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How to deal with the coronavirus and other nasties in your instruments

The news, Facebook, Twitter, internet, all media outlets are full of the most recent scourge to the planet; the coronavirus. Many books have been written and movies made about these tiny critters, so small you can’t see them without a special powerful microscope. Plot lines attribute such power to these itty bitties, they can wipe out the population of earth with scarcely a whimper. HG Wells made them heroes in his book The War of The Worlds, where the unstoppable invading aliens were killed by a simple cold virus. (If I spoiled the book for you, read it anyway. It’s a great piece of science fiction literature.)

Getting back to the point of this article, coronavirus and band instruments. There has been an uptick in concern about kids getting sick from dirty instruments, or shared instruments. I am not a doctor or health official, but I would encourage everyone to ignore the media frenzy and get the straight facts from the CDC website. I expect that group has more accurate knowledge about this latest plague than someone armchair-quarterbacking on Facebook. What I can talk about with some expertise is instrument cleanliness and offer some tips.

The facts are instruments can become breeding grounds for bacteria, germs, and mold very quickly. ‘How can I sanitize my instrument’ you ask? The simple answer is you can’t. A freshly cleaned instrument is only sanitized until someone picks it up and plays it. That doesn’t mean the instrument is contaminated with the plague, but it does mean the environment has been created to promote bacteria and germ growth. To un-create this environment, or lessen the chance of getting sick, there are steps that can be taken.

First and foremost, clean the mouthpiece. Daily, before and after playing. This should be a habit in place regardless of viral infestation. I’ll use the analogy of the cereal spoon. In the morning, when people get a bowl of their favorite Frosted Flakes, they pick out a fresh clean spoon from the drawer to use in guiding that sugary sweetness to their mouths. What people don’t do is put that spoon back in the drawer. It goes in the sink or dishwasher as it’s now dirty from being used. Cleaning a mouthpiece is as simple as using soap and water on plastics and metals, and a sanitizer spray for hard rubber. Double reeds can do a quick dip into a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water, mixed half and half. Sending three hundred kids to the school bathroom to empty the pink soap dispenser on a daily basis isn’t practical or time efficient, therefore a sanitizing spray works well in the classroom. Sterisol and other commercial sprays exist, but for a homemade mixture the following recipe can be substituted:

3/4 cup 99% isopropyl alcohol

1/4 cup distilled water

30-50 drops peppermint essential oil

Q-tips to swab.

This helps solve one problem, however it doesn’t address the rest of the instrument. Clarinetists will place a clean sanitized mouthpiece on the instrument, and before playing will suck back air through the untouched barred and bore. Makes the religious mouthpiece cleaning point moot if the reasoning is to protect the player from germy infections. Second problem is the bore.

Woodwind players should be swabbing the moisture from the bore after every session. The correct way to use a swab is pulling from the bottom of the instrument through the top, meaning bell to barrel. Swabs are not designed to go through mouthpieces, therefore clean them separately. To enhance the germ fighting idea, use the sanitizing spray on the swab before pulling through the bore. It doesn’t have to be soaking wet, just a few spritzes and pull through twice. This works on plastics and non-wood instruments. Sax players should be swabbing at least the necks if not the whole body.

For wood instruments, this gets a little trickier. The spray formula above contains alcohol which is bad for wood. Unfortunately, I know of only one disinfectant that is safe for wood instruments, and it’s not as effective as alcohol, however it’s better than using nothing:

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup distilled water

Update: I've heard from a fellow tech that Odoban might be effective and is also safe for wood. If nothing else, it is a better smelling alternative to vinegar.

I can hear the back of the room yelling “what about brass instruments?” Yes, trumpet, horn, and tuba leadpipes become germ cesspools with everyday playing. Brass instruments need to be professionally cleaned on a yearly basis and if that has not been done, start there. Home baths are a great idea, but they do not take the place of a visit to a professional repair shop. There are compounds that build up on the inside of brasses that cannot be removed by soap and water. There is another article posted about this that goes into more details.

I have an offer for a DIY brass cleaning possibility for band directors only. Please contact me privately if you wish to learn more.

Once the brass instrument has been fully cleaned by a professional, I suggested swabbing the leadpipes. Yes, you heard me right, swab the leadpipes just as you would a woodwind instrument using the same spray formula, same daily frequency, and in the same direction I mentioned earlier. Swabs exists for brass instruments, and a quick Google search can help you find them. In a pinch, oboe silk swabs (double string ended) are collapsible enough to run through a trumpet leadpipe. Take out the main tuning slide, spray the swab, and run it through the leadpipe from bell end to receiver. For horn leadpipes, use the swab style that has the beaded chain instead of the solid drop weight. You might have to sew an extension string on it to make it long enough, (or just get a horn leadpipe swab). For low brass, drop swab might be impractical as many of them are designed to have the leadpipe feed directly into the valve casing. If this is the case, twist a handful of long fuzzy craft pipecleaners together and use them to swab out the leadpipe as far as you can. Spray the pipecleaners and not into the leadpipe.

Don’t forget to wash the swabs occasionally, and if you have instruments that are shared between students, swab in between kids and have them get their own mouthpieces.

Does all this extra effort kill the corona virus? Truthfully, I don’t know. What I do know is this daily maintenance will make it more difficult to create the environment inside the instrument to support the growth and development of the little nasties. It is extra work and takes time, but it’s worth the effort. For the rest of the germ prevention, I’d follow the CDC advice of hand-washing, coughing and sneezing into throwaway tissues, lysoling surfaces that are frequently touched by multiple people, etc. As always, if anyone wishes to contact me, feel free to email with comments.

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