The recent swine flu (H1N1 virus) outbreak has scared a lot of people and made us all start taking the idea of hygiene and disease control a bit more seriously.  In a school setting band directors are probably second only to the school nurse in terms of direct, first hand exposure to bodily fluids and exhaled air.  It is in the nature of our craft that we have to physically adjust hand position or embouchure problems in an attempt to improve a student's playing abilities.  Because of this fact, and with the H1N1 flu outbreak all over the news these days, it never hurts to refresh our memories on how to make sure that any illnesses that a student might have are not passed on to ourselves or to other students.

Note:  The author of this article is NOT a medical professional.  All comments and conclusions in this article are drawn from professional literature as referenced below.  Please consult your doctor or school nurse for more information and to check on specific rules for your school.


Instrument Mouthpiece Contamination and Disinfection

Not to sound melodramatic, but instrument mouthpieces are quite literally breeding grounds for bacteria and other illnesses.  When the instrument and mouthpiece is used by only one person the risk is slight, as any bacteria found on the mouthpiece or in the instrument came from the player himself.  If that mouthpiece or instrument is shared with another student, as is often the case with larger school owned instruments such as tubas, baritones, and french horns, the possibility of passing bacteria or viruses from one player to the next is much more likely unless the mouthpiece and instrument are properly cleaned.

In a study done in by W.G. Walter and Dorothy Chaffey (1958), their research on musical instruments showed that bacteria on instrument mouthpieces can survive for 48 hours or more while the instrument is in its case.  In that study they went on to use a disinfecting solution consisting of iodine and other agents to disinfect the mouthpieces after use.  Instead of iodine today we are able to rely on commercial products such as Roche-Thomas' Mi-T-Mist or other similar products that are sprayed onto the mouthpiece after use.  The data that Walter and Chaffey present seems to show that the overall best course of action is to brush out the mouthpiece with a standard mouthpiece brush and an antimicrobial detergent then spray it with the disinfecting solution before putting it away.  Removing the excess lip cells and other debris from the shank of the mouthpiece allows the disinfectant to work more effectively during storage.

While the previously mentioned study focused on brass instrument mouthpieces a more recent survey done by Christopher Woolnough-King (1995) also took into account woodwind mouthpieces.  His work focused on the germs that cause the common cold, but went on to discuss the transmission of cold sores and other illnesses.  His conclusions closely mimick those of the 1958 study and reinforces the need to be diligent in cleaning and disinfecting mouthpieces that are shared between students.

Recommended Instrument Cleaning and Disinfection Strategies

In a 1992 article by Angela Babin titled Shared Musical Instruments she lays out several best practice methods that music teachers should adopt as standard operating procedures in their classrooms to minimize the transmission of student illnesses.  They are paraphrased below:

  1. Whenever possible each student should have their own instrument
  2. If this is not possible then each student should have their own mouthpiece
  3. Reeds should not be shared at all
  4. Instruments should be properly dissassembled and cleaned at the end of each term
  5. When instruments must be shared use alcohol wipes or other disinfectants such as Roche Thomas' Mi-T-Mist Spray between players
  6. Teach students how to properly care for and clean their own instruments and insist that they do so regularly

Please remember that this article is only intended to be a basic reminder of hygiene practices that are accepted by most music and medical professionals.  Anyone with specific questions about the H1N1 swine flu virus or other influenza questions should contact their doctor.

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