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Music through a mask, research helps guides performing arts organizations perform safely

Published: Aug. 6, 2020 at 5:51 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - There has been a long list of things to think about ahead of the new school year during the pandemic, so if music is not your forte, doing it safely could take some extra effort depending on the instrument. Instructors in grade schools, universities, and institutions like the Wausau Conservatory of Music have been closely following new research specifically looking at how to perform safely in person.

Since the latest research shows COVID-19 spreads largely through the air in droplets when people speak, sneeze, cough, etc. singing and playing wind instruments, in particular, have created additional challenges to the simple call to social distance and wear a mask.

“They have this joke in vocal-- in singing where if you sit in the front row, you might get spit on. It’s because they are projecting as much as possible and that’s part of the training,” Olivia Hill, Wausau Conservatory of Music’s executive director said.

She explained when the pandemic began impacting Wisconsin, WCM closed for a very brief time, but they were able to transition to virtual music lessons for about 73% of their students. For the others, she said they were in constant communication with instructors and families to see what their needs and concerns were. For young students especially, she said learning to tune their own instrument was a challenge and they couldn’t guide fingers or make notations in their sheet music for them.

Artist instructor of flute, James Roseman, said some of that need to have the student take charge of their own work has helped to strengthen their abilities. However, they also have had to stop ensemble music because of the lag time over the internet.

With state recommendations and evolving research out of Colorado State University that is looking specifically at how instruments emit what it calls bioaerosols WCM has been able to find ways to do lessons in person most of the summer.

Hill said they are limiting class sizes, only using larger rooms if inside, everyone wears a mask, people are spaced out 9 feet or more when possible and disinfectant containers are everywhere.

“We’re always changing based on the new information and science that comes out about these wind players and vocalists and their potential to spread those aerosols,” she said.

For vocalists, they wear masks unless they are doing a solo. Per the governor’s mask mandate, there is an exception to the order for when people are performing, but Hill said they still require singers to wear a face shield while performing a solo to at least prevent some spread. That is how they have handled their musical theatre camp. They are skipping the ensemble performance this year, but are still putting on a show outdoors for a small group of their friends and family.

Dr. Tim Buchholz, a teacher at the camp and associate professor of music at UW-Stevens Point, said the face shields help to allow him as a vocal instructor to be able to still see the shape singers’ mouths are making and be able to make recommendations. He said as school begins at the university, some classes will be virtual and his choirs and ensembles will be in person.

“Students will wear masks while singing and that will be different,” he said. “I won’t be able to see necessarily what’s going on with vowel shapes and things of that nature, but it’s a challenging time and we’ll make it work.”

For wind instruments, each one is different, and figuring out ways to cover where the most air comes out is what instructors are focusing on.

“The instrument that uses the most air is the tuba, but second in line is probably the flute,” Roseman said.

While air will still escape in parts of the instrument, like the keys of a flute, he said the key places to look at are the entrance and exit point. He demonstrated on his flute by putting masking tape at the end, which he noted is important to remove when done playing so moisture and bacteria do not stay in the instrument, and then he inserted the flute behind his mask as best he could. He said some flutists have found masks that are longer and do not fit tightly around the chin and jaw allow for the best coverage so far. Hill noted some clarinet players have even tried completely covering their instrument in a bag, cutting holes in the side and top for mouth and hands to block as much outward air movement without completely compromising sound.

“Music is not supplemental. Music is core to a well-rounded education and music and the arts is core to a well-rounded person,” she said.

“We have to keep the music going. I don’t think we have a choice,” he laughed. “So, we just have to figure this out.”

Copyright 2020 WSAW. All rights reserved.

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