Musicians improvise wind instrument masks to keep the band together

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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 the other cats were seriously considering taking a year off and practicing at home,” lamented the 19-year-old Gary, Indiana, jazz studies major.

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 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 6 feet apart.

“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 fueled by human respiration involves blowing air – and possibly viral particles – through a room. An infamous choral practice in Washington state earlier this year led to confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19 in more than half of the 61 participants. Two died.

So musicians across the country are taking it upon themselves to reduce the risk of COVID-19 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.

Solomon Keim rehearses with protective equipment that does not mask the sound.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

Brayden Wisley is a safe practice for the sax. Other tips for musicians: Play in a large space with good ventilation, and take a break after 30 minutes to allow the air to clear.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

Brendan Sullivan plays the trombone while he and the instrument are masked. It has been recommended that most instrumentalists face the same direction while playing and stay 6 feet apart – with a distance of 9 feet in front of and behind the trombonists.

A consortium of performing arts groups commissioned research exploring ways for musicians to perform safely. The July group’s preliminary report recommends that 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 of and behind the trombonists. Other research has shown that cotton bell lids on brass instruments reduced airborne particles by an average of 79% compared to playing without.

Jelena Srebric, a University of Maryland engineering researcher involved in the consortium study, said it is also best to play in a large, well-ventilated space and musicians should stop after 30 minutes to allow the air to clear up. 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 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 said a combination of bell lids, social distancing, and limited time to play together could be helpful, but the effectiveness of bell lids or masks that musicians must wear while playing is not effective. “Completely not proven” at this point. Schwalje’s article said that it was 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, for example, tuba professor Chris Combest said his students tie 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 said her students at Southern Virginia University used surgical masks with slit slits and bell covers made of MERV-13 pantyhose and air filters, similar to those used on an oven.

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music professor Tom Walsh hands out personalized masks he designed that allow students to play their instruments safely in groups.

Skyler Floe tries out her horn cover with great fanfare at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

The sound of Kyle Cantrell carries while reducing the risk of virus transmission.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

In Indiana, Walsh researched all the research he could find by designing his musical mask in tight cotton, reinforced with a layer of polypropylene and with adjustable ties in the back. A flap is suspended above the hole, equipped with two magnets that allow it to close on the instrument. The teacher’s mother, Julie Walsh – 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 said the sound quality is about the same with these masks and they make her feel more secure.

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

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.

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, said 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, for example, should also stay at least 10 feet apart.

“I wear 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 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. He sometimes shakes sideways with the vibes of the game, but Cooper said it “feels good as long as you’ve got it in the right place.” Cooper also helped his father make a bell cover out of fabric and MERV-13 material.

While many groups use homemade bell lids, McCormick’s Group in Wheeling, Illinois, has transformed its 25-year business of making bell lids to display school colors and badges into one that makes them. safer musicians with two-ply polyester / spandex fabric lids. CEO Alan Yefsky said his company started reinforcing the covers with the second layer this summer. Sales of the $ 20 blankets have skyrocketed.

“It’s about keeping people employed. We help keep people safe, ”Yefsky said. “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 distant 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 alike, the pandemic has all but eliminated 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,” said Cates, the Indiana trumpeter. “Playing music is a mental liberation for many of us. When I play, I no longer think about the pandemic. “

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music professor Tom Walsh works with students during rehearsals in Bloomington, Indiana. The teacher’s mother, Julie Walsh – who made his clothes as a child – sewed more than 80 of the musical masks for free.


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