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Band in COVID times: Masking aims to divert small droplets

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COVID-19 has brought up some interesting questions for musicians, such as: Does your instrument need to be masked?

The answer, to ask the experts, is yes.

“It’s been recommended by the Iowa High School Music Association, based on a national study done by the University of Colorado,” said Melissa Franzen, who teaches introductory band at the Oelwein Schools.

Thus Franzen and her colleague Cory McBride are considering guidance from the IHSMA based on a UC Boulder-led study of respiratory emissions while playing musical instruments, as music students return to learn in the fall.

“Musicians give off aerosols differently than a person just existing does,” Franzen said referring to tiny droplets smaller than respiratory droplets that stay in the air longer. “They’re finding not only do musicians release them from their face but they’re released in a crazy amount when they blow through their instruments as well.

“So our state association is recommending we cover instruments as well as kids’ faces when we play,” she said.

As with most plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic, how the music departments will officially return to learn is subject to change after they meet Monday with Superintendent Josh Ehn by video conference.

“We don’t know how many kids will be in our buildings yet,” Franzen said. “Hopefully on Monday we can brainstorm with our administration and come up with more of what (coming back) will look like.”

Tentative band plans are to hold a Virtual Leadership Team Camp Aug. 13 from 1-3 p.m. on Zoom and a Full Band Camp Aug. 17-18, from 7-9 p.m. at the Husky Stadium, McBride told band parents in a recent letter on the Oelwein Band Department Facebook page.

All the band competitions the district had planned to attend have been canceled. As for All-State instrumental and vocal competitions, plans are underway to hold these remotely.

Teachers hope to supplement the competitions with “one to two new, innovative local performances.”

The marching band performance, “Ritual,” will be postponed until a later season.

“In place of ‘Ritual,' we are planning to create one (or more) shows to perform this fall that will be conducive for allowing an exciting, fun and successful marching band experience,” McBride wrote. “We are very excited about this new possibility! We plan to have our band students be an active part of designing and creating any shows we implement.”


To identify aerosol release pathways and measure particle size and concentration in light of COVID-19, lead researchers Dr. Shelly Miller of the University of Colorado Boulder and Dr. Jelena Srebric of the University of Maryland conducted respiratory emissions analysis on subjects playing four different musical instruments – clarinet, flute, horn and trumpet – and a soprano singer.

Among its most significant considerations, the study recommends masks be worn by all students and staff in a performing arts room – even while playing instruments when possible – and that no talking should be done without a mask on.

The study led to a call for two types of masks for each instrumentalist, a band-student facemask with a long buttonhole slit and pocket-style flap covering allowing them to blow into the instrument, and a bell cover – ideally fashioned from multi-layered, high-denier nylon material and placed over the bell of an instrument – which the study found made a substantial impact on performers’ aerosol pathways.

“This is such a new concept the product doesn’t even exist,” Franzen said of the mask types tested. She has found local music stores are scrambling to obtain them and school uniform companies are trying to produce and market them. “But we know by the time they are created and shipped they’re going to probably be expensive.”

Oelwein had not had a home economics program for a few years. So she contacted Farmer’s Daughters Quilts at 21 E Charles St., who researched and helped her find the correct type of nylon for the bell covers, which Franzen ordered along with elastic.

“The ladies up in the fabric shop have been so helpful,” Franzen said.

“What I envision is almost like a shower cap, a loop of elastic that will go over the bell,” Franzen said.

“The kids won’t ever be issued their own masks just because I think that’s going to be a nightmare,” Franzen said, referring to the difficulty of getting the masks washed daily. “We’ll collect them at the end of every rehearsal and wash them and give them back the next day.”

She has determined they will need 200 bell covers and 200 instrument masks with a flap that covers the mouthpiece.

Instead of asking people to make face masks and then put the hole in the middle, McBride ordered 200 premade masks. Franzen envisions using the buttonhole setting on the sewing machine to make a mouthpiece hole through the facemask, then adding a fabric flap like a pocket cover over the buttonhole.

“At least that flap will help deflect some of the air that comes out,” she said. “I’d rather have it deflected down than out into the open air.”

There’s another challenge.

“Every instrument will be covered except for flute, there’s not a good way to cover a flute yet,” Franzen said.

The study, which can be found through, adds:

•Teachers should use megaphones to lower their respiratory projection.

•Students should sit facing the same direction while sitting with a 6-by-6-foot clearance, with 9-by-6-feet for slide trombone players. Spit valves should be emptied onto a puppy waste pad (or similar) rather than the floor so that contents can be contained.

•Where possible, existing HVAC systems in activity rooms should be fitted with HEPA filters for better air filtration for the size of the rehearsal space.