Musicians improvise wind instrument masks to keep the band together | Way of life
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.
“Me and a lot of other cats were seriously considering taking a year off and practicing at home,” lamented the 19-year-old, a jazz studies major from Gary, Indiana.
His worries evaporated when he arrived on campus and 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 6 feet away.
“It’s amazing to play together,” Charleston said. “Music has always been my safe space. It’s what’s in your soul, and you share it with other people.”
Of course, the very act of making music powered by human breath involves blowing air – and possibly virus particles – across a room. An infamous choir practice in Washington state earlier this year led to confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19 in more than half of the 61 attendees. Two died.
So, musicians across the country are taking it upon themselves to reduce the risk of COVID-19 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. July band’s preliminary report recommends instrumentalists wear masks with small slits, use bell covers, face the same direction while playing, and stay 6 feet apart for most instruments – with a distance of 9 feet in front and behind the trombonists. Other research has shown that cotton headliners over brass instruments reduce airborne particles by an average of 79% compared to playing without them.
Jelena Srebric, a University of Maryland engineering researcher involved in the consortium’s study, said 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. These rudimentary solutions, she said, promise at least some protection against the virus.
“Nothing is 100%. Being alive is a dangerous business,” Srebric said. It “gives a way to engage with music, which is fantastic in this 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 said a combination of bell covers, social distancing and limited time to play together could be helpful, but the effectiveness of bell covers or masks that musicians can wear while playing is “completely unproven” at this stage. 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 improvisational mask-making and other safety measures, said Mark Spede, national president of the College Band Directors National Association, which helps to conduct commissioned research.
At Middle Tennessee State University, for example, tuba teacher Chris Combest said 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 said 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.
“I feel responsible for our students”
In Indiana, Walsh researched all the research he could find when designing his musical mask from form-fitting cotton, reinforced with a layer of polypropylene and adjustable ties in the back. A flap hangs over the hole, fitted with two magnets that allow it to close over the instrument. The professor’s mum, Julie Walsh – 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 trumpet player, said the sound quality is about the same with these masks and they make her feel safer.
Flutes present unique challenges, in part because flutists blow air through the mouthpiece. Alice Dade, an associate flute professor at the University of Missouri, said she and her students strap on a device called a “windshield” typically used outdoors, then sometimes put surgical masks on 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, said the cloth didn’t affect the sound unless he played 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 jazz ensemble musicians, for example, must also stay at least 10 feet apart.
“I carry a tape measure everywhere I go,” he said. “I feel responsible for our students.”
Some K-12 schools are trying similar strategies, said 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 said “it’s fine 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.
While many groups use homemade bell covers, the McCormick Group in Wheeling, Illinois, has transformed its 25-year-old business of making bell covers from displaying school colors and insignia into a company making musicians safer with two-ply polyester/spandex covers. CEO Alan Yefsky said his company started reinforcing covers with the second layer this summer. Sales of the $20 blankets skyrocketed.
“It helps keep people working. We help keep people safe,” Yefsky said. “All of a sudden we got calls from nationally known symphony 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, with distant string players recording elsewhere.
The US Marine Band in Washington, DC, practices in small, socially distanced groups, but the string players are the only ones to wear masks when performing.
For professionals and students alike, 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 come together and play — is super important,” said Cates, the Indiana trumpeter. “Playing music is like a mental release for a lot of us. When I play, I don’t have my mind about the pandemic anymore.”
Kaiser Health News is a national health policy information service. It is an independent editorial program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.