Hey Doc, is the trombone a health hazard?

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From the early days of the health crisis, certain musical instruments have been viewed with suspicion. Scientists were called on to respond to public pressure and take a clear stand on the issue. But measures to combat the transmission of the coronavirus have not been clearly implemented in all professions and activities. The world of music, in particular, has been adversely affected by a lack of concrete responses to the challenges that working musicians face.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) mandated a study to evaluate different performing arts with respect to the spread of aerosols, these being the fine particles emanating from people and carried in the air. This study focused on woodwind and brass instruments as well as singers and stage actors. The results are quite surprising in many cases, and often run against expectations. For one, the concentration of aerosols produced in the vicinity of a trumpet or trombone bell is somewhat lower than from an actor or a singer in his warmups (0.8 particles per cubic centimetre for the former as opposed to 1 to 1.4 for the latter.) The biggest culprit here is the oboe, which can emit up to six times more particles per cubic centimetre around its bell, exceeding the levels measured for both clarinet and horn. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the spoken voice in a normal conversation mode emits the least particles (0.2 per cubic centimetre). The study also identifies the woodwinds (bassoon, oboe and clarinet) as greater aerosol producers from their keyholes than their bells, which is not the case for brass instruments because of their airtight valves.

The above study further recommends covering bells with thick filters, which suggests that musicians need to put masks on their instruments as well. A six-foot distance ought to be maintained between musicians, and up to nine feet for those who emit the most aerosols. The study further stipulates that indoor rehearsals should not exceed half an hour so as to prevent excessive aerosol concentrations in the room, and five-minute breaks to allow dispersion. Strong absorbent materials are recommended to trap condensation from brass spit valves, which should also be emptied away from other musicians.

Another study, conducted by the University of Bristol in the U.K., confirms some of the conclusions reached in the American one, notably that voices produce no more particles when engaged in singing as opposed to speaking, regardless of musical style. It cannot be assumed that singers spread more aerosols in stage performances of any kind. From now on, researchers encourage directors to be more mindful of having better air circulation in their spaces and not holding their productions in enclosed settings. This course of action, in the opinion of the same researchers, will combat the spread of the virus. Other researchers also stress the importance of a good ventilation system, an asset too often overlooked.

A vocal coach’s take

The aforementioned American study was brought to our attention by Olivier Godin, a concert pianist currently teaching at McGill University and the Conservatoire de Montréal. In a recent interview, he shared some of his views on the previous months of lockdown and the new school year.

LSM: What constraints do you see, either general or specific, with regards to your teaching duties for this new school year?

OG: I am not one who takes a dim view on the situation; by nature I’m more positive. I would rather talk about health measures than constraints. Obviously, we will have to make a lot of adjustments in our teaching, and large ensemble projects, like symphony orchestras or large choirs, will have to be forsaken in the present context. I believe that the educational needs of students in our large institutions can be met just as well by making them work on solo works or in a committee-like fashion. The pandemic has really flustered many of us by cruelly depriving us of the stage and our most vital means of expression, but this draws us more into ourselves, which is really needed in a world that is so dizzying and out of whack. It makes us artists aware of the virtue of humility and of the pitfalls of showmanship in a way that a performer can find more answers within a single solo Bach partita than a busy concerto. I only wish for all young musicians to benefit from this time of introspection and acquire a greater degree of maturity and depth, which is what our fast-paced lifestyle does not always allow them to do, alas.

LSM: Will there be live concerts at the schools you teach or just online recitals with no audience?

OG: There certainly will be online performances. Opera McGill has several on tap. But the situation is still very much in flux and no one knows if a second wave of the pandemic will hit us. I greatly value both institutions for their administrative savvy, their respective directors being Stéphane Lemelin at McGill and both Marie-Josée Leblanc and Manon Lafrance at the Conservatoire. These people and their respective teams of administrators have been on the case since last spring, securing music’s rightful place in the schools for this semester.

Translation by Marc Chénard

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

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