Hard work and planning puts safety first
College of Music works on COVID-19 tuneup to keep students, faculty and staff safe.
Source: Lansing State Journal article, Sunday August 9, 2020
By Ken Glickman
When musicians play the flute, they forcefully blow air over the top of the mouthpiece, thereby splitting the air with half shooting several feet in front of the player, the other half flying through the instrument and soaring for many feet beyond the flute.
If this amount of detail about flute playing causes you to proclaim “Who cares!?” you are not aware of the work that is now under way in planning for the Michigan State University College of Music to open for students in just a few weeks.
All schools are scrambling to prepare for the coming academic year, but university music schools face a double problem. They have to plan for teaching students private lessons on instruments and voice, rehearsing large bands and orchestras, but also decide on how to present concerts and opera performances just like any other performance venue.
The faculty and administrators of the college have been spending the entire summer – a time when most of them are usually off at summer music camps and festivals – working out every detail of providing a safe environment for students to pursue their degree requirements.
James Forger, Dean of the College of Music, said. “We have canceled all live concerts for the fall semester, including faculty recitals. The No. 1 priority is student learning.”
Forger has been meeting with the faculty on a regular basis to make decisions on every aspect of delivering music education to their 500 students.
They’ve been looking at charts, diagrams, research studies and protocols, examining how far air goes when each instrument is being played, how far musicians must be separated, how efficient the HVAC system is in each building and how to best use technology in all of these cases.
Forger said, “The Europeans are ahead of us on this. They have many scientific studies on how the airstream is propelled from a singer’s mouth or from a musical instrument. Pianists and string players can wear a mask, but other musicians cannot. We are not taking risks.”
Forger’s group found that the voice and the flute are the most problematic – that you need to be distanced at least 20 feet apart to be safe.
For large group rehearsals each musician was expected at first to be enclosed in a Plexiglass tube.
Forger explains, “MSU has a wonderful carpenter and he has been designing these enclosures using Plexiglass and Lexan.”
But within one week, the plexiglass solution for the wind instruments was already out of date. New studies forced the music school leadership to change their plans again.
For the past 20 years, Forger has been raising funds to build a much-needed music building to service his growing college. As it turns out, the building has finally been built but is now standing empty.
Forger agrees that it is sad that there is no music being played within its walls right now, but he also says that the new building (The Billman Pavilion) has been a godsend since it has state of the art air handling systems and many large rooms to accommodate the new demands of the school during this period of Covid.
Although the entire faculty is involved with these planning discussions, the team leaders under Forger are David Rayl, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research and Michael Kroth, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and Operations.
“The choir rehearsals will be in the Fairchild Theatre,” Forger said. “The choir will be in a single line, 20 feet apart in the audience area with the conductor on the stage.”
Rayl, also head of choral programs, said, “We’ve been doing lots of research for the last two-to-three months. The Army Band has published a set of protocols which includes careful control of entry, spacing with trombones needing more space than anyone. Shorter rehearsals are safer.
“Also, we have been studying the aerosols from all the instruments and how long they stay in the room. There will be no concerts at all with a live audience in the first semester. Live streaming will take place.”
Since all band, orchestra and choir concerts have been streamed for the past three years or so, all the large rehearsal rooms and the concert auditoriums are already set up with streaming equipment. Nothing new has to be added.
Michael Kroth is conducting a thorough study of all of the buildings the college of music occupies – air flow, size of ceilings, air conditioning, windows and more. The new Billman Pavilion has the best infrastructure, but Kroth, a bassoonist, must also check out the old Music Building, Music Practice Building, Fairchild Theater, Concert Auditorium and Demonstration Hall – one of the oldest buildings on campus.
The team is even entertaining the idea of having rehearsals in the parking garages and different places in around Spartan Stadium.
“We must be aware of how quickly a room can exchange the air,” Kroth said. “And how long we have to keep the room empty between use. We have 101 practice rooms plus many other larger ensemble practice rooms. Each one has to have room sign ups and cleaning protocols. Billman has been a life saver during these arrangements. I don’t know how we would have had enough performance spaces and practice spaces without it.”
There have been bi-weekly faculty meetings to sort through these issues.
“There has been great faculty involvement, Kroth said. “We’re involved in operations, teaching, technology and fund raising and it’s been all hands on deck. A great effort.”
Forger agrees. “Our faculty meeting have had 100% attendance. We’re also involved with diversity, equity and belonging. People have bonded and moved together with a common purpose.”
Forger mentioned that the facilities will be running seven days a week and late into the evening to accommodate private lessons in different spaces. “It’s impossible to have lessons in current professors’ studios. They aren’t large enough – especially for the wind faculty. We will use large rooms with Plexiglas and/or 10-foot shower curtains to make a barrier.”
For anyone who has ever played in a band, or with brass instruments, they know about one unsightly process all brass players have to partake in. They must empty the condensation and saliva from their instruments onto the floor. Some instruments have “spit valves.”
Kroth said, “This is a real problem. Trombones, tubas, horns and trumpets all have to empty out. We are looking for ways of doing this safely. Things like cloth wraps, some material on the floors, even puppy training pads have been discussed. We need to get some science behind this.”
Despite the pressure to put all of these plans together, Kroth, Forger and Rayl have been energized by the process. “We’ve been very busy and every engaged and we’ve learned many new things,” Rayl said “We’ve learned to be more flexible and we’ve discovered new technologies that our students are helping us with. I don’t think our teaching will ever be the same, even after Covid. They will now be tools in my teaching arsenal.”
The world has embraced the video application Zoom for most things; it does not do well for music. Music is usually identified as “background noise” which is faded out in favor of voices. The music faculty have discovered a setting to improve the music sound. Also, the school has spent $60,000 to purchase 450 high quality microphones that students will used for taking lessons online and have the best sound available.
Music school donors have helped to make that happen.
“And there’s still more to do,” Forger said. “It’s a like a giant jigsaw puzzle. In addition, our community music schools, one in Detroit and one in East Lansing, have 2,300 students taking classes. And there are still no decisions yet concerning the marching band. We must remain flexible and nimble.”
Summer vacation? Those two words don’t really exist this year. The folks at the College of Music have already spend hundreds of hours planning, and it appears that they aren’t slowing down any time soon.