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Instrument Care after Covid

Our attitude to general cleanliness of instruments is likely to have changed significantly following our battle with this virus that is very easily passed from one person to another. These new habits and general awareness to washing or avoiding may fade again when vaccination or widespread immunity reduces its presence to minimal.

In this blog I’m only going to consider wind instruments as other types will have a different approach to washing, wiping and treatment.

Brass and woodwind instruments are mostly made of a brass material, wood or plastic. Wooden and plastic instruments may have a crook, bocal or mouthpiece of brass or plastic. Quite often the brass will have a silver or gold plating or a lacquer coating.

It has been proven that brass and copper either kills bacteria and viruses or doesn’t support them. However if this material is coated or lined this defence may be lost. There is a video freely available on the internet, made by a young man in a path lab. He takes a “reasonably” clean trumpet and takes swab samples from inside the bell, inside a valve casing, inside the leadpipe and inside the mouthpiece. Each sample is smeared into 2 petri dishes. One set of samples is placed in an oven and kept at body temperature, the other set is left on the desk at room temperature. After a few days there were colonies of growth in both samples from the leadpipe and the mouthpiece. There was some small growth in the other dishes, least of all in the room temperature samples. Where there were large colonies an easily caught infection could have been breathed in causing an illness.

So let’s consider where these colonies potentially may survive, why they can survive and how we can counter this.

In our experience repairing and servicing wind instruments we see what exists within those neglected tubes. It is sometimes surprising what can be deposited in the leadpipe of an instrument! This is where hot, damp breath first starts to cool down and meets the first corner and perhaps a valve. Through this decrease in temperature moisture can fall out of the air. Also there is often an increase of diameter after the mouthpiece so a slight decrease in velocity, these can cause any propelled solids to come to a stop on the floor of the tube. Disturbance of the flow caused by changes of direction or valve chambers can also cause solids to collide against the structure of the instrument and be deposited nearby.

These deposits will eventually form a lining on the inside of the leadpipe and it is within this lining that bacteria and virus can exist. Obviously this process can happen anywhere within the instrument but is more pronounced in the “upper” end.

In practice this means that when a player contracts an illness such as influenza then it may take longer to fully recover when using an instrument which has a “fertile” leadpipe or mouthpiece.

If players pay some regular attention to the reed, mouthpiece and leadpipe then this condition can be avoided and frequent cleaning of these areas are especially important on “shared” instruments.

With woodwind instruments quite often the leadpipe is removed from the instrument after playing, same with the mouthpiece. Reeds should be removed, dried and stored for their protection and longevity and this will aid cleanliness. Mouthpieces and leadpipes should ideally be swiped through when removing from the instrument and the brush or swab removed and all three elements will benefit from a quick spray with a steriliser. With brass instruments the mouthpiece should be treated the same as this and obviously pushing a brush (snake) through the leadpipe will be beneficial also, but this rarely happens at present.

For “fixed” leadpipes we recommend a monthly clean down, and especially following illness of the player. Many leadpipes on a brass instrument go directly into a valve chamber while others incorporate a (tuning) slide prior to a valve.

Where there is a slide incorporated in the leadpipe this should be removed and brushed through and treated with a stelizing spray or similar. The element of leadpipe from the mouthpiece end should receive the same attention. The element of leadpipe from the slide and into a valve may be cleaned as in the next paragraph.

When a leadpipe terminates at a valve chamber, that valve should be removed, the leadpipe cleaned as above, and before replacing the valve the chamber (and valve ports) are cleaned also. This is important because if a leadpipe is cleaned while the valve is in place then matter can be pushed onto the valve and cause it to stick and affect playing, not to mention transferring any germs to other areas.

In a sharing environment extra care needs to be taken regarding the use and storage of mouthpieces, reeds and headjoints.

When choosing a steriliser you should consider the material being treated, for example it is advised not to use alcohol based solutions on wood. And of course all instructions should be followed regarding use of applying and removal and be aware of the elements that will be inserted in the mouth when used.

All this means players now need to have suitable cleaning materials and band rooms where instruments remain will also need these and cleaning fluids.

Please play safe.

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