Orchestra practice looks different in a global pandemic. Players are spread out into the audience. Some have to wear masks with slits to play correctly. The Community Music School’s specialized safety measures earned it the Missouri ArtSafe certification.
Imagine an orchestra gathered for rehearsal. There may be string, percussion, wind and brass players practicing side by side. Some players share the sheet music and everyone is gathered in one room.
But, how does rehearsal look during a global pandemic?
This is one of the questions the Community Music School (CMS) of Webster University had to answer when working to operate safely. Along with following Webster’s COVID-19 guidelines, CMS director Nicole Springer said the school added other safety measures to ensure they can teach and play music safely. The safety precautions allowed the CMS to receive the Missouri ArtSafe certification.
“I think that certification is really that stamp of approval for us – that we’re doing a good job and following all the guidelines to being able to offer arts and music education experiences for the community,” Springer said.
The Missouri ArtSafe certification was created by the Missouri Arts Safety Alliance – a group of 23 arts-based organizations. The Missouri Arts Council is one of the organizations involved in the group and it hosts the Missouri ArtSafe page on its website. According to Missouri Arts Council executive director Michael Donovan, organizations that receive certification pledge to “create safely, present safely and attend safely.”
The Missouri ArtSafe program is not pushing all arts organizations to open now, according to Donovan. Rather, he said the Missouri Arts Safety Alliance saw the need to help artistic groups and their venues figure the safest way to operate when the organizations are ready to reopen. Donovan said the program also helps arts organizations promote their safety guidelines and procedures to the public.
Donovan said there are groups from both St. Louis and Kansas City in the Missouri Arts Safety Alliance. He felt this large reach is important.
“I wanted to make sure that we had coverage all over the state, understanding that people in different areas, different sized organizations, different mediums had different things that they had to respond to,” Donovan said. “It was very individual.”
For example, Donovan said an art exhibit or museum may have an easier time presenting its art safely than a choir or dance group. In both cases, Donovan said extra aerosols are released into the room.
Springer said the same is true for music – especially when it comes to singing or playing a wind or brass instrument. The CMS offers many different programs, and Springer discussed how each has adapted.
About 80% of professors for individual lessons have moved to an online format, according to Springer. She said faculty can decide between offering in-person lessons or being fully remote, and students who attend in-person lessons must complete health screenings like Webster students.
Springer said the CMS evaluated what kind of room size in-person lessons would need based on what the student is learning. For example, playing the violin would release fewer aerosols into the room than singing.
For orchestras and ensembles, the String Ensemble is holding all of its rehearsals online. The String Orchestra, the Young People’s Concert Orchestra (YPCO), the Young People’s Symphonic Orchestra (YPSO) and the Young People’s Orchestra – Percussion (YPOP) are all holding in-person rehearsals.
However, Springer said the format looks different from past rehearsals. The YPCO and the YPSO have strings rehearse apart from the wind and brass, according to Springer. While the YPOP compliments both of the young people’s orchestras, the group also rehearses separately. Springer said the wind and brass instruments have extra precautions.
“They have to wear a mask that has a slit with their mouth so that they can produce the correct embouchure to play their instrument and it is difficult with that. So that’s a unique challenge,” Springer said, “but also, especially if you think of a trombone or trumpet or anything with a bell… [the bell] has to have a covering on it so that the spit and the aerosols are not released into the air.”
Springer said wind and brass instruments are also spaced more than 6 feet apart as an extra precaution. She said during rehearsals, wind instruments are in the audience to accomplish social distancing. Violinists also play from the audience during string rehearsal. Springer said the CMS also leaves time between rehearsals so the air in the room can clear. For all of the precautions, Springer said the school looked at studies.
“So especially early on with COVID and see, how are we going to mitigate that?…” Springer said. “So we have examined those studies to make sure we could have successful in-person rehearsals.”
The CMS records performances and airs them on the school’s YouTube channel, according to Springer. She said, however, that some of the performances – especially student recitals – are private videos to protect students’ identities. She also said the CMS is still figuring out how some of the larger orchestras will perform together. Springer said the CMS contracts people to record the performances, but she added the school will also offer a professional development event for faculty to learn how to better record sound.
Despite all the challenges, Springer thinks the pandemic offered some unique benefits. She said some string students who are in remote classes have to learn how to tune their instruments early, for example. In orchestras and ensembles, she said students can no longer share music stands, which pushes students to work even harder.
“You cannot rely on a stand partner to kind of support you…” Springer said. “[Students] always work hard, but it’s even like an extra push for students to really know their parts.”
The Missouri ArtSafe certification is there to support local arts organizations in forming COVID-19 safety plans, according to Donovan. He said there are helpful webinars and FAQs on the Missouri ArtSafe website, but he added organizations can reach out for help modifying plans to fit their needs.
All certified organizations pledge to include “facial coverings, social distancing, health checks, contact tracing, contactless experience, reduced capacity, enhanced sanitation and training in COVID-19 safe practices” in their plans. Donovan said all of the organizations certified so far – along with their plans – are listed on the Missouri ArtSafe website. He said organizations still working on a plan should look for an organization like theirs that is already certified.
“I suggest that people start by looking at what’s on there and don’t necessarily look for one that is just your size,” Donovan said. “Look at one that is bigger if they’re there and scale it down because they tend to be much more comprehensive and have a lot more areas that they have to cover.”
Regardless of when an arts organization or venue is planning on reopening, Donovan said it is important to start working on a plan now.
“I think it’s a good idea to have a plan in place for when you open, not wait until it’s safe to open and then start working in your plan,” Donovan said, “because you’ll lose valuable time.”
Students wanting to learn more about the programs offered by the CMS can look at their website.