How Contagious are Wind Instruments?

Hopefully by the time you’re reading this post it will be out of date. Currently my area is still under a the 2020 pandemic lockdown and the only music performances going on are digital. But as we start to open things back up again there are questions about how soon we can get back to making music together again. One major question that I wondered about is how contagious are those of us playing wind instruments? If we’re carriers of covid-19 or flu are we putting our fellow musicians at risk by playing our instruments with them? There are some researchers who have been looking at this, including some from the Frieburg University of Music and the Bamberg Symphony. Dr. Sixto Montesinos helps us with translations from those publications.

To the best of our knowledge, there are no measurements of the viral load in the blowing air of wind instruments at present. It is known, however, that wind instrument playing requires an intensive exchange of air in the lungs and respiratory tract with sometimes high air pressures. To what extent the viral load is reduced by the airway in the instrument is unclear. It is to be assumed that the release of the breathing air into the environment during playing can lead to virus-containing aerosols. In addition, playing wind instruments causes condensation of the exhaled air in the instrument, which is to be regarded as another potentially virus-spreading material.

Risk Assessment Regarding Corona-Infections in Music Making

“We (The Bamberg Symphony) believe that playing a clarinet or a horn, for example, hardly releases any aerosols because the air flow in the instrument is slowed down where the sounds are generated.” said Marcus Axt, Director of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.

The Bamberg Symphony

So preliminarily, it looks like woodwind and brass instruments don’t increase the risk of spreading the covid-19 virus, although as far as I can tell they don’t address the need for emptying spit (I mean, water) from the water key. Joking aside, while it’s mostly condensation that we’re emptying out of the spit valve, there must be some spit getting in there and we already know that the inside of brass instruments aren’t always the most sterile environment to start with.

A number of the ensembles that I work with have members who are more at risk from covid-19. Some of these groups also cater to audiences that are older and in the high-risk population. Many of the venues where I play have smaller stages where musicians really need to squeeze together to all fit. Before we go back to playing together it would be nice to know for sure that we’re not inadvertently putting our fellow musicians and audiences at risk.

Then we also need to consider private lesson teaching. I fortunately have a larger room for my at-home music studio, but in the past I’ve used very small offices to teach private lessons where it’s not really possible to stand 6 feet apart. Many of my colleagues use very small rooms to teach their private lessons in.

I’m glad that there folks out there taking a science-based approach to what sort of risk playing a wind instrument will be as we start playing together again. So far it looks like the risk will be minimal based purely on playing your instrument near other musicians, but please keep in mind that the results are still preliminary and will require further research. I’ll post any updates that I learn about here, but please also pass along any information or articles if you happen to come across them in the comments below.

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