How will COVID affect live school performances?

Nov. 8, 2021, 5:51 p.m. | By Samuale Asefa | 2 years, 3 months ago

MCPS has put new restrictions on performances in place to ensure pandemic safety

Teacher fixing theater performer's special mask. Photo courtesy of Jonas Laufer.

Mathew Calderon has been attempting to perfect his clarinet-playing skills all throughout quarantine by rehearsing by himself. With schools opening back up his eagerness to play with a full ensemble is through the roof, but new COVID safety measures for live performances put in place by MCPS might hinder his band’s performance. 

As lives are getting closer to normal transitioning out of quarantine, schools are opening back up to full capacity. Operating at full capacity means that all performance art students can get back to live concerts, but not without any MCPS-mandated COVID safety measures. 

One of the more significant restrictions is the special masks issued to band and theater students for their performances. Band members that play wind, brass and reed instruments are required to wear specialized masks that allow them to play their instruments with their masks on. Without the special masks, students would have to pull down their masks and expose their noses and mouths. 

The county-mandated masks are made of black cloth and are rather thick. Each band member receives a mask that has a little flap opening that allows for the student to insert their instrument into their mouths without exposing much of their face. 

Calderon says that playing with masks is something they’re working on, but is overall is thrilled to be playing with his fellow Blazers again. “I really got tired of playing by myself and it’s refreshing to be able to play with a full ensemble again. I’ve already made progress on being able to produce notes correctly with the bell covers,” he states. 

Wind instruments are required to have a bell cover on while being played, and the cover is basically a cloth mask that covers the part of the instrument that air comes out of. Different sized instruments call for different size bell covers; for example, the tuba’s cover is one of the biggest, being 19’ in diameter. 

The ones MCPS gives their students are made of a rather thick cloth, which hinders students’ abilities to play their instruments well. Symphonic Band teacher and conductor Raife Oldham acknowledges the limitations of the bell covers. “There are notes clarinet players have to use all holes to play and the bell cover definitely makes it harder. We are working towards getting used to it and have already made progress from the beginning of the year,” Oldham explains. 

To allow students to play at their full potential, Oldham and other band teachers bring their students outside during rehearsal. MCPS recently stated that students don’t have to wear masks outside, so the bands can play their instruments without their special masks or bell covers. 

Students also acknowledge the struggle of playing with bell covers. Calderon is glad that Oldham allows the symphonic band to rehearse outside. “We can all notice a big difference in our sound when playing [outside]. I definitely prefer rehearsing outside, but I am slowly getting used to playing with covers,” he says. 

How Blair conductors will organize their concerts is another concern, especially since concerts are known as super-spreaders. There are many restrictions they can impose that will mitigate the air-bound virus.

Oldham describes how bands that don’t have any woodwind or brass instruments don’t have to impose as many restrictions as he does since they don’t blow wind into their instruments. None of the bands have held concerts yet, so the restrictions are still something that all conductors are determining based on the instruments bands will be playing.

Students and conductors alike are hoping for the risk of COVID to start decreasing, so they can loosen restrictions and allow students to perform at their full potential. Oldham is faithful that they will be able to lose some of the restrictions. “Hopefully we can easen up some of those restrictions by our winter performances,” he states. 

Blazers are happy just to be able to play with their ensembles once again and will take the necessary safety measures to do so. Furthermore, theater students share that same sentiment when it comes to them being able to put on plays again.

Theater isn’t exempt from these restrictions and has its own set. Studies done by the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) and the University of Maryland (UMD) prove that singing and acting carry a similar risk of spreading respiratory diseases to instrumental performances.

Theater programs are also given county-mandated masks, but they aren’t special in any way, just normal masks. Performers are required to wear their masks in both rehearsals and performances.

Senior Maxwell Pauls has been in theater since their freshman year and is eager to be able to perform again. Pauls believes that the county-mandated masks are the right call, but also acknowledges the limitations it sets on the performers. “I definitely feel safer with the masks, and since we’re basically shouting at the audience, it’s necessary to keep them safe. They do make it harder for us to hear each other sometimes, but it’s a process we are all working through,” Pauls says. 

Theater plays won’t be going through much change when it comes to the way the audience will be seated. The objective will still be to fill every seat, but they might take more intermissions to help the air clear out of the room. 

Between instrumental performances and theater performances, it’s clear that conductors are taking many more steps to ensure COVID safety. Blair concerts and plays have not been held yet, so organizers will have to base further restrictions on the aftermath of those events. 

Last updated: Nov. 18, 2021, 1:48 p.m.

Samuale Asefa. Hello! My name is Sam and I'm a writer for SCO. I am a self-proclaimed movie buff and love listening to all types of music. More »

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Kelly O'Connor — 2 years, 3 months ago

The masks given to us by the county are the special singer masks--theatre, like singing, involves a high aerosol content. Because of the high demand in MCPS, we received our special masks for theatre use only about a week ago--they are the ones you will see on the actors in the play. The actors have worked hard at developing the physical expression of their characters--it's a theatre skill that COVID restrictions have made the subject of the actors' attention. So glad that students are able to perform live again and do what they love. :)

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