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Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the arts with performances cancelled, theatres and cinemas on the brink of closure, musicians and actors scrambling for any kind of alternative employment and the stimulation and exhilaration of high quality live performance denied us. The fragile, interconnected eco-system the arts depend on appeared to slip away almost without notice.

Many theatres are struggling to remain in business during the pandemic

It sounds bad, doesn’t it? But, if you were caught holding the wrong instrument, then things got worse. Strings or percussion players were fine. But wind and brass players were in trouble due to the aerosol production caused by these instruments. As for singers… well, they were the worst. 

Or so we were told…

But do these dramatic headlines stack up?

I would suggest my first paragraph is just about spot on. As a professional musician, I and my colleagues have had our performances cleared by Covid-19. When we hear theatres such as Manchester’s Royal Exchange, London’s The Globe and even the South Bank Centre are in dire straits, there doesn’t seem much hope for the minnows such as The Lexington in Pentonville Road and Slim Jim’s Liquor Store in Upper Street. Both venues are in Islington, London and are just two of scores of live music venues across the country crowdfunding to try and pay their rents and staff during the current crisis.

The Lexington Islington

However, it comes as a welcome relief to hear that restrictions around singing, wind and brass Instruments in England are to be relaxed as the UK Government updates its guidance reflecting new research into transmission risks from singing, wind and brass performance.

Of course, this is great news after months of uncertainty but what was all the fuss about concerning wind and brass instruments?

Up until the announcement today, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) seemed to have these instruments in the super-spreader league. Here’s what they said…

“Singing and playing wind and brass instruments, especially in groups, are considered higher risk activities because of the potential for aerosol production and the absence presently of developed scientific analysis to assess this specific risk” 

What the DCMS seemed to be saying was singing, wind and brass playing was high risk, not because of the science, but because of the lack of it. So the ‘potential’ for aerosol production in these activities was so great there was only one remedy – eliminate them.

So let’s just take a closer look at the science we do know. Richard Steggall, a well-recognised pro horn player brilliantly put together a short, simple video and addressed the issue of aerosol production in brass instruments. It’s worth taking a look. You just might be surprised…

As Richard eloquently said in his letter to Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport , ‘much of the rhetoric of why wind and brass instruments might help spread coronavirus has involved the idea that we “project” air as we play. Although we do use air to make vibrations in our instruments, we project sound waves, just like a piano, violin or loudspeaker. As I believe Sir Simon Rattle told you, “You cannot blow a candle out with a trombone.” The rate of airflow leaving the bell of a brass instrument is tiny, and, after going through at least 1.4m of tubing (the length of a trumpet), the droplets in the breath are caught in the instrument and can be disposed of…..it appears that, although the government keep telling us they are “following the science”, they are in fact going on their perceptions.’

Perhaps one of the culprits as to why wind and brass players became the bad guys was down to the only remotely relevant article related to the issue which was entitled  “Propagation of Respiratory Aerosols by the Vuvuzela” 

As Dr Stephen Carney says in his editorial  entitled ‘Following the Science? Or are we sacrificing the arts?’ in the influential magazine Drug Discovery Today, ‘the authors of this study recommended that, as a precautionary measure, not to blow a Vuvuzela in enclosed spaces where there is the chance of infection. There are clearly significant differences in the structure of the Vuvuzela and modern brass instruments: i) The Vuvuzela is plastic, ii) It is a straight flared tube, iii) Typical measured time blown was 2s at a rate of between 2 and 8 l/s iv) the length of the Vuvuzela is 30 cm (compared with an estimated length of about 140 cm for a standard B flat trumpet. Clearly, given this information, the Vuvuzela would not represent a good model for aerosol distribution by orchestral brass players.’

 

Vuvuzela – a brass instrument..?

Dr Stephen Carney’s full article: ‘Following the Science? Or are we sacrificing the arts? can be read here: 

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drudis.2020.07.022

Support for the arguments of both Richard Steggall and Dr Stephen Carney comes from an article by Lars Brandt MD PhD, Department Chairman, Ass. Professor, Center for Performing Arts Medicine, Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, Odense University Hospital Department of Clinical Research, University of Southern Denmark. He concluded that:

“The emission of aerosol measured from brass and wood wind instruments was very low, and almost at the same level as background concentrations. Other experiments have shown very little airflow and very small aerosol concentrations at short distances from brass and woodwind instruments.’

Dr Carney continues ‘This preliminary research is, to an extent, confirmed, if somewhat anecdotally, by an article by Spahn and Richter and by further anecdotal studies from the Bamberg Symphony orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.’

https://www.br.de/nachrichten/bayern/bamberger-symphoniker-wissenschaftler-messen-aerosolausstoss,Ry6T6OU?fbclid=IwAR0q9LfNqv3QFBZ6EiWDlKs2vvNEnBJKb96oYhDa-PeKx6ePGu9jQqy5RrQ

Admittedly, much of this research has not been peer-reviewed but, again referring to Dr Carney ‘for those who suggest that we wait until we are in possession of peer-reviewed research, in normal circumstances I would agree; however, I am more than aware of how long this is likely to take.’

So, given the amount of information that was available, it seems a pity that the UK government was slow to act with the guidance it has now put in place. Dr Carney reminds us ‘what is at stake here is the livelihood of many musicians and the state of music and performing arts in this country, now and in the future.’

The impact of the government’s initial guidance concerning singing, wind and brass playing has been severe. Choirs, orchestras, brass bands, ensemble both professional and amateur, have been laid low for months and anecdotal evidence indicates a reticence within schools to recommend the study of wind and brass instruments due to the ‘perception’ of aerosol transmission. 

Clearly the damage to the arts as a result of this pandemic has been huge but sadly, it may be years before the reputation of wind and brass instruments is fully restored. This would be a great shame as the immense benefits of playing these, and indeed all musical instruments, is well documented. If the government can offer the resources and encourage support for the arts along with a comprehensive education programme for all instrumental studies within schools it may be the damage to the creative culture of the UK can be mitigated. Only time will tell….