Orchestrating Masks: MAKING MUSIC IN THE AGE OF COVID-19

How do you put on a concert in the age of Covid-19 with musicians–most playing wind instruments–wearing face masks?


That was the predicament faced by the non-profit Hanover Wind Symphony (HWS) in preparing for their outdoor summer gazebo concert, called “America Strong!” in August at Ginty Field in Morris Township.


In response to this dilemma, HWS French horn player Gail Lalk of Morristown reached out to a friend, Patricia Doherty of Nutley, for a hand. Doherty is a professional costume designer who had been working at off-Broadway and regional theaters until the pandemic shut down all the theaters.


As the coronavirus pandemic was accelerating, and first responders had a critical shortage of PPE, including face masks, Doherty, who co-moderates a Facebook group with Lalk, marshaled members of the group to sew fabric face masks and donate them to hospitals, emergency response units, and others in need. In all, they made and donated more than 3,000 face masks.


Then, in early July, Lalk approached Doherty with a strange request: Could she design a fabric face mask for members of the HWS, most of whom need to place their instrument by their mouth to perform? Doherty rose to the challenge.


The resident costume designer for the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, Doherty has always loved the theater and she grew up sewing. “My grandmother taught me how to sew,” she recalls. After receiving a master of fine arts degree in theater production and design from Penn State, she blended her practical knowledge with a keen aesthetic eye.


While theaters were closed because of the pandemic, Doherty relished the idea of helping out other artists who were hoping to continue performing. Creating specially designed, custom-made face masks for the Hanover Wind Symphony members was “a sewing and patterning engineering challenge,” she points out. “After a series of different tries, I decided that a pleated type of mask with an aperture that could be raised and lowered was the simplest and most elegant solution.” She used a deep-red quilting cotton for the fabric.


The costume designer asked the musicians to take critical measurements–from the bridge of the nose to under the chin, and from ear to ear–and send them to her so she could custom-design each mask and make sure that each one fit precisely. Most of them had a flap attached to the mask, covering the mouth, and secured with velcro. The flap could be brought down when the musician was playing and raised back up when the musician was no longer playing. The flap was a slightly different shape for flute players because the flute comes out on the side of the face, rather than in front (as, say, the clarinet does). For musicians playing percussion instruments, like drums, no flap was necessary. All the masks had adjustable ear elastics.


The HWS musicians were thrilled with their masks because they were very breathable and fit well. And, for Doherty, “It was a good challenge and a lot of fun to do. I was glad to help out.”


Matthew Paterno of Parsippany, HWS musical director, notes that the large crowd at the open-air concert “proved that this was important to people.” He adds, “One woman came up to me and said, ‘I absolutely needed this. It makes me feel that everything’s going to be OK.’ ”


Len Stern of Kinnelon, HWS treasurer and trumpet player, explains that these kinds of preparations were necessary during this pandemic, but that the concert was a great success. Mask-wearing and social distancing were observed by both musicians and the audience at the free concert, which was sponsored by Provident Bank and presented by the Morris Township Department of Parks and Recreation.


The Hanover Wind Symphony is looking toward presenting another open-air concert before the weather gets too cold. Anyone interested in hosting a HWS concert should contact HWS at 973-ANDANTE or through the wind ensemble’s website, www.hanoverwinds.org.


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