Safe practices in teaching musical instruments

With the continued threat of COVID-19 spreading through the community, safety remains a top priority for music teachers as they resume physical lessons. Ensuring safe practices in any enclosed teaching space demands much care and attention, and Safe Work Australia (SWA) makes available comprehensive information on this that every teacher needs to know about.

SWA’s guidelines give only minimal guidance on how to minimise the risk of infection when it comes to musical instruments, however. Many teachers will be looking for more detailed advice, particularly as concerns woodwind and brass instruments, because contact with saliva and aerosols produced when playing are an obvious concern. Singing has come under similar scrutiny too.

Standard workplace measures such as hand washing, hand sanitisers and physical distancing may not be enough in these instances in preventing the spread of infection.

Studies on the risks posed by wind instruments are few, and their findings as yet limited: see here and here. However, the advice is uniformly that all musicians and students should have their own instruments and not share them with others unless proper precautions are observed. Mouthpieces should be thoroughly cleaned (both on the inside and the outside) using soapy water, alcohol wipes, or disinfectant solution. Metal parts including sax necks and bocals can be cleaned this way with care, but wooden or hard rubber parts need different treatment.

Specific types of instruments such as flutes, English horns, saxophones and recorders each have their own specific cleaning and hygiene needs.

Amongst the best available information on all the above matters is presented by the Queensland Teachers Union. See also the National Association for Music Education in the US; its set guidelines has been adopted in Australia by the Association of Music Educators (Vic). Another good site for advice is Volkwein’s Music, also in the US.

When it comes to reed instruments such as oboes and bassoons, under no circumstances should reeds be shared around. These should be individually owned by each student. A regular cleaning regime nevertheless needs to be followed, in order to prevent a build-up of protein substances which can harbour pathogens. University of Iowa explains all about this and provides various options for disinfecting reeds here.

For other instruments such as strings, pianos and percussion, normal handwashing before and after use is usually recommended. Bleach or alcohol-based cleaning products can be highly damaging to them.

A much more challenging task is how to minimise aerosols and droplets being produced during playing. For the flute, an intriguing idea for minimising the spray of droplets is a wind guard attachment that is placed over the instrument’s lip plate. Called Wind-D-Fender, this is designed to block wind interference in outdoor performance situations but may prove effective. For brass and other woodwind, elasticated fabric covers are available that are placed over the instrument’s bell. They claim to reduce exhaled droplets in the same way as face masks without suppressing the instrument’s sound.

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