A few days ago a fellow music ed blogger named Thomas West tweeted about a news story he read about the Massachusetts legislature considering a law to require schools to santize their instruments each school year and to promote band instrument cleaning and hygiene practices to prevent infection.  When I first heard it I thought it might be just something that was a knee jerk reaction to the H1N1 Swine Flu stuff.  Chances are that the flu pandemic did have something to do with it but after reading the story I still wonder how people can be so badly misinformed as to recommend a proceedure that costs hundreds of dollars per instrument versus the chemical cleaning job that my local music store does for less than $75.


Chemical Cleaning Versus Sanitizing of Musical Instruments

In speaking with two different area music stores I found out quite a bit about the chem clean process that most instruments go through when you send them in for maintenance.  In the case of cleaning a brass instrument the entire horn is submerged in a base solution made from soda ash and other chemicals.  This effectively dissolves all of the saliva, lip cells, and last weeks cheeseburger pieces that are stuck inside the tubes.  After it comes out of the bath the tubes are scrubbed with a flexible brush and then rinsed and lubricated.  All of this, for a tuba, costs a school around $70-90 depending on how many valves the instrument has.  The chemical cleaning solution kills off anything that is lurking inside the instrument, and the rinsing flushes it all down the drain.  When the chem clean process is complete the instrument is effectively sanitized.

In the sterilization method the instrument is placed in a large chamber filled with a "sterilization gas" that kills any bacteria or germs that are present inside the instrument. The sterilized instrument is then repacked and shipped back to the owner but apparently no other cleaning is performed.  For this service the company charges between $50 and $300.

In the original news article from Boston.com several sources were quoted as saying that they felt the entire sterilization method sounded questionable.  One source, Mark Goff, a former president of the National Association of School Music Directors described the effort as a "manufactured scare tactic in order to sell a service." 

While I do not see any reason at all to do such an expensive service on a brass instrument that can be cleaned just as effectively at a fraction of the cost using traditional methods I suppose there might be a valid arguement for the service on instruments that cannot be dip cleaned so easily.  Woodwind instruments come to mind immediately, but (at least in Iowa) a very small number of schools provide woodwind instruments as rentals other than the larger specialty woodwinds like the bass clarinet and baritone saxophone.  I would love to hear from anyone that has ever used these santization services and to find out what your opinions are of them.  Feel free to leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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