucus in the mouth and nose.
Still, early research results at universities in Maryland and Colorado are helping to inspire the making of improvisational masks and other safety measures, says Mark Spede, national president of the College Band Directors National Association which helps to direct commissioned research.
At Middle Tennessee State University, tuba teacher Chris Combest says his students tie pillowcases over the bells of their instruments, and some wear masks that can be unbuttoned to play.
At the University of Iowa, wind players in small sets must use bell covers and masks, but they can lower them when playing as long as they pull them up during rests.
Heather Ainsworth-Dobbins says her students at Southern Virginia University use surgical masks with cut-out slits and pantyhose bell covers and MERV-13 air filters, similar to those used on an oven.
In Indiana, Walsh researched all the research he could find, designing his musical mask in form-fitting cotton, reinforced with a layer of polypropylene, with adjustable ties in the back. A flap hangs over the hole, fitted with two magnets that allow it to close over the instrument. Juilie Walsh, the professor’s mother – who made his clothes when he was a child – sewed more than 80 of the musical masks for free. The Opera Program Costume Shop manufactures bell covers with a layer of fabric over a layer of stiff woven material called interface fabric.
Bailey Cates, a first-year trumpeter, says the sound quality is about the same with these masks, and they make her feel safer.
Flutes present a particular challenge partly because flautists blow air through the mouthpiece. Alice Dade, an associate flute professor at the University of Missouri, says she and her students attach a device called a “windshield” typically used outdoors, then sometimes fit surgical masks over it.
Indiana flute student Nathan Rakes uses a specially designed cloth mask with a slit and puts on a silk sock on the end of the instrument. Rakes, a sophomore, says the cloth doesn’t affect the sound unless he plays such a low note, which he rarely plays.
Walsh is adept at finding large training spaces, not playing together for more than half an hour and taking 20-minute breaks. All musicians in the jazz ensemble must also stay at least 10 feet apart.
“I carry a tape measure everywhere I go,” he says. “I feel responsible for our students.
Some K-12 schools are trying similar strategies, says James Weaver, director of performing arts and athletics for the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Her son Cooper, a seventh-grade saxophonist at Plainfield Community Middle School in Indiana, uses a surgical mask with a slit. It occasionally sways to the side with the game’s vibrations, but Cooper says it “feels good as long as you have it in the right place”. Cooper also helped his father make a bell cover using fabric and MERV-13 material.
In Wheeling, a company called McCormick’s Group has transformed its 25-year-old business of making bell covers to display school colors and insignia into a business that makes musicians safer with two-ply polyester fabric covers. /spandex. Alan Yefsky, managing director of the McCormick Group, said his company began reinforcing covers with the second layer this summer. Sales of the $20 blankets skyrocketed.
“It’s about keeping people working,” Yefsky says. “We are helping to keep people safe. Suddenly, we received calls from nationally known symphonic organizations.
Other professional musicians take a different approach. Film and television soundtracks are often recorded in separate sessions; woodwinds and brass in individual plexiglass and masked booths, string players recording elsewhere.
The US Marine Band in Washington, DC, practices in small, socially distanced groups, but string players are the only ones to wear masks when performing.
For professionals and students, the pandemic has all but eliminated live audiences in favor of virtual performances. Many musicians say they miss traditional gigs but don’t focus on what they’ve lost.
“Creating that sense of community — an island to get together and play — is super important,” says Cates, the Indiana trumpeter. “Playing music is like a mental release for many of us. When I play, I don’t think about the pandemic anymore.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a non-profit news service covering health issues. This is an independent editorial program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.