As leader of Vintage Parlor Orchestra, Thomas Pike faces challenges in gathering his large ensemble for practices and concerts with new social-distancing rules. He looks at ways bands can make it work.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The coronavirus pandemic has turned the music world upside down, forcing musicians to re-evaluate what they do. It’s especially challenging for large bands, ensembles and orchestras who now struggle to adapt to new social-distancing protocols and other safety measures. Local Spins asked Thomas Pike, director of Grand Rapids’ Vintage Parlor Orchestra (which usually performs with about 30 musicians), to explore and provide some guidance on adjusting to these new conditions. Scroll down to watch recent videos of the VPO performing and practicing.
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Quarantined musicians ripped from a life of playing music together are seeking answers on how they can safely return to their favorite activity – and in many cases, their careers.
The avoidance of live performances “out of an abundance of caution” weighs heavily on every musician, ensemble, venue and the countless individuals who keep the live music machine running. These answers are beginning to surface, and I hope the following can serve as a guide for those looking to step away from the webcam and back into the musical community we so desperately miss and need right now.
ADAPTING TO CHAOS
Managing large groups of musicians before the arrival of COVID-19 was challenging enough. In the orchestral world, there are a myriad of variables that must be carefully navigated when programming a concert. What are we programming? Who are the musicians? How much will it cost? How large is the venue? These are all juggled as I shuffle through a playlist of 300-plus years of music for the Vintage Parlor Orchestra. Once the program is decided, the musicians involved are contacted, instructions and music are dispatched, and the real work begins.
COVID-19 has turned the rehearsal and performance of that work into a logistical nightmare.
In an attempt to salvage and reschedule the VPO’s late April concert at Creston Brewery, we planned three separate performances for June and July. It meant planning rehearsals and performances with over 30 musicians, knowing at least two — if not all — the dates might ultimately be canceled. Though not fully canceled at this point, we have scaled back our original program in anticipation of venue capacity restrictions.
Keeping the group fresh and relevant meant being able to continuously adapt outside of live performances.
Like many musicians and bands, we had just enough technology to pull off a handful of virtual performances. We received enough donations from these videos to upgrade our recording capabilities and improved our web presence. Satisfied with our versatility and this newfound medium, I was convinced that VPO was going to make “classical” music videos for the foreseeable future.
We were in the process of making a third music video when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced May 21 that “gatherings of 10 or fewer” were permitted with masks and social distancing
By that evening, I had selected music for 10 musicians and asked each one for their personal comfort level in attending a rehearsal under the new guidelines. Orchestras, unlike rock/pop groups who form around specific identities, are a collection of diverse individuals with a passion for performing the compositions of other musicians. Changing attitudes regarding the stay-at-home order and a charged political climate were now part of the logistical puzzle to consider. It was also a catalyst for me to find out exactly how we were going to safely proceed.
SOME GUIDELINES FOR VOCALISTS AND INSTRUMENTALISTS
Discussions with other musicians and ensemble directors quickly led me to several European studies on the aerosol emissions of wind instruments and vocalists. Unlike string and percussion instruments, these musicians must use their breath to produce sound. Each wind instrument carries risks specific to its construction and method of play, and should be understood on an individual basis. Vocalists of all stripes also have special considerations.
A basic rule of thumb: maintaining a minimum distance of at least 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) between singers and musicians, and use of a popscreen filter to limit the spread of large droplets and exhaled aerosols. View specific results of these studies performed at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, Germany in this YouTube video.
VIDEO: Making Music During the Pandemic
The United States Army Band also recently released studies and recommendations shared by many orchestras and wind ensembles. Its findings mirrored the Munich research, but its recommended mitigation techniques were far more exhaustive than its European counterparts: spotless aircraft hangars with proper ventilation, military grade plexiglass shields, and in-ear monitors and microphones for every instrument.
This is a reality that’s simply unattainable by most musicians, ensembles and venues. Read more about this study and its recommendations here: Army Band COVID-19 Risk Mitigation for Large Groups.
MAXIMIZING AUDIENCES, MINIMIZING RISK
String musicians (including guitar and bass) do not require breath to produce sound, and are essentially low risk.
However, it must be said that a sweaty guitarist shredding and belting lyrics into an SM58 microphone significantly increases the risk, and every scenario brings with it risk factors outside of the recommendations specific to the individual instrument. As a general rule, if you’re going to touch or sing into an object on stage during a performance, it’s recommended you use your own gear. Yes, drummers and keyboard players, this also means bringing your own gear instead of sharing for a while.
With the weather heating up and capacity restrictions in place, outdoor concerts will likely be the most common way that live music will take place this summer.
Discussions about the best way to accommodate audiences in this new social-distancing environment have produced the promising concept of pod seating. Hosts can create designated spaces of shared risk by consenting parties of the same group, maximizing the number of guests in the audience.
When indoor concerts begin in earnest, this solution may help solve the bolted-seat concert hall concerns that it’s too expensive to reopen with these restricted capacities. Read more about that here: Social Distancing and Seating – Letting an Algorithm Take Control.
Musicians and venues should follow and adapt to local guidelines, but also understand the risk they present to their fellow musicians and fans. Understanding the way your instrument or voice can spread COVID-19 before returning to the stage is the responsibility of every musician in the community.
Each rehearsal and performance should be conducted with respect for your fellow musician’s health, and for the sake of keeping the community open for business. If you play, play responsibly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Thomas Pike is artistic director of the Vintage Parlor Orchestra, and has 10 years of wind instrument repair experience at Meyer Music. Once an active musician in the local music scene, Thomas’ focus turned to the orchestra as a vehicle to explore new possibilities with classical music. Passionate about performing outside of concert halls, VPO has performed in living rooms, garages, community spaces, art galleries, open mics and breweries around Grand Rapids. More information can be found at vpogr.com
VIDEO: Vintage Parlor Orchestra Rehearsal
VIDEO: Vintage Parlor Orchestra: Sinfonia in a Garage
VIDEO: Vintage Parlor Orchestra Goes Virtual: “Badinerie” by J.S. Bach
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