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How risky is music?

I’m very interested in the answer to this.

In any other time, under any other circumstance, the question would seem minor and technical. But today it has taken on both a global significance and pressing deadline: What happens to your breath when you play an instrument?

The answer could contribute to society’s budding understanding of the health risks of attending a classical concert, which will affect major decisions by the world’s largest orchestras.

The Houston Symphony has partnered with researchers at Rice University to try to do just that — study how air particles are spread during a symphonic concert, thus giving orchestras a road map to reopening safely.

The study, funded by the Rice University COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee and expected to be released later this summer, could help symphonies around the world find a way to hold a live concert while practicing safe social-distancing guidelines.

“This is an urgent matter,” said Robert Yekovich, dean of the Shepard School of Music at Rice. “Orchestras are waiting for information on what they’ll be able to do eight weeks from now.”

Ashok Veeraraghavan, Ashutosh Sabharwal, Yekovich and Houston Symphony CEO John Mangum penned the proposal for this study. Both Veeraraghavan and Sabharwal are electrical and computer engineering professors at Rice.

Veeraraghavan and Sabharwal spent June calibrating the machines they’ll use to test a variety of Houston Symphony musicians. They plan to begin the study this month. They’re using “Schlieren photography,” which tracks air flow by observing changes in its density; air itself, being invisible, can’t be tracked directly.

The machines would be able to see just how far an instrumentalist’s breath goes when he or she plays.

“Schlieren optics is a beautiful way of measuring. It’s an elegant technique,” Veeraraghavan said.

As someone who plays a wind instrument in a band that performs at sporting events, I have some interest in the results of this study. As with so many things about COVID-19, there’s conflicting data about how the virus is transmitted through the air, and all we can do is keep studying until we get a consensus. I look forward to the publication of this research.

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