OCTOBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 22

OCTOBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 22
October 2, 2020 leonard slatkin

“Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty.”
—Stephen Colbert 

The Lone Ranger. Batwoman. The Green Hornet. Iván Fischer. What do they all have in common? They wear a mask when they perform.

Get used to the sight. Many musicians around the world have adopted the facial covering as ensembles try and come back to the concert hall. No longer confined to its traditional role as a disguise for either a bank robber or superhero, the mask is fast becoming as controversial in the music world as it is in so-called real life.

How seriously do we take it? What are the pluses and minuses for the performers? How do the wind players manage? Can it be both safe and a fashion statement?

These and many more questions are arising as more live and recorded events are presented. There does not appear to be any particular agreement among musicians as to the efficacy of the adornment. Some grudgingly accept the social distancing that needs to occur for the sake of health and safety. Despite most scientists believing that the face mask is the most important tool in the fight even after there is a vaccine, many people are still skeptical.

Perhaps it is vanity. It doesn’t matter how fancy the face wear is, it only looks good at a costume ball. Since one of the most important aspects of music-making is the communication between musicians, even though much of what we do goes unspoken, being able to read facial cues from those around us is critical for performances. Nonetheless, I believe that some consistency is necessary in order for us to send out a unified message.

This is made complicated by the differing guidelines coming from our national and state leadership. What works in one part of the country may not be allowable in another. Forgotten in this debate is that the virus does not recognize boundaries. It doesn’t matter which side of the political divide you are on. As a group, you have to decide whether or not to wear a mask.

Let’s make an assumption, by way of example. Perhaps thirty-five people can comfortably distance on a stage. That is around half of the average orchestra in the States. Some are larger and some are smaller, and stage size comes into play as well. For our purposes, we have to make up a program that contains around an hour of music. There will be no intermission, especially if there are listeners in the hall.

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro Overture
Hailstork: Baroque Suite for Strings
Strauss: Wind Serenade in E-flat
Haydn: Symphony No. 94, “Surprise”

I thought of Haydn’s 45th (“Farewell”), but that seemed a bit depressing for this time.

A lot of variety here—nice balance and a good showcase for both orchestra and conductor. But there are deliberate traps as regards the use of masks. The bookend pieces have what we would call a full complement of musicians, but the two others are for different sets of players. How do we deal with the change in personnel in a safe and healthy way?

In my view, the first rule in setting up any concert these days is to avoid stage changes. No one should budge once the concert starts, and stagehands should not move instruments, chairs, and shields around during the performance. Since musicians are already seated at a distance from each other, their configuration does not matter as much as it does under ordinary circumstances. Having done a performance in this manner, I can say that it is going to be difficult no matter what.

We know that the winds cannot wear masks, for obvious reasons. But they must walk out with them on until they sit in their assigned chairs. There is a good argument to be made that with air being expelled, six feet apart is not enough. Many orchestras are increasing the distance by two feet.

The strings have masks, but they also have another problem, at least in the Haydn: page turns. Since no one has a stand partner, musicians must find a way to make the flip on their own. In the first movement, everybody has to turn at the same time after the exposition. This happens to be one of those symphonies in which the music does not stop, and even with two musicians per stand, only half the section plays prior to the page turn. It is always awkward.

The only solution is to enter the twenty-first century. Orchestras should invest in a tablet and digital pencil for every musician. Players can then download their parts as prepared by the librarians and insert markings as needed. Just a simple tap or pedal push gets you to the next page. It is also possible that a set of parts can be printed out in a way that avoids the problem, but it requires three pages on the stand instead of the usual two.

Should the conductor wear a mask? Here is where things get tricky. I have to say that it is difficult for me to watch some performances in which the musicians playing have masks on, but the conductor does not. It is almost the same problem we have when it comes to the clothes we wear. We already stand out because we are flailing about at center stage, but at the same time, I think we have to blend into the overall look of the orchestra.

The one thing that we have to do that the instrumentalists do not is communicate verbally to everyone onstage. This requires a somewhat forceful voice, meaning that, like the winds, we need around eight feet of separation from the nearest musician. Of course, there is a big difference between rehearsing and doing a concert. Can we do our job with masks? Yes.

For performance, one can use the KN95. These come in various models and are readily available through online shopping stores. I chose a dark gray one, which also houses a filter. Some of my colleagues have designer masks. They might look wonderful, but they are not the ne plus ultra in safety. Setting an example is more important than the appearance itself. Just because the mask fits over the mouth and nose does not mean that it minimizes the spread.

With cases increasing worldwide, we cannot afford to let down our guard. Our attitude must be that not only are we protecting ourselves, but we are also keeping those around us safe. Always think about your impact on others.

After a performance, if you so desire, keep the mask on and go save someone from a falling building. After all, you are now The Masked Musician!