mu symphony orchestraProfessor Kathyrn Davis (front left) practices with other wind instrumentalists behind plexiglass partitions to maintain COVID safety during concert rehearsals.
Photo from Manchester Symphony Orchestra Facebook page

MSO Embraces COVID Safety Precautions, Excitedly Returns to Performing

Claire Butler

The Symphony Orchestra held their spring concert on Sunday, March 14. Emotions ran high in the week leading up to the concert as both string and wind instruments would be performing together for the first time since December 2019.

 “I am excited for the audience to hear what we have to offer, especially since we had to wait to play the Beethoven pieces from Spring 2020,” said Lydia Kelly, percussionist.  “I personally think it can take one through emotional journeys.”

Kathryn Davis, flutist and chemistry professor, agrees. “I missed performing with this group and returning to it is exciting.”

Kaitlin Graber, violinist, added: “I am really looking forward to a performance including the full orchestra and not just the strings.”

Practicing for this concert has been a long road of dedication and flexibility to safely play together. The orchestra received a $12,000 grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to help them continue with the full concert. They were able to purchase special masks for the woodwinds that have a small hole where they put their mouthpiece as well as bags that the instrument goes inside to keep the aerosols contained.

 “I found the mask cumbersome,” said Lila Hammer, clarinetist and Registrar Emerita. “Normally I just put my instrument into my mouth, but the slit in the mask didn’t open very wide, so I had to ‘guide’ my mouthpiece through the slit so I wouldn’t ruin my reed.”

Davis had her own challenges. “I had to think a lot more about when I could afford to put my flute down because I had to fumble with the bag and mask, so short breaks weren’t really possible,” she said.

Likewise, brass instruments had to use bell covers while playing to avoid aerosols from escaping. 

In addition to the masks and sitting six feet apart, there were additional air precautions. “We needed to let the air escape every 45 minutes to allow the air to exchange and clear the space of the aerosols that did escape,” said Debra Lynn, orchestra director. “Our rehearsals are two hours, so we had to take carefully timed breaks: everybody had to leave the stage, let the air exchange, and then we’d come back.

“That was kind of tricky,” she continued. “I had to keep a close eye on the time to keep everybody safe.”

However, Derrick Golden, one of the directors in Cordier Auditorium, was able to design and build plexiglass cubicles for the wind instruments to play inside. It took these 8ft tall plexiglass sheets to start with, but once we got the grant money Derrick was able to design these partitions and we were able to use them for most of our rehearsals,” Lynn said.

Once the partitions were up, the wind instruments did not have to wear the masks or bags around their instruments. The wind instruments were able to sit closer together on stage, which made more room on stage.

With the new technology, came new struggles but the musicians found a way to look on the bright side. “The newer challenges are hearing my fellow wind players behind Plexiglass so I can stay in tune and match their style and playing a bit louder so that I can be heard,” Davis said. “Those aren’t as hard to deal with as I expected.”

Even the string instruments had to adjust to more than just a mask. “One of the biggest challenges was getting used to not having a stand partner,” Graber said. “I had to adjust to playing more confidently on my own while still sticking with the group.”  

Lynn adds: “The precautions are pretty funky, lots of adjustments. But it was that or don’t play, and these are really passionate musicians; they wanted to play so they were willing to put up with all the weirdness.”

Hammer welcomes the opportunity to return to the orchestra. “Each piece we’re playing has its challenges and wonderful melody lines,” she said. “For me, I feel like I can express what I’m feeling internally better of the clarinet than with spoken words. I view my clarinet as an extension of who I am and how I express myself.”

Davis looks forward to creating. “My favorite part of playing the flute is all of the different characters I can be, depending on what tone or articulation I want to use,” she said. “I can be a bird, a lullaby, a breeze. Composers have done a lot of interesting things with the flute over the years, so there’s a lot to explore.”

In addition to playing the instruments themselves, the musicians have their favorite pieces to perform. “Beethoven is difficult to conduct because there are sudden changes and really far-reaching changes,” Lynn said. “Crazy pengulus shifts in sound make it a complex piece especially for strings.”

Despite the difficulty of the piece, Violinist Elizabeth Smith is not daunted. “There is something magical about how Beethoven almost causes time to stand still during the slow movements of his symphonies and other works,” she said.

Kelly agrees. “I love the dynamic contrasts and how the piece is structurally laid out,” she said. “The strings have many challenging runs or scale passages that I absolutely love hearing.”

Graber adds: “It’s fun to hear how my part fits with the rest of the orchestra and how we all interweave with one another.”

Lynn favors Eric Korngold’s “Theme and Variation.” “Not very many people know that one and for me that was really fun to introduce the piece since it is not played often,” she said.

Despite the challenges and precautions leading up to the concert, it was held at Cordier Auditorium with a live audience of about 100 people including a field-trip group from Wabash High School. The musicians were more than excited to be back on a stage performing and the music itself was beautifully played from the safety of the cubicles and masks.