Orchestras are totally safe. Just stay away from the flute player

Mischa Nawrat

In early May, the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic took to the stage for a very unusual performance. With tubes in their nostrils, they played their violins, bugles, clarinets and trombones – and then they exhaled, and the camera clicked. The orchestra, one of the most renowned in the world, was playing not for an audience, but for a science experiment to help gauge the risk of musicians spreading coronavirus.
By now, we’re all hyper-aware of the invisible, potentially disease-carrying droplets we jettison through breathing. Masks and social distancing can help slow the spread, but they’re not an option for musicians – wind instruments can’t be played with a mask on, and spacing out the players would shatter an orchestra’s sound, if it could even fit on the stage.

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Worse yet: health experts feared that the brass pipes of a trumpet or a bugle could act as a Covid-19 blunderbuss, helping the virus travel even farther than merely exhaling. Their reasoning was well founded. Early on in the pandemic, choir practices and concerts helped spread the disease. In one of the most prominent cases, a sick singer in a Washington state choir infected 52 others during practice in March. Two of them died.
Assessing the potential danger of a live orchestra, then, was vital to recommencing performances. The goal of the experiment was to capture images of musicians’ breath escaping from their noses, in gaps between lips and reeds or mouthpieces, and from the other ends of their instruments.
A mix of oxygen and saline solution streamed through the tubes to increase visibility for the camera. “Let’s just say it wasn’t very comfortable,” says first violinist Daniel Froschauer of the nasal tubes he and his colleagues had to wear. “But to be able to play again, we’d do anything.”
By then, it had only been a few weeks since the Philharmonic’s last performance, but it felt like a lifetime. In early March, the Philharmonic was commemorating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with concerts in cities including Paris, Cologne, and Hamburg. But by the time they reached Munich on March 10, Italy had already imposed a lockdown. “We felt that this would be the last time we’d play together, for a long time,” Froschauer says of their Munich concert, which ended with Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony.

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Written at a time when the composer was already afflicted with oncoming hearing loss, Beethoven is said to have represented Fate knocking on the door with the ominous “ta-ta-ta-taa” notes that open the symphony. The following four movements see humanity struggle through darkness and into the light.
That night in Munich, however, the Philharmonic felt like there was no light, Froschauer says. “It was like a last gasp – but it was pointless.” Their remaining concerts were cancelled, and soon after most of Europe joined Italy in lockdown.
By May, the Philharmonic began to wonder when they’d be able to play again. Cases had dropped dramatically; in Austria, stores were reopening. Putting audience members or musicians at risk was out of the question, but so was playing behind Plexiglas or further spacing musicians’ chairs. So, inspired by a study exploring how droplets spread when patients use an inhaler, Fritz Sterz, a professor at the Vienna Medical University and expert in performing arts medicine, set up the aerosol experiment.
“And lo and behold, we saw that not much was coming out at all. In fact, it was close to nothing,” Sterz says. The droplets musicians released spread 50 centimetres around their mouth and nose, but almost none emerged through the end of the trumpet, bugle, clarinet, oboe or the bassoon.

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Given that brass instruments have an integrated spit valve – a key that, when pressed, opens a small hole through which condensed water and saliva can emerge – it was clear that the droplets stayed inside the instruments. “Just watch them play and see how often they have to release water,” Sterz says.
The most dangerous instrument proved to be the flute. With a range of about 75 centimetres, it came closest to acting like a spraygun, but even that distance would be safe within the orchestra’s normal seating arrangements. Similar experiments by the Charité university hospital in Berlin and the Bundeswehr University Munich also proved that musical instruments aren‘t Covid-19 catapults.
Froschauer mentioned the results of the experiment in a phone call with the Austrian chancellor in May, and shortly afterwards, the government announced the Philharmonic and other orchestras would be able to play from June, albeit to audiences of no more than 100 people.
With an adapted schedule, even the Salzburg Festival – one of classical music’s most important annual events – will be held in August, with the Philharmonic playing four of the concerts and two operas.
On June 5, the Philharmonic reunited for its first post-lockdown concert, once again to play Beethoven’s fateful Fifth Symphony. A scattering of guests spread out in the Grand Hall of the Vienna Musikverein, not far from where the symphony debuted 212 years ago.
The Philharmonic raised its violins and flutes to struggle through the darkness of the fifth symphony, and emerge into the light. “The way we express our music couldn’t be any different than the way life is at that moment,” Froschauer says, elated to have played again. “And now, it sounds like hope.”
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