DECATUR — When this very strange year began, no one imagined that musicians playing wind instruments would need to figure out how to do so while wearing a mask.
Yet here we are, and in order to continue having ensembles and performances, the student musicians at Millikin University have had to figure it out. Fortunately for the flutists, senior Ashten Smith is creative.
Smith, a music major who hopes to be a musicology professor one day, designed a mask for flute that ties only at the top, but is large enough to cover the rest of the face and hang below the chin. A slit in the side allows the musician to slide the headpiece into the mask while leaving the mask in place and keeping the breath inside.
“I volunteered myself,” Smith said. “I said, 'I make masks,' so (my friend) emailed me with two videos of two different types of masks to make. One was a triangle and one was like this. We tried both of them, and we met up the weekend before school (started) and we picked out this mask. The first week, I cranked out six of them.”
The side slit works best, she said, because flutists have their own style of holding the instrument. Some dip it down at an angle, some hold it straight out, and the slit allows the musician to hold it comfortably while still getting the mouthpiece in the right position. Using a mask to play does present some other challenges. The sound is mostly made at the mouthpiece, and flutes are not loud instruments to begin with, so the mask muffles the sound somewhat. And while the pleats at the top of the mask allow more air than a flat cloth mask would, there's still a piece of cloth over your mouth and nose, which make breath control a little more daunting.
“Rather than just being in a mask, I'm in a 'cave,'” she said. “I can hear myself really loud, but outside of me it's really quiet. You can hear it, but in comparison to no mask, it's not as loud.”
While the flute was the biggest challenge to create a mask for, said Corey Seapy, director of bands, due to the way it's played, other problems cropped up, too.
“All the other instruments, such as brass, you cut a horizontal slit in a disposable mask, and what that does is, it catches any particle outside of what's going into the instrument,” Seapy said. “The hardest one was the double-reed instruments like oboes and bassoons. They were complaining of breaking reeds and these sorts of things. If you catch the edge of the mask (on the reed), they're very fragile, especially the very tips of them.”
Shortly before the first live-streamed concert, a bassoon player's mom came up with the idea of making “reed-friendly” masks with a flap over the opening, allowing a bigger opening that wouldn't catch the edge of the reed, but would allow the musician to close the opening during pauses in the music or while moving to or from the performance area.
If not for the ever-present masks on every face, you might think this is any other fall semester at Millikin University.
The musicians who play strings or percussion don't need special masks and just wear regular masks, and Millikin has even provided formal “concert black” masks for performances. Horns with bells have coverings to keep any stray particles from escaping the instrument, and certain brass instruments which might leak condensation – and possibly germs – when the musician puts the instrument down, have puppy pads under them on the floor.
“The research shows that any protection around (a hole in a mask), starts to catch a high volume of these aerosol particles,” Seapy said.
Musicians learn to breathe from the diaphragm for control and power, he said, and if they're breathing properly, they can fill their lungs without sucking the mask against their faces.
“Maybe it is affecting their ability to breathe and create the sound, but I keep teaching the same way I normally would, and most instruments, with the exception of flute, the sound is coming out of the bell or the sound hole,” he said. “It might feel a little weird to them, but we're able to make music, so we're grateful for that.”
Millikin School of Theatre and Dance
Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter