As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country and the world, colleges like ours have had to take some drastic measures to keep students as safe as possible while still providing opportunities for academic achievement in a variety of fields. One of the most challenging fields to regulate has been music.
Beyond the obvious need for bands and chorus groups to be able to clearly hear each other while spreading out enough to maintain social distancing, studies show that singing and playing brass or woodwind instruments drastically increases the number of dangerous aerosol particles released into the air, resulting in an increased need for social distancing. As a result, music departments such as ours have had to devise clever workarounds that balance these opposing needs.
I spoke with our Director of Bands Joel Graham, who described some of these methods, starting with the use of Performer’s Protective Equipment (PPE). According to Graham, “Each student has a set of specialized performance masks that allow the student to play without taking the mask off and a fabric bell cover that goes on the bell of each instrument to reduce the spread of aerosols.” He also described socially distancing practices, which include bands being divided into smaller groups. These groups practice in blocks, with downtime reserved between each block so that the space can air out, leaving no aerosols remaining when the next block arrives. In addition, the marching band is practicing entirely outside and, in lieu of public performances, working on pre-recorded performances to be released later this fall, with the first recording sessions scheduled for next month.
Gracie Shreve ’23, a music therapy major and one of the three student managers for the Wooster Chorus, further clarified another form of PPE that Graham mentioned. “For singers,” she said, “masks are created almost in a duckbill fashion to create more room for jaw movement, lip placement and taking adequate breaths; for instrumentalists, masks are double-layered in a garage door manner where an outer flap covers the mouth and nose while still providing enough space for the mouthpiece and breathing.”
However, because individual choral students need to practice unmasked, some very interesting methods have been devised. According to Shreve, “Many members of the faculty have given up their offices to be used as spaces for vocalists to have distanced lessons. The offices have been issued low-latency video and audio equipment which runs between two rooms at a time. The masked professor and accompanist work in one room and the unmasked vocalist in another. This way, the vocalist can still sing with their piano accompaniment and also receive visual critiques from the professor in real-time.”
In summary, although Shreve did mention some communication latency between students, teachers and administration, it seems that our faculty and administration have created creative and innovative solutions to support the musical arts while keeping students safe.