Let the music play

Let the music play

Mount Saint Charles Academy Music Director Brian Rowe, left, and Academic Director of Fine Arts Marc Blanchette demonstrated how instrument masks will work when students return to school next week. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)
At Mount, music educators make masks for instruments to keep students safe while playing

WOONSOCKET – How do you prevent the airborne droplets from spreading in a musical instrument that depends on air to make noise?

That’s the question facing the Music Department at Mount Saint Charles Academy as they prepare to head back to school in the midst of a global pandemic.

Marc Blanchette, academic director of fine arts, and Brian Rowe, music director, have been grappling with that question since the spring. In March, the school, like most around the country, canceled in-person classes to stem the spread of the disease. Band class went virtual, and Blanchette said the Google video chats were a poor substitute for the real thing.

“High school band, 62 squares. Everybody with an instrument, it was insane,” he said.

With the school now preparing to reopen next Monday, Aug. 31, Blanchette and Rowe are figuring out how to hold band classes safely for both students and teacher. They set up the usual precautions – limiting classes to 20 students, spacing chairs six feet apart – but struggled with how to allow students to play woodwind and brass instruments without potentially infecting their peers. Masks were an option during playing breaks, but as soon as a student puts an instrument to their lips, their breath works its way through the mechanics of the instrument and out the other end.

That’s when they left the realm of music and turned to science. The two instructors spent much of their summer reading research by Colorado State University, which Blanchette describes as “cutting edge” in terms of aerosol studies and the arts.

As it turns out, different instruments have different aerosol outputs, placing students at different levels of risk depending on the instruments nearby. And, just like with face masks, that output can be significantly reduced with a fitted cover placed over the instrument’s mouth.

“Just that extra layer of protective PPE kind of puts us in a spot where we’re not transmitting as much, and it’s safer for kids to play,” he said.

To create their instrument masks, they turned to Rick’s Musical Instruments in Cumberland, where owner Rick Verfaille worked with them to develop a prototype. They tested the masks themselves throughout the summer, learning a few things along the way. A tight mask, for example, creates a muted sound on a trumpet, while a baggier mask that can fill with air in the middle creates a more natural sound.

“We just kept trying to come up with ideas and he would have things made,” said Blanchette.

With the masks printed and ready to go, the two are now preparing to welcome students to back to their band room. They’re both very aware that in-person classes, a focus of the state’s gradual reopening, might not last the year depending on how case numbers pan out in the fall. They’re also aware that Mount, which is starting classes two weeks earlier than the delayed start date for Rhode Island public schools, has become something of a guinea pig for reopening schools.

“I think a lot of eyes are going to be on here,” said Rowe.

But they also both believe that in-person learning is essential for students playing music together and that more schools should be committed to finding a way to make it happen.

“It’s going to take a lot of discipline on the kids’ side and it’s a lot for us to ask for them, but I think the kids are invested in making this work,” said Rowe.