Musicians’ health measures ‘new for everybody’

Debora Van Brenk // Western News

Soprano Adriana Orozco Burbano practises an aria while wearing her facemask - one of many health precautions adopted at Western's Don Wright Faculty of Music.

Soprano Adriana Orozco Burbano slowly, gradually, carefully, warms up her voice for an hour and then eases into her repertoire.

This day, she leads with ‘Como scoglio’ from Mozart’s Così fan Tutte opera. Her voice powers through the aria’s daunting range and dances along its challenging vocal decoration.

This is uncharted territory for the Master’s student from Colombia – not because the music is unfamiliar, but because it’s the first time she has sung with a facemask and behind a transparent, protective room screen.

“This is new for us, new for everybody,” Orozco Burbano said. “But many singers around the world use a mask for singing now. This virus has changed our lives and changed our way to study, especially as musicians, but we have to be safe.”

The Don Wright Faculty of Music is Western’s smallest faculty, but it has some of the most individualized arrangements for protecting the community against COVID-19 transmission.

“There’s been this ongoing challenge because research-based information is changing,” said Music Dean Betty Anne Younker. “We are using every source of information that we have.”

It’s like working on a puzzle with the pieces shape-shifting and changing from transparent to opaque, she said.

Like all members of the Western community, music students, faculty and staff will wear masks when they enter buildings.

But after that, the permutations are as varied as their instruments.

Strings must wear masks while practising and in ensembles; and wind instrumentalists will wear masks, even in mid-performance, when not playing or practising.

A sampling of some of the new practices and precautions:

  • Rooms will operate at 20-per-cent capacity, with physical distancing among musicians;
  • Wind, brass and percussion ensembles will rehearse for a maximum 30 minutes, clear the room to allow fresh air to circulate, then be allowed to return for another 30 minutes; for strings, percussion and piano, rehearsals can continue for 45 minutes, with 15-minute breaks between them.
  • Lessons will break after 45 minutes, for 15 minutes, to allow room air to recirculate;
  • Brass instrumentalists will be required to bring their own container with a sponge where they will deposit moisture from their spit valves;
  • Choral ensembles will be arranged two metres distant from each other, and ‘beehived’ so that they aren’t standing directly in front of or behind other singers;
  • Musicians will bring their own music (no more shared scores) and music stands; and
  • Moveable plastic partitions have been added to classrooms and practice rooms to separate accompanist from the other instrumentalist(s) and from conductor.

“We’re starting conservatively with what we know today,” Younker said. “We’re putting in all the safety measures that we know are effective using today’s information.”

grand piano behind plastic barrier

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsPlastic barriers help create physical distancing for Western musicians as they practise together, but apart.

Younker said the faculty has drawn in part upon the latest science from music researchers at the University of Colorado, which has published preliminary studies on safe, healthy music practice during COVID-19, including tests of how far airborne droplets carry during singing and music-playing.

Those tests show emissions vary by instrument – one study suggests oboe-playing may spread droplets farther than other winds – and also depends on individual musical expertise and technique.

“One thing we have going for us is our building. We have space we didn’t have before. Also in our favour is a new ventilation system,” Younker said. (The new Music building is LEED-silver certified and has three HVAC units that have been ramped up to provide more airflow.) “It’s allowing us to offer blended models of performance-based musical instruction.”

But, she emphasized, continuation is dependent on everyone’s vigilance, from wiping shared surfaces after each use to physical distancing and using masks appropriately.

“I tell students, ‘treat masks as if they’re your socks. Wash them every day and don’t share them.’”

Even so, the story of the seniors’ choir that met in Spokane, Wash., in early March, is a cautionary tale: of the 60 singers who showed up to rehearse – all of them physically distanced for the duration – 45 were later diagnosed with COVID-19.

And yet, Younker said, people need to make music, and people need to hear music.

We want to continue music-making in this time of disruption. It’s the importance of the arts sustaining us, and of us sustaining the arts.” Music Dean Betty Anne Younker

There will be no in-person audiences this fall – but all ‘Fridays at 12:30’ concerts, the Faculty Concert Series and the annual Parsons and Poole piano concert will be livestreamed. All ensembles will be recorded and some will be shared online later. (Normally, the faculty is host to about 400 public performances, from recitals to full orchestral concerts.)

Orozco Burbano, meanwhile, has made health precautions second nature while studying and practising this summer: as she enters the building, she squirts hand sanitizer through her fingers, pushes doors open with her elbow and then makes her way to the washroom, where she scrubs her hands with soap and water and swipes her card to enter the practice room.

When she leaves, she wipes down surfaces she has touched, cleans the room, then washes her hands again. “It’s a routine and I’ve learned it. I hope people are ok with it because they have to do it.”

She lives in a small apartment where even lip-trill warmups, much less full-throated arias, risk disturbing the neighbours – so being on campus is important to her.

“The process for the singers, and all musicians, is you have to practise every day. Here, I can sing in full voice,” she said.

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