COVID-19 is forcing college musicians to turn to wind instrument masks and other precautions to keep playing


Trombonist Jerrell Charleston enjoys the give and take of jazz, the creativity of other musicians’ riffs. But as he turned to his sophomore year at Indiana University, he feared that measures to avoid sharing the coronavirus would also prevent students from sharing songs.

“Me and a lot of other cats were seriously considering taking a year off and practicing at home,” said Gary, a 19-year-old jazz studies student.

His concerns evaporated when he found out that music teacher Tom Walsh had invented a special mask with a hole and a protective flap to allow musicians to play masked.

The students were also given masks for the ends of their wind instruments, known as bells, allowing them to play in person, albeit six feet apart.

“It’s amazing to play together,” says Charleston. “Music has always been my safe space. It’s what’s in your soul, and you share it with other people.

The act of making music fueled by human respiration involves blowing air – and possibly virus particles. An infamous choral practice in Washington state led to confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19 in more than half of the 61 participants. Two died.

Musicians therefore take it upon themselves to reduce the risk of coronavirus without silencing the music. With tights, air filters, magnets, rolls 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 July group’s preliminary report 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 bell lids on brass reduced 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 musicians should stop after 30 minutes to allow for seems to clear up.

“Nothing is 100%,” Srebric says, but it “gives a way to engage in music, which is fantastic in this time of desperation.”

Dr. Adam Schwalje, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health at 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 lids, social distancing, and time limits on playing together might help, but the effectiveness of bell lids or masks musicians have to wear while playing isn’t ” not at all proven ”. Schwalje’s article states that it is not possible to quantify the risk of playing wind instruments, which involves deep breathing, sometimes powerful exhalation, and possible aerosolization of mucus in the mouth and nose.

Still, early research results at the universities of Maryland and Colorado are helping to inspire the making of improvised masks and other safety measures, said Mark Spede, national president of the College Band Directors National Association which helps to direct commissioned research.

At Middle Tennessee State University, tuba professor Chris Combest says his students attach pillow cases to the bells of their instruments and some wear masks that can be unbuttoned to play.

At the University of Iowa, woodwind players in small ensembles are required to use bell covers and masks, but they can pull them down when playing as long as they pull them during rests.

Heather Ainsworth-Dobbins says her students at Southern Virginia University use surgical masks with cut slits and pantyhose bells and MERV-13 air filters, similar to those used on an oven.

In Indiana, Walsh researched all the research he could find by designing his musical mask from skin-tight cotton, reinforced with a layer of polypropylene, with adjustable ties at the back. A flap is suspended above the hole, equipped with two magnets that allow it to close on the instrument. Juilie Walsh, the teacher’s mother – who made his clothes as a child – sewed more than 80 of the musical masks for free. The Opera Program Costume Shop makes bell lids with a layer of fabric over a layer of stiff woven material known as interfacing fabric.

First-year trumpeter Bailey Cates says the sound quality is about the same with these masks, and they make her feel more secure.

Alice Dade, associate professor at the University of Missouri, recommends using flute clip devices called “wind shields,” which protect the lip of the flute from the wind when playing outdoors. The ventilated design helps limit condensation and interference with the reader airflow. Amid the pandemic, some flautists are now using them with surgical masks on top to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Flutes present a particular challenge in part because flautists blow air through the mouthpiece. Alice Dade, associate professor of transverse flute at the University of Missouri, says she and her students attach a device called a “wind shield” typically used outdoors, and then sometimes place surgical masks on them.

Indiana flute student Nathan Rakes uses a specially designed fabric mask with a slit and slips a silk sock down the end of the instrument. Rakes, a sophomore, says the fabric doesn’t affect the sound unless he plays such a low-pitched one, which he rarely plays.

Walsh is a freak for finding large workout spaces, not playing together for more than half an hour, and taking 20 minute breaks. All jazz ensemble musicians should also stay at least 10 feet apart.

“I take a tape measure wherever 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 sports 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 does occasionally jerk the side with the vibes from the game, but Cooper says that “feels good as long as you have it in the right place.” Cooper also helped his father make a bell cover out of fabric and MERV-13 material.

In Wheeling, a company called McCormick’s Group has transformed their 25-year-old business of making bell covers to display school colors and badges into one that makes musicians safer with two-ply polyester covers / elastane. Alan Yefsky, CEO of the McCormick Group, said his company started reinforcing blankets with the second layer this summer. Sales of the $ 20 blankets have skyrocketed.

Alan Yefsky: “We keep people safe.

Alan Yefsky: “We keep people safe. “

“It’s about keeping people employed,” says Yefsky. “We help keep people safe. All of a sudden we got calls from nationally renowned symphony organizations.

Other professional musicians take a different approach. Film and television soundtracks are often recorded in separate sessions; winds and brass in individual plexiglass and masked cabins, with string players recording elsewhere.

The US Marine Band in Washington, DC, performs in small, socially remote groups, but only string players wear masks when playing.

For professionals and students, the pandemic has all but wiped out live audiences in favor of virtual performances. Many musicians say they miss traditional concerts but don’t focus on what they have lost.

“Creating that sense of community – an island to come together and play – is very important,” says Cates, the trumpeter from Indiana. “Playing music is a mental liberation for many of us. When I play, I no longer think about the pandemic. “

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.

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