COVID-19 safety concerns muted in-person band programs for a long stretch of 2020, but one CU Boulder alumna may have crafted the solution to bring them back.
Maddie Levinson, who introduces herself as “the seamstress for the band,” graduated from CU Boulder in 2008 with a Masters in Music. Now, she’s a freelance French horn musician and music teacher who runs a sewing business out of her home in Northglenn, CO.
As research emerged showing wind and brass instruments could produce COVID-19-laden aerosols, Levinson started sewing COVID-friendly French horn covers for school band programs across the state.
“My mother and grandmother taught me how to sew and I just never stopped,” Levinson said.
Levinson has sewn products for bands, fire departments, drapery shops and medical supply stores, but her business switched gears when the pandemic hit the US earlier this year.
“Some of the kids I teach told me their school’s band programs were completely cancelled, and that those that did have band had to settle for recording projects, broken up rehearsals and last-minute livestream concerts,” Levinson said. “It’s taken a lot of the joy out of music for kids”
Levinson started creating face masks with small mouth openings that allow musicians to access their instrument's mouth pieces while still covering their noses—an invention she cleverly calls “brass masks.”
Levinson sent her brass masks to 10 schools, including a middle school in Steamboat Springs.
“Their band was playing outside in the parking lot, but my masks allowed them to go inside, sit down and rehearse together,” she said.
As the pandemic forged on, so did research on the transmission of COVID-19.
Levinson reached out to students who took part in CU’s Performing Arts Aerosol Study, led by Shelly Miller, a professor of mechanical engineering who studies how the novel coronavirus can spread through the air.
Miller’s study looked at what could be done to make wind instrument rehearsals and performance spaces safer.
Among the recommendations, Miller suggested musicians use a fitted cover on the bells of their instruments with multiple layers of material to prevent tiny droplets of liquid from escaping the instrument.
A simple circular cover for instruments like the trumpet or saxophone was an easy ask for a life-long seamstress like Levinson.
However, when it comes to the French horn, which requires the musician to place their hand inside the bell of the instrument, the task becomes trickier.
Levinson searched the web to see what was already being offered for horn players.
One company was selling very expensive, thick-lined covers that included a long sleeve that went up to the elbow.
“It was kinda ridiculous looking,” Levinson said.
That product used aerosol combatting fabric, but it significantly affected the sound of the instruments, according to musicians who tested it.
Levinson thought she could provide something better.
She used a nylon blended fabric for her first draft, which did the best at containing aerosols when tested in Miller’s study.
Like the brass masks, the horn cover had a small opening for musicians to place their hands inside the bell. The player's arm acts as a plug in the cover, minimizing the risk of aerosol spread.
Michael Thronton, a professor in CU Boulder’s Horn Studio, worked with Levinson to test the products and provide feedback.
“After collaborating with Mike, he was concerned about the distortion of the sound, so I quickly tinkered with the design and came up with another model the next day,” Levinson said.
Levinson’s second attempt—a design she calls the “sport model”—was sewn with half-moon patches in a way that allowed for double-layer protection and entry to the bell without affecting the sound.
Thornton said Levinson’s covers were far better than the commercial covers he’s explored.
“She’s done a great job of creating a responsible and safe bell cover that has minimal impact on sound production,” Thornton said.
Thornton ordered 20 horn covers for his studio.
The studio hasn’t yet had the opportunity to rehearse with the covers as a group this semester. But the masks were used for smaller competitions, recitals, horn juries and smaller chamber music performances.
“As the school year progresses, and we find out more about the future, we will certainly be ordering additional covers for future performers if required,” Thornton said.
Bringing back the joy
Since the pandemic began, Levinson has sewn over 1,300 masks and instrument covers--in many cases donating them to communities in need.
She hopes her contribution to the COVID-19 effort will bring band programs back to schools.
As a life-long French Horn player, Levinson’s mission is personal.
“Music was my savior growing up. If that was taken from me I don’t know if I would’ve survived,” Levinson said. “So many kids are being robbed by this pandemic. If there's anything I can do to bring joy back to musicians, I’m on it.”
If you’re interested in ordering Levinson’s brass masks or horn covers, please email requests here.