Colorado Scientists Investigate the Dangers of Wind Instruments

Colorado State University's Wind Symphony.
Colorado State University's Wind Symphony. Howard Weitzel
In Denver's recent guidelines allowing some live music at restaurants, wind instruments are banned. As a result, local jazz venues Nocturne and Dazzle have had to augment some scheduled shows in order to adhere to the city’s mandate.

The restriction didn't sit well with Denver trumpeter Gabriel Mervine, who has played regularly at both Nocturne and Dazzle as well as other venues. While Mervine says he’s not a scientist, he’s an expert trumpet player. So he made a video, which Nocturne posted, that shows him playing a trumpet next to a candle, to see if he could blow it out.

“I made that video of me playing to articulate how little air is actually being utilized going through the trumpet and quickly dispersed into the end of the instrument,” Mervine explains. “To just create a little bit of awareness and hopefully educate some folks who might be in a place to make a decision. We’re trying to adhere to every social guideline. And that's why, like everybody else, we just want them to make sense, to have the guidelines kind of backed by reason and scientific evidence — and when you're not giving any reason or scientific evidence, decisions seem a bit arbitrary.”

click to enlarge Tuba players celebrate Christmas outside the DCPA. - KENNETH HAMBLIN III
Tuba players celebrate Christmas outside the DCPA.
Kenneth Hamblin III
Donald Rossa, owner of Dazzle, says the data on horns and woodwinds referenced by the state is not the leading research on the subject.

“Plain and simple, musicians and venues are just low-hanging fruit that the state can point to as [examples of officials] making an effort to control the spread of COVID-19,” Rossa says. “It just appears that guidelines are created and not enforced equally — and in this case, without reason.”

A new Colorado State University study should shed more light on how airborne particles and droplets are projected by those playing wind and brass instruments, as well as singers, actors and dancers, and whether steps can be taken to protect both performers and audience members from COVID-19.

The study, "Reducing Bioaerosol Emissions and Exposures in the Performing Arts: A Scientific Roadmap for a Safer Return From COVID-19," is headed by John Volckens, a professor of mechanical engineering in CSU's Walter Scott Jr. College of Engineering, and Dan Goble, director of CSU's School of Music, Theater and Dance.

Goble says the study is designed to provide scientifically verified data that can be used to encourage policymakers to allow performers of all types — whether wind players, singers, actors or dancers — back on stage. “We're very fortunate to have a combination of a strong performing arts school here and really wonderful scientists,” he explains. “CSU is a Tier 1 research institution, as well as having really nice performing arts facilities and programs. So it's a great opportunity for us to work across disciplines and try to find some answers. We're not a place to make recommendations to people on what to do, but what we can do is provide data and some solutions, hopefully.”

The CSU researchers are hoping to have some preliminary data by mid-August that will help inform decisions as colleges, universities and public schools reopen for fall.  "This is pretty serious stuff in public school education," Goble says. "And we're really cognizant of making sure that our performing arts programs in the public schools are viable and then keep going."

In about two to three weeks, the research team will start accepting volunteers for the study; the goal is to test about a hundred wind players of all varieties, including those who play saxophone, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and trombone, as well as singers. Volunteers will go into a human exposure facility, built by a team of undergraduate students studying mechanical engineering as part of their senior capstone project, at CSU’s Powerhouse Energy Campus. The chamber, one of only a handful that exist, will be used to measure human aerosol emissions and exposures in a clean, versatile environment. Volckens and his team will use a custom-built computer control and data acquisition system to track human release of aerosols of varying size, concentration and chemical compositions.

While there have been some studies in Germany and Austria that measure airflow coming from wind instruments, Goble says that the CSU team will specifically measure aerosol emissions.

“Until now, there's been little evidence put out on aerosol transmission when you're playing an instrument or when you're singing, or there are two actors on stage who are speaking very forcefully," he notes. "How much are they putting out? Where does it go? How long does it stay in the room? Those are the types of things that we're trying to answer in the study.”

Goble, who has a background in music performance, says that he’s working with Volckens on determining what kind of experiments to run. “If I'm playing the saxophone and there's a piano behind me, depending on the airflow in the room, is there a chance that droplets or aerosol could move behind me?” Goble asks. “I can help form those experiments from a musical standpoint.”

Ultimately, Goble hopes that the study gives lawmakers the information they need to allow musicians to continue performing.

“The reality is, we're in this for the long haul, no matter how long it takes,” he says. “And our goal is to keep performing arts viable in our lives. This is a critical part of humanity that we have to maintain.”
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon