CJ Covers LO COVID Safety

Studying airflow, Louisville Orchestra reinvents its musician setup for COVID-19 safety

Kirby Adams

Louisville Courier Journal
Published 6:19 a.m. ET Jan 13, 2021

Let’s forget about ‘us’ for a moment. Let’s forget about all of the questions we have surrounding how an audience can safely attend a live musical performance. The first question should ask is how can the performers, especially musicians, safely occupy the stage during a global respiratory virus pandemic?

That’s the quandary the Louisville Orchestra has worked hard to address as COVID-19 has closed down orchestras, theaters and entertainment venues across the country.

At its core, the Louisville Orchestra is a large group of musicians, many of them blowing vigorously into instruments, that sit in close proximity to each other indoors. A perfectly normal set up, way back in the year 2019, but in 2021 and beyond amid COVID-19, it’s a potential hotbed of viral spread.

So how has Teddy Abrams, the musical director and conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, continued to bring music to the city? Frankly, we were amazed, but not surprised, by the lengths the orchestra and its director has taken to create a safe environment for its members.

While many orchestras around the country are silent, Abrams, with his usual optimistic and inventive style, has sought out ingenious ways to continue to bring the sound of hope to our city through virtual concerts performed safely from the stage at Old Forester’s Paristown Hall, 724 Brent St.

“We didn’t sit around hoping everything would go back to the way it was,” he said. “We accepted that this was a change to the world structure and we dove right in because we felt music is something that the community really needs from us now.”

One of the first adjustments was to move from the orchestra from its home at Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall in downtown Louisville to the smaller but newer Paristown venue. The 28,000-square-foot concert hall, which opened in July 2019, has just what the group needs to safely produce virtual concerts — built-in cameras, enough state of the art microphones for the entire orchestra and a high-quality ventilation system.

That ventilation system and Andrew Kipe — former executive director of the Louisville Orchestra, who is now with the Peabody Institute at John Hopkins University — were key to figuring out how the orchestra could safely perform together.

Kipe and his team at the Peabody Institute are on the front lines of studies being conducted to understand safety protocols for musical performances during the pandemic.

“John Hopkins has a big group of really smart people reviewing studies from around the country and once they’ve been reviewed, we offer our suggestions for best practices,” said Kipe. “For instance, smoke studies have effectively demonstrated the path aerosols, the smaller droplets of the virus, take as they move through a space.”

So where would the air that is blown through a trumpet or trombone in Louisville’s Orchestra end up in Paristown Hall? To find out, the orchestra conducted similar smoke tests which tracked airflow once it left the instruments.

The orchestra discovered the air didn’t flow straight up into the ventilation system. Instead, it moved diagonally, then up and spent some time hovering over the stage.

That was a problem since the loudest instruments, which blow out the most air, are seated at the rear of the stage, meaning that air from the brass section would act like a spray gun aimed at the people playing their violins and cellos at the front of the orchestra.

“So besides socially distancing the musicians, we needed to mitigate the airflow coming from the winds and brass,” said Abrams. “We flipped the entire stage. Now the strings are seated behind the brass and wind instruments.”

To a non-musician, that might not seem like a big deal, but orchestras have been set up with strings in the front and wind instruments and brass in the back for about 300 years.

“It’s a little bit like a football team that is now playing on a field that has grown to three times the size,” Abrams explained. “As a player, you are now running 300 yards and the offense now has to play defense and vice versa. The strings are now at the back and the winds are in the front. No orchestras sit like that.”

But they did it anyway. Acoustically the new configuration took some getting used to.

So did playing a trumpet or trombone with the bell covered by a mask, another recommendation from Kipe’s team at John Hopkins University.

“I use a two-layer microfiber cover over the bell of my trumpet to block the droplets of aerosol from traveling farther than merely exhaling,” said Alexander Schwarz, principal trumpet player of the Louisville Orchestra. “The cover does add a fuzzy element to the sound, it feels a bit duller, so I would say I have adapted by articulating more.”

And adapt they did. The entire company is on board.

“It’s fun to see Teddy attack this in a way that is ambitious and still safely pushing the boundaries of what we can do, which honestly is what he has always done,” said Schwarz. “It’s kind of a beautiful thing to see him adapt in ways that keep us challenged as musicians and still putting out a product we can be proud of while keeping music alive during this time.”

Of course, Abrams and the performers comply with more common safety procedures that we have all become hyper-aware of in the past year. Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, every member is tested for COVID-19. The performance space is sanitized after each use and members who don’t have to blow into their instruments wear masks throughout the concert.

At least half of the performers are further protected by plexiglass shields, which muffle the sound but keep any potential spread of the virus at bay.

“The very first days were very, very tough with the plexiglass, masked instruments and being so spread out. It’s harder to pick up on acoustical cues,” Abrams said. “But it only took a couple of days and they had already started to figure it out in their brains and make the adaptations to make it successful. Now they know how to do it. It’s like they learned a new skill.”

It still isn’t safe to invite an audience into the venue, but the empty space allows orchestra members to utilize the massive floor area in front of the stage as a socially distanced spot to set up before and after a rehearsal or performance. The same area was used during a recent virtual performance that included a singer who was situated on a platform floating in the middle of the room.

“You would never normally have a singer 30 feet away from the conductor but it was the safest way to accomplish this and it was exciting to figure it out,” Abrams said. “We’re not an orchestra with massive reserves that would allow us to do whatever we wanted during a crisis like this. We’ve just been very realistic and inventive. We all believed that if we could deliver something that people in Louisville really wanted  and needed at a moment like this, then people would support it.”

Reach Kirby Adams at kadams@courier-journal.com or Twitter @kirbylouisville.

Louisville Orchestra Online Concert Series 

The Louisville Orchestra has adjusted, reinvented and found ways to thrive in a new way for its upcoming spring concert series. Concerts will be available for streaming. Subscribers to the Louisville Orchestra Virtual Edition will also have access to on-demand content and other music with details to be announced.


  • Classical Pairing: John Adams Chamber Symphony and Mozart Symphony No. 39. Live-stream: Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Homecomings: Musical Journeys of Uncommon Folk. Live-stream: March 6 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Abrams Plays Ravel. Live-stream: March 27 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Wailing Trumpets: Ragtime + Jazz. Live-stream: April 10 at 7:30 p.m.

All dates, times, guest artists, and programming are subject to change. For information about the purchase of the Spring LOVE access, visit louisvilleorchestra.org/concerts. For conversions of previously purchased tickets, call the Louisville Orchestra Patron Services at 502-587-8681.