Dr. Adam Schwalje, a National Institutes of Health research fellow at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, is a bassoonist who has written about the COVID risk of wind instruments. He said a combination of bell covers, social distancing and limited time playing together could be helpful, but the effectiveness of bell covers or masks for musicians to wear while playing is "completely unproven" at this point. Schwalje's paper said it's not possible to quantify the risk of playing wind instruments, which involves deep breathing, sometimes forceful exhalation and possible aerosolizing of the mucus in the mouth and nose.
Still, early results of research at the universities of Maryland and Colorado are helping to inspire improvisational mask-making and other safety measures, said Mark Spede, national president of the College Band Directors National Association who is helping lead the commissioned research.
At Middle Tennessee State University, for example, tuba teacher Chris Combest said his students tie pillowcases over the bells of their instruments, and some wear masks that can be unbuttoned to play. At the University of Iowa, wind players in small ensembles must use bell covers and masks, but they can pull them down when playing as long as they pull them up during rests. Heather Ainsworth-Dobbins said her students at Southern Virginia University use surgical masks with slits cut in them and bell covers made of pantyhose and MERV-13 air filters, similar to what is used on a furnace.
At Indiana, Walsh sought out whatever research he could find as he designed his tight-fitting cotton musical mask, reinforced with a layer of polypropylene and with adjustable ties in the back. A flap hangs over the hole, outfitted with two magnets that allow it to close over the instrument. The professor's mom, Julie Walsh — who made his clothes when he was a kid — has sewn more than 80 of the musical masks for free. The opera program's costume shop makes bell covers with a layer of fabric over a layer of stiff woven material known as interfacing fabric.
Bailey Cates, a freshman trumpet player, said the quality of the sound is about the same with these masks and they make her feel safer.
Flutes present unique challenges, partly because flutists blow air across the mouthpiece. Alice Dade, an associate professor of flute at the University of Missouri, said she and her students clip on device called "wind guards" usually used outdoors, then sometimes fit surgical masks over them.
Indiana flute student Nathan Rakes uses a specially designed cloth mask with a slit and slips a silk sock on the instrument's end. Rakes, a sophomore, said the fabric doesn't affect the sound unless he's playing a low B note, which he rarely plays.
Walsh is a stickler for finding big practice spaces, not playing together for more than half an hour and taking 20-minute breaks. All jazz ensemble musicians, for example, also must stay at least 10 feet apart.
"I carry a tape measure everywhere I go," he said. "I feel responsible for our students."
Some K-12 schools are trying similar strategies, said James Weaver, director of performing arts and sports for the National Federation of State High School Associations.