By Ricky O’Bannon

In the competitive world of classical music performance, every advantage is worth exploring.

Musicians look at their pre-performance meal, think about their sleeping routine or work for years tweaking a subtle part of the way they hold their bow or set their lips against the mouthpiece. In the same way an Olympic sprinter might adjust their arm swinging to shave tenths of a second off their time, anything that gives a musician a slight edge or an incremental improvement in a concert receives dutiful examination.

So it’s not surprising that orchestras might take a page from the world of competitive sports and rethink what their musical athletes wear on stage. Whereas Speedo or Nike redesign swimsuits or football uniforms with new materials and design almost annually, orchestras largely wear the same thing they did when Beethoven was writing music.

On Wednesday, students and faculty from the Parsons School of Design unveiled new concert attire for musicians from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The cooperative project between the BSO and Parsons was started in 2012 to rethink the traditional tuxedos and black dresses of the concert hall.

The new designs look modern but not too out of place from what a concertgoer might expect to see on stage.

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Marin 1
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(Top) Designer Gabi Asfour from Parson's School of Design adjusting a newly designed tuxedo shirt worn by percussionist John Locke. (Middle) Marin Alsop examing the material of a fencing-style vest. (Bottom) Gabi Asfour talking with violinist Ellen Pendleton Troyer about sleeves in a new concert dress. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

“We wanted something that would endure,” said BSO Music Director Marin Alsop. “It had to be classic because if it was trendy, it would be passé in three years.

While the look has been updated, the main changes have to do with the utilitarian parts of concert attire.

“What we tried to do is have it wear like athletic clothes,” said designer Gabi Asfour.

For Asfour, that meant using newer materials that allowed for better movement, breathability and easier maintenance for musicians who play several concerts a week. Each musician will go through 3D body scans to get accurate fits, and Alsop said the goal is to have the entire orchestra outfitted for a Feb. 11 concert.

Movement was one of the first things Aaron LeVere asked Asfour about when he examined the new jackets. As principal trombone player for the BSO, LeVere said the traditional tuxedo jacket can be restrictive and actually impede his forward motion when performing an instrument that requires him to fully extend his right arm.

“The two tails jackets I have [are] actually probably two or three sizes too big for me just because I need that extra space when I bring my arms up,” he said.

Comfort level might not be an obvious aspect to performance, but being uncomfortable can be a distraction that can draw a musician’s focus away from the music.

“If you're uncomfortable, that's what's going to come through on the instrument,” LeVere said.

Warm and stuffy tuxedo jackets can create both comfort and technical challenges for musicians. Performing is physically demanding, and that strain combined with a warm jacket under hot stage lights or an outdoor summer concert can cause the body to overheat.

When the body is overheating, its natural response is to take quicker and shallower breaths, which is not ideal for a wind instrument like trombone that requires deep breaths and a lot of air. Similarly, perspiration becomes an issue.

“If you’re too hot and your body is producing sweat and moisture up on the lips, the mouthpiece moves around more than what I’m comfortable with,” LeVere said.

Staying cool, he said, makes it easier to both physically play and also stay calm and concentrate on performing.

“Ideas about redesigning the attire have been around for a while, but now with the new materials that are out there, it's about time we have something like that which can be put into the designs,” LeVere said. “You just have to be comfortable.”

First violinist Ellen Pendleton Troyer said in some ways women have it easier when it comes to concert attire.

“As a violinist I don’t understand how men learn to play in a suit and a tie,” she said.

Troyer dislikes having anything restrictive on her shoulder and arms when playing, which after some trial and error, quickly ruled out the female shoulder pads for her that were fashionable in the ’80s.

So while the traditional formal black attire presents fewer problems than a tuxedo, overheating and comfort are still an issue. If you open a female classical musician’s locker, Troyer said you’re likely to see a range of options.

“If it's a non-athletic piece where you're not going to work up as much of a sweat, you can wear a fancier dress that you would definitely sweat in if you were working harder,” she said. “We move around a lot in our locker.”

The combination of physical exertion, a warm stage and nerves is bound to cause perspiration. Particularly at summer concerts, heavy black dresses can stick to the body needing a quick, subtle shake before giving a bow. Troyer said she hopes to test drive one of the new Parsons designs at some of the outdoor music festivals she’s playing at this summer where temperatures are high and many violinists wear a cloth under their chin to keep their instrument from sliding.

“There's nothing worse than having a fiddle slip out because you're sweating.”