COVID-19: it’s OK to blow your own trumpet

Hear that? That’s the sound of the trumpets calling you back to live music.

For a long time, concert hall stages have sat empty, void of the musicians who played and empty of the audiences who came to listen. Why? Well, the COIVD-19 pandemic of course.

With COVID known to be transmissible through the air on little droplets, we’ve sensibly avoided situations where we’d likely be exposed. Wind instruments, with the way they are played – using breath and mouth vibrations to produce sounds – were an obvious concern.

Masks warn to protect against covid-19 in adelaide symphony orchestra
Section of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Orchestras like the Adelaide Symphony took precautions against COVID-19 by wearing masks, but the wind section remained uncovered. Credit: Claudio Raschella

Shivani Marx, the Chief Operating Officer of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, says over the past two years the ASO has performed in concert with a diligent focus on safety using social distancing, hand hygiene, screens and masks as appropriate. 

“By keeping these protocols in place, particularly backstage and during tea breaks, we have limited the risks of workplace transmission.  Our wind and brass players remove masks once seated in performance which has not resulted in cases of workplace transmission.”

“We continue to use masks in all other sections to allow close contacts to come to work if they are well and to facilitate closer ensemble seating in the strings.”

Read More: COVID Booster – Making music lessons COVID-safe

New research from the University of Pennsylvania says Shivani and her team, and their faithful audiences, might be able to breathe a little more easily, demonstrating that wind instruments produce aerosols in much the same concentration and size as when we are talking or breathing, despite how explosive or sharp the noises sound.

Laser was used to track aerosols through and out of a tuba.
Lasers were used to capture the movement of aerosols through and out of a Tuba. Credit: Paulo Arratia

The researchers teamed up with musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra to investigate the flow of air through and out of the instrument, using a laser to track the particles and measure their exit speeds.

“Surprisingly, we found that the amount of aerosol produced is of the same range as normal speech,” said the paper’s author Paulo Arratio, of the University of Pennsylvania. The exit speeds were much lower than those produced by coughing or sneezing. “I was expecting much higher flow speeds and aerosol concentrations”, he said.

The research used the exit speeds of the aerosols to determine the maximum decay length – that is, how far away from the instrument the aerosol flow disperses, finding it to be less than two metres from the exit point (or the opening) on the instrument. In physical terms, the research suggests musicians playing wind instruments need only stand about two metres apart to be safe, which is similar to many individual “social” distancing guidelines in place around the world.

The findings are encouraging, suggesting that changes orchestras have made to their repertoire (such as playing string-only pieces) and drastically altering the number and positions of musicians in the room might be unnecessary if managed appropriately.

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