Changing Orchestral Seating Could Reduce Aerosol Transmission

Two studies were published recently in Science Advances and the Journal of Aerosol Science, whose findings could contribute to the fight against COVID-19

(Photo credit: Kathleen Sykes)

As the pandemic continues but performing arts begin to reopen, managing airflow on the orchestral stage could prove crucial to preventing additional COVID-19 spread.

A new study, published by the journal Science Advances, examines the extent to which aerosols generated by wind instruments contribute to COVID-19 exposure. This was done by looking at airflow through computational fluid dynamics simulations and microbial risk assessments in two distinct concert venues — Abravanel Hall and Capitol Theatre at the Utah Symphony.

The study found that rearranging musicians and improving airflow — through HVAC systems, open doors, ad other measures — can reduce aerosol concentrations in musicians' breathing zones by a factor of 100, which correlates to a similar decrease in the chance of infection.

The proposed seating arrangement keeps strings at the front of the stage but places French horns, piano, harp, percussion, and bassoons in the center section of the stage, immediately behind the strings. Other notables changes involve trumpets — the instrument with the highest aerosol spread by far — separated in the back corners next to return vents and clarinets across the back of the stage.

The partnership stemmed from a conversation between the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera leadership and the University of Utah. The musical organizations wanted a scientifically-rooted approach to their goal of reopening in September 2020, VP of Marketing & Public Relations Jonathan Miles told The Violin Channel.

The orchestra does not plan to continue with the modified seating arrangements exactly as specified in the study since 100% of musicians have been vaccinated. However, there will continue to be additional precautions such as masking backstage and some extra spacing on stage, Miles said.

He added that "the most lasting permanent change" is the filtration system upgrade for the venue, and that the musicians will be able to lean on what they learned from the valuable research in the future, if needed.


The study's proposed seating to mitigate aerosol transmission. (Photo credit: Science Advances / Creative Commons)