Masks Don’t Stop the Music

How Nazareth’s School of Music is making band and orchestra happen

wind symphony practice

Socially-distanced and masked Wind Symphony during rehearsal.

"There is nothing more special than being able to create live music with my colleagues and peers. The first rehearsal after months of quarantine was such a special and magical moment that I will never forget."

Junior music education major Louisa Pandolfo is feeling very fortunate to participate in a wind ensemble during these unprecedented times of COVID-19. The flutist is happy to put on her specialized flute mask for each rehearsal with the Nazareth School of Music Wind Symphony, because she knows the extra safety guidelines put in place in the School of Music enable her and her fellow students to create music.

The Nazareth College School of Music faculty has been working behind the scenes for months to make the bands and orchestras possible safely. Smaller ensembles, special masks, bell covers, social distancing, and health and safety video training are among the extensive changes during the pandemic.

Accomplishing that feat has required extensive research — and hands-on effort. Louisa's flute mask and others were created and sewn by members of the School of Music flute faculty. They go on around the ears like many other surgical and cloth masks, but each mask has a little opening on the right side that is big enough only for the flute. Flutists can play as normal with no harm to sound quality since the fabric isn't sitting on top of the flute's mouthpiece.

Louisa Pandolfo

Junior music education major Louisa Pandolfo (flute primary)

"The end of each flute is also covered with a piece of fabric that is secured to help prevent any droplets from coming out of the end. These covers are very important because flutes are held horizontally, which means any droplets coming out would be going right to the person sitting next to the player," said Pandolfo. "These simple covers help stop that problem, and keep everyone safe." The bag inflates a bit like a purple bullfrog, adds Prof. Marjorie Roth.

"We have had to make an incredible amount of adjustments to keep the music playing this fall," said Jared Chase, director of the Nazareth Wind Symphony. "I have been very impressed with the students' ability to adapt."

All musicians are on top of the extra safety guidelines for the School of Music after a health and safety training video tailored for instrumentalists with Chase and Professor Steven Zugelder to talk about the various protocols for band and orchestra rehearsals, some of which include:

  • Each instrumental student is required to have a “playing mask” to use only for playing their instruments in rehearsal, method classes, and when practicing on their own on campus, both inside and outside. Applied faculty were very involved in the selection and implementation for each different instrument.
  • Each student must have a bell cover, almost like a mask for the instrument. They are made out of two layers of dense fabric with a MERV 13 filter that captures the aerosols leaving the instrument.
  • Many instruments produce water condensation that is expelled through a spit valve. Students must capture that water on a Lysol-soaked rag, a puppy pad, or towelette during rehearsal/practice and then dispose of it after.

“I admit I was quite nervous to come back to campus and play in person, all together again, but the School of Music faculty has provided us with thorough guidelines and requirements to ensure that we remain safe,” said junior music therapy major Sydney Fina, a clarinetist in the Wind Symphony. She is also a piano primary and plays in the school’s Chamber Piano ensemble on Zoom. “I feel very fortunate to play with my peers again. It’s something that has truly shaped my college music experience. Not all schools are able to hold in-person ensembles, and I surely appreciate our school’s emphasis on safe collaboration.”

Sydney Fina

Junior music therapy student Sydney Fina (clarinetist & piano primary)

"I wear two disposable facemasks and I cut a small hole in one of them, just enough so that my mouthpiece can fit through. Then, I wear an uncut mask over the cut one. I pull the outer mask down when I am playing, but when I am counting rests or receiving instructions I pull the outer mask back up. I use two new masks each time that I play."

"My bell cover is a small square air filter (called a MERV-13 filter) that sort of resembles a Swiffer dry cleaning sheet. I wrap it around my bell and rubber band it so that it stays in place. It's important that it's on the bell pretty tight, or else the sound is muffled. Other fabrics and filters can be used, but they cannot be too thin, or else condensation can escape."

The Nazareth Wind Symphony and Symphonic bands, normally 50 to 65 students, had to be reduced in size to allow for social distancing in rehearsals. Symphonic Band Director Steven Zugelder was instrumental in forming the new Night Flyer Band, which rehearses Wednesday nights, which helped bring each of the three bands down to 30 to 35 students.

Chase said, "Another advantage of the new night band: It provides a lab of sorts for our student conductors, music education majors, and graduate students to develop their teaching." The School of Music hopes to continue the Night Flyer Band as an option for non-music majors, staff, and community as well as music education majors to practice their secondary instruments.

Senior music education major and trumpeter Tom McCartney knows all the work that went into making ensembles possible this fall, since he worked with Chase for the first three weeks of the semester to experiment with different setups for certain instruments for Wind Symphony.

"The distancing and bell covers play a huge role in how well we are able to hear each other, and that goes for individual sections and the band as whole," said McCartney, who continues to act as set-up person for both wind symphony and jazz ensemble, and plays percussion as his secondary instrument. "We have tried set-ups that stack sections; so instead of being in a line, they are put into two rows parallel to each other. The stacking really helps the french horns and trumpets hear their section better to improve our intonation and overall togetherness. "

Tom McCartney

Senior music education major Tom McCartney (trumpet primary and percussion secondary)

"Playing trumpet with a mask on is very interesting to say the least. I have two options for my playing mask. I have some disposable masks that I cut a slit in vertically and horizontally and I also had a family friend sew a mouthpiece sized hole in a white cloth mask that I wash every other day."

Bands and orchestras have adapted how they rehearse, and they are currently rehearsing inside Beston Hall and outside Glazer Music Performance Center, using these spaces to their musical advantage.

Students enter and exit rehearsal socially distant, making sure their music stands and chairs are properly sanitized before starting. "Every instrument is at least 6 feet apart, with some instruments 9 feet apart," said Chase.

When possible, ensembles are rehearsing outside, where a full band can rehearse for 30 minutes, take a five-minute break, and then resume playing. When it is too cold to play outside, they rehearse onstage of Beston Hall for part of rehearsal, and then split into smaller ensembles (brass choir or woodwind ensemble) and rehearse in new locations for the remainder of the time, allowing for proper air to exchange in Beston Hall.

ensemble rehearsal outside of Glazer

"If it were not for the investment in our new facilities, it is doubtful that we would be able to have any ensembles at all this semester," said Chase. "But because of the Glazer Music Performance Center, Beston Hall, the Duda Family Concourse (lobby), and the Angelo and Catherine Allocco Terrace (in front of Glazer), we are able to continue to give these students valuable ensemble experiences safely."

The directors of each ensemble also have the challenge of choosing repertoire that controls the number of students onstage at a time, to stay safely within the guidelines. "There is not a standard instrumentation for this reduced number of players," said Chase. "For example, a string orchestra may have five different instrument parts (violin I & II, viola, cello and bass) and a chorus typically has four parts (soprano, alto, tenor and bass), but a wind ensemble can have as many as 40 unique, separate parts!"

When it comes to individual practice, "we do have the outdoor tents set up, and instrumentalists can use them to practice without masks on," said School of Music Director David Davies. "When they practice indoors they have to follow all of our cleaning protocols (wiping down stands and chairs, doorknobs, etc.. before and after use) and also need to practice with masks on."

 Emma Clive

Senior music education and music performance major Emma Clive (horn primary)

"My horn professor bought the bell covers and masks and offered them to the horn players she teaches. It is suggested that we use different masks or wash reusable ones if we can to be extra cautious. Some people are using disposable masks, for which professors suggested they cycle through different masks to prevent breathing in germs from the day before."

"The horn bell is a little different than other instruments. We rest our right hand inside the bell to hold it, but also use our hand to fine tune pitches as we play. We rest the top of the inside of the bell on the knuckles of our right hand. The right hand is cupped in a c-shape. This makes it difficult to put a bell cover on and still be able to put a hand in a bell. While other instruments can cover their full bell, we had to find/use stockings, neck gaiters, etc that had holes on both sides so we can still use our hand to hold the instrument and tune."

French horn player Emma Clive is a senior music education and music performance major who knows Nazareth is going above and beyond the guidelines from the CDC and studies of aerosols: "We are doing more than expected to stay as safe as possible. We are cutting down on rehearsal times more than expected, distancing farther, and taking advantage of outdoor spaces for the best air flow, but also to maximize rehearsal time."

Clive also points out that music is key to the emotional well-being of many of the students. "I feel blessed to be able to play music in general right now. Music is our livelihood, and in a world where nothing is certain, it helps to be able to express our emotions and enjoy something we hold so close to our hearts during this stressful time, while staying safe."

McCartney, the trumpeter, echoes the incredible opportunity to play this semester. "Quarantine had all of us deprived of making music with each other, and it is refreshing to be able to do that once again with all the COVID-19 guidelines and social distancing. It's definitely a different experience playing with masks and bell covers, but it's all worth it to be able to make music together."

Nancy Strelau

String players now playing in smaller chamber ensembles

Dr. Nancy Strelau conducting one of smaller orchestras at the Nazareth Garen Peace Garden by the fountain.

The Nazareth College School of Music Symphony Orchestra is taking on the same safety precautions as the bands, including breaking the ensemble into two string orchestras with close to 20 players in each orchestra. Named the Sinfonie Strings and Camerata Strings for now, there are no wind or brass instruments playing alongside the strings during this time.

Nancy Strelau, conductor of both chamber orchestras and associate director of the School of Music, says students are rehearsing in the Duda Family Concourse (lobby) of the Glazer Music Performance Center, which is a good acoustical space with large air volume. Students are six feet apart and wearing masks. Since breath isn't used to play string instruments, they don't need added masks for their instruments.

Strelau says some string players are trying an innovative technique. "Violins and violas are rehearsing and performing standing up, which allows all musicians to hear better in this setting. We are currently experimenting with angling stands in various ways to enhance hearing each other so we can work on balance and blend."

"Limitations demand that we become more creative in our approaches — necessity is the mother of invention — and that's what we are living through now," said Strelau. "We need to be with each other emotionally, sharing our love and enthusiasm for this medium."

Hear the Results

Listen to the Nazareth College Wind Symphony perform On the Campus March by John Philip Sousa and Irish Tune from County Derry by Percy Grainger with all the pandemic innovations in place — recorded September 2020. 

From Jared Chase: “This march was written exactly 100 years ago in 1920 and Sousa dedicated it to collegians, past, present, and future. We thought this would be a great time to play it and celebrate that we get to make music together, on campus!”