Educational degrees in music education and the skills to play a mean French horn are about what you would expect of any school band director; but Mora’s Anna Patenuade has a unique skill few of her peers can match: She’s a proficient seamstress. 

That skill is helping Mora Public Schools save thousands of dollars and provide students with the special equipment they will need to make music during the coronavirus pandemic. While other school districts are canceling electives in the arts, Mora Public Schools music department is determined to keep making music a part of student lives.

Patenuade said while they could have focused on teaching music theory and history, they were determined to find a way to make music safely. 

“Arts are not ‘extra.’ They are not ‘supplementary’ to education. Minnesota students deserve to have the arts in school,” she said.  “The act of making music is good for the soul. It brings you joy and people need that right now.”

A study commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) and a coalition of more than 125 performing arts organizations generated a set of results regarding how playing musical instruments spread airborne particles that can carry coronavirus, but also how to mitigate risks.

For bands, these recommendations include masking both the musician and the instrument itself.  The study showed that when people play an instrument like a trumpet, droplets spread mostly by the person’s mouth and from the bell of the horn; few droplets escape through the keys of an instrument. 

Specialized masks were developed to block those droplets. Musicians masks are made with two panels of fabric that overlap but aren’t sewn together, creating a flap the player can insert their instrument’s mouthpiece through. 

Specialized covers also fit over the bell of a trumpet or French horn that block those droplets. 

The larger the instrument, the less risk. The study showed that for a large instrument like a tuba, by the time the air escapes a tuba, it has slowed down enough it spreads fewer droplets. The air traveling through a trumpet has less far to go and exits the horn much faster. Therefore, bell covers for a trumpet have multiple layers. 

These specialized masks and bell covers are tedious to make and are in high demand as schools across the country have placed orders. Patenaude estimated the school will need approximately 350 masks for each band student in grades 5-12 to have one. 

Double layered face masks with mouthpiece openings cost approximately $10 each to buy online, and many orders are delayed. Prices are similar for the instrument’s bell covers. If the school needed to purchase them, the cost could be near $7,000. 

Patenaude is sewing masks for pennies on the dollar for what the school would have to purchase them for. While 350 masks and 350 bell covers seem like a tall order, Patenaude is fast. Very fast.

Patenaude has sewn elaborate costumes 20 or more for chorus members of the school musicals. Over the last few years, she has developed the sewing and organizational skills needed to create many identical pieces. Patnaude’s skill set is saving the school district thousands of dollars: While her fabric costs are being paid for from the music department’s annual budget, she is donating her time. 

On a good day, Patenaude estimated she could sew 100 of the masks in a day. In fact, her sewing machine quit before she did. It’s in the repair shop while she works on a borrowed machine. 

“It has been a mad rush to get things ready,” she said.  

Getting ready to play music has been about more than fabric and thread — it’s also been about working with school administrators, Kanabec County Community Health and others to adjust schedules, routines and other practices to make music as safe as possible. Patenaude said those people have been forthcoming, considerate, encouraging and willing to help work toward a common goal. 

“I wouldn’t be as excited to go back to school if I didn’t have as much trust and faith in the people who are making these decisions in my community,” she said. 

“We are very lucky to be able to do what we are doing.”

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