Making Music Safely: VU adapts to keep students making the music they love

Making Music Safely: VU adapts to keep students making the music they love

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November 13, 2020

November 13, 2020

VINCENNES, Ind. – This fall semester looks unlike anything seen before. Faces are behind masks. Social distancing is the new normal. 

Certain scenes on campus barely resemble what we are used to seeing, particularly in the Vincennes University Performing Arts Department and music ensembles.

Inside classrooms and practice spaces, you see something never seen before the pandemic. Students are playing instruments and singing while wearing masks or other types of face coverings, and the instruments are even wearing “masks.”

“I am grateful I get to make music still,” said Hallie Swenson, a vocal and instrumental music major from Veedersburg, Indiana, who plays horn and trumpet. “Even though it is a bit difficult to make music, I'm thankful for the opportunity. I’m also in choir, so I get the best of both worlds.”

By using customized personal protective equipment (PPE), VU students and faculty are safely making the music they love during a pandemic.

“It is such a blessing to be able to be back on campus making music with others,” said Adonia Meiss, a conservation law enforcement major from DeMotte, Indiana, who plays the tenor saxophone.

“Last year, when we all got sent back home, being able to be in the same atmosphere as others, and making music is the one thing I missed the most. There is nothing that can truly replace that feeling. Even though this year is a lot different, I think we all are so happy to be making music together again!”

When VU pivoted to remote learning last spring due to a stay-at-home order in Indiana, music faculty and students shifted from classrooms to video conferencing platforms. Making music on Zoom is not ideal.

Performing Arts Department Chair and Director of Bands Susie Jackson and Adjunct Music Professor Joyce Kim-Rohrer spent the summer researching ways for students and faculty to best make music in person together. They adopted recommendations and safety protocols put forth in a highly respected University of Colorado Boulder study tailored for music activities and the use of PPE.

"With the threat of Covid, I think this PPE is important to keep everyone safe and healthy," said Katelyn Pruitt, a trombone player and pre-veterinary major from Marshall, Indiana. “I would not want to get Covid and be away from school for so long nor do I want that for others. Or for others to be away from work for two weeks.”

Music connects us, evokes positive emotions, and feeds our souls, which serves a great purpose during these unprecedented times.

“It feels great to play with others and hear what we can produce,” Pruitt said. “If I am upset or angry, music calms me. My band classes are usually my happy place.”

Creating music together as a group during a pandemic is not simple.

When playing woodwind instruments such as the clarinet, saxophone, and flute, aerosols or a fine spray escapes through the finger holes and could spread the Covid-19 coronavirus. Brass instruments like the trumpet, trombone, and tuba also produce aerosols primarily through the bells of the instruments.

To mitigate the aerosols, students playing woodwind instruments are covering their instruments in specially made, washable bags that are three layers and include a filter. The bags are made of a special fabric and close around the hands of the person playing the instrument.

Students playing brass instruments are using double-layer bell covers with additional filter inserts that go over the open ends of their instruments. The covers and filters change the resonance of the instruments, making it a little more difficult to play than normal.

“All of this does affect the sound a little bit, but not as much as we all thought it was going to,” Jackson said.

Woodwind and brass players are also wearing custom masks with slits for their mouths. Flaps cover the slits when they are not playing.

“It obviously feels a lot different playing with this equipment, but I remind myself that this is the safest way to be able to play,” Meiss said.

VU vocalists are using face shields in addition to face masks during choral ensembles, voice lessons, and other classes that incorporate singing.

Additional protocols are in place. Students and faculty practice social distancing. Instruments are never shared. Rooms and practice spaces are cleaned after use. Hand sanitizer is also readily available.

“There are probably some schools that aren’t going to the lengths we are,” Jackson said. “Our faculty, staff, and dean feel like we are doing more to be safe. We feel better at the end of the day knowing that we are trying to do what we can to help the students and yet still be able to create music.”

Unable to find at the time what the Performing Arts Department and music students needed, Kim-Rohrer and a local community volunteer took it upon themselves to design and create the instrument bags and masks provided to students free of charge. 

Kim-Rohrer and Rev. Cheryl Thorne of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Washington, Indiana, designed six patterns for all the woodwind instruments. Thorne sewed the bags and donated her time because she wants to play a role in helping protect students.

“I am passionate about music and music education,” Kim-Rohrer said. “Music just calls to people. It helps their soul. It helps their mental health. It’s expressive. It’s needed at all times. But we also have to keep safe. It makes me feel good to know that we’ve done our best to help our students be safe.”

Jackson recalls the day when faculty and students came together in person for the first time this semester.

“It was really cool to be back together,” she said. “You could hear it in the way they played. If you were in the room, you could hear and feel the energy. It was almost like electricity in the air that hadn’t been there since before we shut down.”

Using the PPE has taken some getting used to. 

Haley Canfield, a nursing major from Crown Point, Indiana, uses a mask, face shield, and instrument bag when playing her flute and piccolo.

“I felt like I was re-learning how to play my instrument,” she said. 

That said, Canfield is willing to do whatever it takes to do what she loves.

“Making music together in person feels wonderful,” she said. “Despite all the precautions and severity of the situation, it is better than trying to play together on Zoom! We are making the best of it and trying to look at all of the positives.

“This pandemic has not been easy for anyone in any situation. But it is important we all look and think about the positives in each situation, and be able to adapt to changes as they come.”

Want to see the VU Performing Arts Department making music together live and safely? 

Watch the virtual “A Gala Concert” beginning Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. ET via YouTube. The concert showcases a variety of VU Music student performing groups. The performance is pre-recorded, and due to University protocols, a live audience was not in attendance. Physical distancing between the performing groups as well as within each group was observed.

“Guitars in the Night” is another pre-recorded concert by the VU Music program and features a wide variety of literature and musical styles. It will be presented via YouTube beginning Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. ET. All performers are properly masked and socially distanced, and singers use face shields in addition to face masks.

These musical celebrations are available next week at the VU Music YouTube page: