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Marching bands aren’t sure how to handle the pandemic. So they commissioned two studies involving spit.

Research in Colorado and Maryland will help determine everything from how you hear FSU's War Chant to the way middle school directors lay out their chairs.

When Mark Spede started thinking about the football season and fall semester amidst the coronavirus pandemic, he realized how much he didn’t know about the microscopic particles that fly from musical instruments.

Spede, the national president of the College Band Directors National Association, emailed 16 peer organizations to see if they knew anything about the science of spittle. They didn’t. But they were just as thirsty for information as he was.

Two months later, Spede’s email thread has turned into an unprecedented international coalition trying to preserve music in the COVID-19 era.

At least 74 organizations — including the band directors associations from every Power Five conference and the Florida Music Education Association — have donated to fund a pair of scientific studies starting up at the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland. What those researchers find in the coming weeks will influence everything from how Florida State fans hear the War Chant this September to how middle school directors lay out chairs for rehearsals.

Related: Q&A: A Miami attorney explains college football coronavirus liabilities

“I’m not aware of any musical coalition like this in the history of music,” said Spede, Clemson’s director of bands. “The fact that the entire music community has come together on this sort of speaks to the issue at hand which is threatening the very existence of live music and music study.”

Clemson's marching band reacts during the national championship game at Raymond James Stadium in January 2017.
Clemson's marching band reacts during the national championship game at Raymond James Stadium in January 2017. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Because the novel coronavirus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, woodwind and brass instruments are a potential cause of transmission. And music has been connected to several super-spread events, including a choir practice in Washington that resulted in 32 confirmed cases among 61 participants.

But blowing into a saxophone or sousaphone is different than singing. Spede and his colleagues need to know how different so they can figure out how to return to the field, arena and concert hall as safely as possible.

That’s why it’s so critical that they learn more about aerosols — tiny particles that leave our mouths when we exhale.

“Some of them are dry,” said Jelena Srebric, an engineering professor working on Maryland’s study. “Some of them are pieces of spit.”

Colorado’s study is focused on tracking those dry particles and pieces of spit as they fly from a range of instruments like clarinets, tubas and children’s recorders. That team is also investigating how masks and instrument covers stop aerosol spread.

As researchers in Colorado collect that data, Srebric and her team will be using that information (plus what they collect themselves) to simulate how those aerosols move in specific environments.

Florida State's marching band could have a different look, or at least different duties, this season.
Florida State's marching band could have a different look, or at least different duties, this season. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

“Once you know what the instruments are releasing or the musicians, you can put that into the simulation environments and then test what is happening in the space without having to physically be there,” said Srebric, the acting associate dean of research at Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering.

Together, the two studies aim to deliver practical information for directors and performers across the nation: What type of ventilation filters out the most particles? How should bands arrange their chairs and instrument groupings to reduce risk? How do aerosols from a trumpet compare to aerosols from a singing soprano or a normal conversation? How much space do flutists need for safe social distancing?

As band directors await those answers, their season remains unclear. UConn has already canceled its in-person performances for the fall semester, and the AAC reportedly won’t allow on-field performances.

Clemson and Florida State expect to move their indoor rehearsals outside, where particles disperse more easily. Masks will become part of the uniform for FSU’s Marching Chiefs when they’re not playing.

Florida State's band, the Marching Chiefs, will likely have masks like this as part of their uniforms this fall.
Florida State's band, the Marching Chiefs, will likely have masks like this as part of their uniforms this fall. [ Courtesy of A-Line Athletics ]

But will FSU have its full contingent of 420 Marching Chiefs socially distanced across Doak Campbell Stadium? Or will they split into smaller pep bands?

Among the possibilities being discussed elsewhere: Off-site performances being piped into the stadium; replacing traditional uniforms with casual ones that are cooler and easier to clean; using more dance moves, choreography and props instead of traditional drill, which will have a lot less flair if performers must stay 6 feet apart.

“I do think every possibility remains on the table,” said David Plack, FSU’s director of athletic bands.

At least until the aerosol research is complete.

Srebric normally worries about finding enough participants for a study. With this one, the subject matter is so important that volunteers have lined up. Even the cleaning staff has ramped up its efforts to help.

Srebric said her group is working five to 10 times faster than usual to try to present initial findings by the end of July and more detailed information by late August, as fall semesters and football seasons begin.

Related: The 2020 college football season probably won’t be fair. That’s better than no season at all.

“The goal here is not to get to 0 percent risk; there’s no such thing in any activity,” Spede said. “The goal is to get the risk down to a point where people can feel comfortable participating in the activity.”

And that would be enough to keep fight songs playing this fall.

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