December 1, 2021

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The Science Behind Orchestras’ Careful Covid Comeback

Last month, members of the Berlin Philharmonic returned home to their concert hall after weeks of isolation. They sat onstage in a loose constellation, dispersed according to local virus regulations. Only 15 players could be onstage at a time. The strings sat two meters apart. The woodwinds and brass sat five meters apart—on account of them blowing great quantities of air during a global respiratory virus pandemic, without the benefit of masks. They played music by Ligeti, Pärt, and Barber. And at the end of the performance, they bowed, smiling vaguely into an empty, silent hall. A classical music critic for The New York Times, watching the performance live from his apartment, described it as “awkward” but “also inspiring.”

Sebastian Nordmann, the director of the Konzerthaus, home of another Berlin orchestra, watched their return to the stage with interest. His orchestra had done its share of virtual experiments: a streaming concert with the pianist Lang Lang; a series of one-on-one recitals between orchestra musicians and listeners who called them on the phone. Nordmann had also given a virtual tour of the historic Konzerthaus building, which turns 200 next year. But he was growing tired of listening at a distance. “Digital is entertaining but it gets boring,” Nordmann says. “That’s not our real focus. Our focus is analog concerts in our hall. It’s a different quality of listening.” The question—for him and for musicians everywhere—is how to do that safely.

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On the list of human joys we hope will return once the world is through the worst of Covid-19, orchestras are usually at the end. This is a matter of managing expectations: orchestras, after all, are a very large crowd of people, coming together in intimate proximity indoors, many of them blowing into instruments vigorously for hours at a time. Plus, musical gatherings have already been implicated in viral spread. In Washington state, a single sick person attending choir practice is thought to have caused 52 additional infections. At churches, hymn-singing congregations have been hotbeds of viral spreading, too (even if the White House doesn’t want to hear about it).

“The epidemiological evidence is compelling,” says Shelly Miller, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Colorado. But still, from the standpoint of a lab scientist like her, it’s anecdotal. The precise means of transmission during those choral-linked episodes requires more investigation. Was it infectious spittle spewed as the singers enunciated their hard t’s? Or was it something unique about the breath involved in singing—the way they forced air from deep in their lungs—that did the trick? That might have played a role in generating aerosols: very small particles that hang around in the air and produce a cloud of infection that is inhaled. Or perhaps it wasn’t Verdi or Mozart’s fault at all. Maybe the singers all just convened around the same ill-fated snack table.

For the risks of singing, there are clues in the scientific literature, primarily from studies on breathing and talking that go back to the 1950s, when the primary interest was in stopping measles. One observation is that loud vocalizations mean more aerosols. (In the choral super-spreader events, Miller suspects inhalation of aerosols is the major culprit.) But for instruments, researchers lack even that basic background to assess the risks and proper precautions, she says. At the behest of a group of school music associations, she began a study on the question last week.

The primary concern lurks in the back of the orchestra: the woodwinds and brass. It’s a diverse bunch of instruments. How do the emissions from the enormous bell of a tuba compare with a straight-shooting flute? The coiled tubes of a French horn with an oboe? In many ways they don’t, really. There are differences in the way the air flows through the instrument, and in how the players draw their breaths—do the droplets come from the mouth, or deep in the lungs? Some instruments require blowing through reeds, or wider metal mouthpieces. Those factors likely affect what kinds of particles are produced, how long those particles hang in the air, and the amount of infectious virus they ultimately bear. For each instrument, a new set of questions needs to be asked. And until now, no one really has.