Making Music Is Healthy Anytime!
(Even During a Virus Outbreak)

Posted 3/18/2020

With schools, restaurants, and many businesses closed, millions of people are stuck at home wondering what to do. What about music? Playing musical instruments and singing are safe, intellectually stimulating recreational activities that can also offer much-needed social interaction. Making music can even reduce the production of certain stress-causing hormones… and that’s good news for these times.

So is it safe to play your instrument? In the vast majority of cases, the answer is yes.

Unless someone with the COVID-19 virus handled, played, or coughed/sneezed on your instrument, there is no reason to believe that it is infected or needs any sort of special cleaning. That said, keeping your instrument clean on a routine basis can help prevent the risk of illness in general.

It is unknown exactly how long viruses (and this one in particular) can survive on different surfaces. According to a BBC News article printed March 17, 2020, related coronaviruses like SARS can last up to 9 days on metal and plastic unless they are disinfected sooner. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” So “quarantining” your instrument by not using it for 9 or 10 days is an option if you really want to, but again, it’s probably not necessary.

Organic buildup inside the instrument (such as remnants of food particles) can harbor all kinds of bacteria, which is why brushing your teeth before playing, or at least trying to avoid eating right before playing, is a good idea. Trying to sanitize the inside of most instruments at home is impractical. While brass instruments can be cleaned to some extent without professional tools, this requires disassembling the instrument and incorrect reassembly may render the instrument unplayable. Woodwind instruments have pads that will be destroyed if submerged in water or improperly cleaned, potentially leading to a repair bill of several hundred dollars. A good internal cleaning is best left to your local musical instrument repair shop.

What you can do, though, is focus on the mouthpiece, which comes in direct contact with the player. Most viruses (including COVID-19) can be killed by a solution that is at least 70% isopropyl alcohol. Avoid using alcohol-based cleaners on rubber clarinet or saxophone mouthpieces. If you are playing a rental instrument, unless you purchased an upgraded mouthpiece, your mouthpiece is plastic and is safe to clean with an alcohol-based product. You can use a towel moistened with rubbing alcohol to wipe the mouthpiece. Let the alcohol sit on the mouthpiece for about a minute before wiping the excess, then allow it to air dry.

Other tips for keeping your instrument (and yourself) healthy while making music:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before you touch your instrument at the start of your practice/playing session and again at the end after putting the instrument away.
  • Don’t share a mouthpiece with someone else!
  • Clean the instrument mouthpiece regularly in warm soapy water, using a mouthpiece brush to scrub the inside.
  • If you play a reed instrument (such as clarinet or saxophone), always remove your reed from the mouthpiece after playing and store it in a reed holder or reed case. Also, be sure to run a swab through the inside of the instrument after each time you play. (Cotton swabs are recommended because they can be easily cleaned in a washing machine.)
  • Store your instrument inside its case. Keep the case closed except when you’re taking the instrument out or putting it back inside.
  • If you are sick (fever, cold, flu), you might choose to take a break from playing your instrument until you feel better. That way you won’t risk prolonging your illness by interacting with any germs you may have blown into the instrument.

As you can see, most of these tips relate to good hygiene and are steps that musicians should take all the time… not just during a global pandemic.

So… you have an instrument to play. The next question is what to do. What should you play? How do you practice if you don’t have access to a teacher?

Most method books are designed to be easily used whether or not you have a music teacher available. Work on progressing through whatever book you have been using, mastering each page before you move on to the next. To help reinforce your skills while having fun, consider a play-along collection of popular modern-day music.

Some teachers (including those in Vermont and New Hampshire) are offering music lessons remotely by using various video platforms. Assuming you have a computer with a built-in camera and microphone and your internet connection is fast enough, this can be a great way to continue making progress with some guidance.

SmartMusic is a valuable learning tool used by many schools. It allows students to rehearse music from their method books as well as thousands of solos, plus concert band, orchestral, jazz ensemble, and even choral arrangements with accompaniment. You can record your performance and email the audio file to others. SmartMusic is a subscription service, but as of March 18th, they are offering free access to all schools through June 30th.

Out of necessity, many online resources are springing up. One such resource is the Facebook group Music Educators Creating Online Learning, where teachers are sharing lesson plans and having discussions about how to deliver quality music education remotely.

Below are just a few additional online resources. There are no doubt thousands of websites and publications relating to music education. Whatever your interests or needs happen to be, searching with the right keywords will find resources that can help you grow.

Make the most of your time. Learn new things. Develop your skills. This is an opportunity to practice self-teaching, become a better musician, and develop a new appreciation for the value of music in the world.