Trombonist Jerrell Charleston loves the give-and-take of jazz, the creativity of riffing off other musicians. But as he looked toward his sophomore year at Indiana University, he feared that steps to avoid sharing the coronavirus would also keep students from sharing songs.
"Me and a lot of other cats were seriously considering taking a year off and practicing at home," lamented the 19-year-old jazz studies major from Gary, Indiana.
His worries evaporated when he arrived on campus and discovered that music professor Tom Walsh had invented a special mask with a hole and a protective flap to allow musicians to play while masked.
Students also got masks for the ends of their wind instruments, known as bell covers, allowing them to jam in person, albeit 6 feet apart.
"It's amazing to play together," Charleston said. "Music has always been my safe space. It's what's in your soul, and you're sharing that with other people."
Of course, the very act of making music powered by human breath involves blowing air — and possibly virus particles — across a room. One infamous choral practice in Washington state earlier this year led to confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19 in more than half of the 61 attendees. Two died.
So musicians around the country are taking it upon themselves to reduce the risk of COVID-19 without silencing the music. With pantyhose, air filters, magnets, bolts of fabric and a fusion of creativity, those who play wind instruments or sing are improvising masks to keep the band together.
A consortium of performing arts groups has commissioned research exploring ways for musicians to play safely. The group's preliminary report from July recommends instrumentalists wear masks with small slits, use bell covers, face the same direction while playing and stay 6 feet apart for most instruments — with a distance of 9 feet in front and back of trombonists. Other research has shown cotton bell covers on brass instruments reduced airborne particles by an average of 79% compared with playing without one.
Jelena Srebric, a University of Maryland engineering researcher involved in the consortium's study, said it's also best to play in a big space with good ventilation, and musicians should break after 30 minutes to allow the air to clear. These rudimentary solutions, she said, promise at least some protection against the virus.
"Nothing is 100%. Being alive is a dangerous business," Srebric said. This "gives some way to engage with music, which is fantastic in this day and age of despair."