Amid the growing concern of COVID-19, we feel it is both helpful and necessary to share information regarding the cleaning and disinfecting of musical instruments.
Sterilization vs. Disinfection
More and more our society is pushing for products that are anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-viral. Some even aim to achieve total sterilization (elimination of all microorganisms). Keep in mind that total sterility is nearly impossible. Once a sterile object has been handled or exposed to air, it is no longer sterile. It can, however, remain disinfected (elimination/reduction of most microorganisms) until used.
Most viruses cannot live on hard surfaces for a prolonged period of time. Some die simply with exposure to air. However, certain groups are quite hardy. Therefore, musicians must be concerned with instrument hygiene. Users of school owned and rented musical equipment may be more susceptible to infections from instruments that are not cleaned and maintained properly.
If the cleaning process is thorough, however, musical instruments can be disinfected. Basic soap and water can be highly effective in reducing the number of harmful bacteria and viruses simply by carrying away the dirt and oil that they stick to.
Since the transmission of bacteria and viruses is a real consideration and concern, it is apparent that there should be a protocol with regard to shared musical instruments. Sharing of instruments is routine in music classrooms, where students practice and perform on borrowed instruments throughout the year. Therefore, certain basic considerations and recommendations for standard operating procedures regarding shared instruments are recommended as follows:
- All musicians or students should have their own instrument if possible.
- All musicians or students should have their own mouthpiece if possible.
- Any musicians sharing reed instruments MUST have their own individual reeds. Reeds should NEVER be shared.
- If instruments must be shared in class, alcohol wipes or disinfectant solution should be available for use between different players.
When renting or using a school-owned musical instrument, each user must understand that regular cleaning of these musical instruments is required in order to practice proper hygiene.
Before using a shared instrument for the first time, use of alcohol wipes, swabs, or disinfectant solution to thoroughly clean both the outside and the inside of the mouthpiece is highly recommended. It is also essential to maintain overall cleanliness via the use of cleaning rods, swabs, mouthpiece brushes, etc., as this is necessary to prevent buildup of residue within the instrument.
Mouthpieces (including flute headjoints, english horn and bassoon bocals, and saxophone neck crooks) are essential parts of wind instruments. Since these components are placed in or near the player’s mouth, they (reeds included) harbor the greatest quantities of bacteria.
Adhering to the following procedures will help to keep mouthpieces and instruments clean and safe for continued use.
Cleaning the Flute Head Joint
- Using a cotton swab saturated with denatured, isopropyl alcohol, carefully clean around the embouchure hole.
- Alcohol wipes can be used on the flute’s lip plate to kill germs if the flute shared by several players.
- Using a soft, lint-free silk cloth inserted into the cleaning rod, clean the inside of the headjoint.
- Do not run the headjoint under water as it may saturate and eventually shrink the headjoint cork.
- Bocals should be cleaned every month with a bocal brush, mild soap solution, and running water.
- English Horn bocals can be cleaned with a pipe cleaner, mild soap solution, and running water. Be careful not to scratch the inside of the bocal with the exposed wire ends of the pipe cleaner.
Cleaning Hard Rubber (Ebony) Mouthpieces
- Mouthpieces should be swabbed after each use and cleaned weekly.
- Select a small container that will accommodate the mouthpiece vertically and place the mouthpiece, tip down, into the container.
- Fill the container just past the window of the mouthpiece with a solution of 50% water and 50% white vinegar or hydrogen peroxide. Protect clarinet mouthpiece corked tenons from moisture.
- After the mouthpiece has soaked for fifteen minutes, use an appropriately sized mouthpiece brush to remove any calcium deposits or other residue from inside and outside surfaces. This step may need to be repeated if the mouthpiece is excessively dirty.
- Rinse the mouthpiece thoroughly and then saturate with disinfectant solution. Place on paper towel and wait one minute.
- Wipe dry with paper towel.
- Note: Metal saxophone mouthpieces clean up well with hot water, mild dish soap (not dishwasher detergent), and a mouthpiece brush. Disinfectant solution is also safe for metal mouthpieces.
Cleaning Saxophone Necks (Crooks)
- Swabs are available to clean the inside of the saxophone neck. However, many saxophonists use a flexible bottlebrush and toothbrush to accomplish the same results.
The saxophone neck should be swabbed after each use and cleaned weekly.
- Use the bottlebrush with mild, soapy water to clean the inside of the neck.
- Rinse under running water.
- Disinfectant solution may be used on the inside of the neck if desired. Place on paper towel for one minute.
- Rinse again under running water, dry, and place in the case.
Cleaning Brass Instrument Mouthpieces
- Mouthpieces should be cleaned monthly.
- Use a cloth soaked in warm, soapy water to clean the outside of the mouthpiece.
- Use a mouthpiece brush with warm, soapy water to clean the inside.
- Rinse the mouthpiece and dry thoroughly.
- Disinfectant solution may be used on the mouthpiece at this time. Place on paper towel for one minute.
- Wipe dry with paper towel.
- Plastic recorders can be washed with warm, soapy water and should be swabbed after each use with a plastic cleaning rod and soft thin cloth. Disinfectant solution and alcohol wipes may also be used.
- String, percussion, and keyboard instruments present fewer hygienic issues that can be solved simply by the player washing their hands before and after use.
Choosing a Disinfectant for Musical Instruments
- Sterisol Germicide Solution can be safely used on plastics, hard rubbers, and metals.
- Mi-T-Mist Mouthpiece Cleanser can be used on most materials. It is NOT recommended for use on hard rubber mouthpieces.
- Isopropyl alcohol wipes are safe for most materials. They are NOT recommended for use on hard rubber mouthpieces.
- A solution made with 50% water and 50% white vinegar or 50% water and 50% hydrogen peroxide can be safely used on plastics, hard rubbers, and metals.
While other potential disinfectants, including alcohol, boiling water, and bleach can be used as general disinfectants, they are not typically recommended for use on mouthpieces or instruments due to their potential effect on skin, plastics, and metals.
- Whichever disinfectants are chosen, it is crucial to read the product instructions and follow them closely.
- Disinfectants do not remove dirt, so mouthpieces and instruments must be cleaned thoroughly before using.
UNLV School of Music: https://www.unlv.edu/music/instrument-hygiene
Oklahoma State Department of Health: https://www.ok.gov/health2/documents/Infection%20Control_Keeping%20Your%20Musical%20Instruments%20Clean%20and%20Safe.2014.pdf
National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians: https://napbirt.org/page/InstrumentCleanliness