saxophone player 300Despite the best intentions of many band directors the practice of sharing mouthpieces on school owned brass or woodwind instruments continues in many schools.  As we move forward into yet another flu season it is wise to take a moment to consider the health based consequences of sharing mouthpieces between students and what we can all do to stop the spread of illness throughout our ensembles.

Various studies over the last fifty years have shown that an instrument’s mouthpiece can harbor germs on it for 48 hours or more while the instrument is in it’s case.  This in turn can lead not only to cross contamination by passing germs on to the next user of the instrument but also potentially reinfecting the original student, sometimes days after the initial illness.  This was the case with

Ashley Glenn, a middle school band director at Jefferson Middle School in Jefferson City, TN.  He noted that a tuba student who was repeatedly absent for illness stopped getting sick after changes were made to the cleaning routine of his mouthpiece.  This, combined with the rather eye opening results of petri dish samples taken from instruments as a part of another student’s science project prompted Glenn to make serious changes to the daily routine to help combat infection caused by germs on mouthpieces.

Glenn realizes the reality of just how much time and effort keeping instruments truly clean can require.  Says Glenn, “You have to do what is practical for your situation, otherwise the process can take up too much class time.”  With this point in mind he came up with a fairly streamlined solution to the problem.  Whenever possible students are expected to have their own mouthpiece.  The same goes for woodwind instrument mouthpieces, and in cases where bari sax or bass clarinet mouthpieces must be shared the reeds are never shared at all.  With this in mind, the daily routine for his band begins with a stop at the water fountain where all students must take a drink of water to rinse their mouths out.  Later, at the beginning of the rehearsal, a bottle of disinfecting spray is passed down each row and all students (even those who do not share instruments) are required to spray their mouthpieces.  This spraying process is repeated again at the end of the rehearsal before the instruments are returned to their cases.

While daily disinfection of student mouthpieces and instruments is an easily addressed problem one that is more challenging is how to maintain that same degree of cleanliness when trying out dozens or even hundreds of new potential band students all at the same time.  One suggestion that may prevent the spread of disease in this manner is to not only clean the mouthpieces after each student but also to consider having students rinse their mouths out with a disinfecting mouthwash such as Listerine and putting on hand sanitizer prior to touching the tryout instruments.

This article originally ran in Teaching Music Magazine in the October 2011 issue.  It is reposted here by the original author under agreement with NAfME.

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