Some Advice for Music Teachers Dealing with COVID-19 or Other Infectious Disease Outbreaks

A piano keyboard with cotton swabs and paper towels used for disinfecting piano keys

Disinfecting Piano Keys

What I have never put on my About Me page is that I started out as a premed major. Those of you who follow me on social media know that I have completed a course on COVID-19 from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

I’ve heard and read a lot of misinformation on how to reopen music teaching safely. There’s no question that with the risk of infection, teaching music is going to be a dangerous business for a while to come. Here are my suggestions on how to make it as safe as possible.

First, set up a handwashing station by the door and make sure that each student washes their hands as they come in. Students who will use their mouths to play should also be given a small disposable paper cup and rinse for 30 seconds with an antiseptic mouthwash such as original Listerine. String, piano, and percussion students should wear masks. Chairs and music stands should be spaced 6 feet apart. Mark positions with tape on the floor. Each student should come in, wash hands, take up their seat, and then allow the next student in after the previous student is seated.

Photocopy (or scan and print) all the sheet music. Put each page in a plastic sleeve (you can insert two pages back to back in one sleeve). Put the plastic sleeves in order into a plastic 3-ring notebook. After each use take some 70% isopropyl rubbing alcohol on a paper towel and wipe down each plastic sleeve and the notebook thoroughly, and allow it to dry. When the alcohol degrades the sleeve enough, discard, wash hands, and put the pages into a new sleeve and replace in the notebook. Each student should have their own sheet music. Alternatively, you can display music on a whiteboard or wall using a projector.

Until proper protocols are somehow in place, you are not going to be able to teach choir or private singing lessons. You can’t wear a mask to sing or to teach singing.
From Erin Bromage:

Choir: The church choir in Washington State. Even though people were aware of the virus and took steps to minimize transfer; e.g. they avoided the usual handshakes and hugs hello, people also brought their own music to avoid sharing, and socially distanced themselves during practice. A single asymptomatic carrier infected most of the people in attendance. The choir sang for 2 1/2 hours, inside an enclosed church which was roughly the size of a volleyball court.
Singing, to a greater degree than talking, aerosolizes respiratory droplets extraordinarily well. Deep-breathing while singing facilitated those respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs. Two and half hours of exposure ensured that people were exposed to enough virus over a long enough period of time for infection to take place. Over a period of 4 days, 45 of the 60 choir members developed symptoms, 2 died. The youngest infected was 31, but they averaged 67 years old. (corrected link)

Bromage continues:

So back to the original thought of my post.

Indoor spaces, with limited air exchange or recycled air and lots of people, are concerning from a transmission standpoint. We know that 60 people in a volleyball court-sized room (choir) results in massive infections. Same situation with the restaurant and the call center. Social distancing guidelines don’t hold in indoor spaces where you spend a lot of time, as people on the opposite side of the room were infected.

The principle is viral exposure over an extended period of time. In all these cases, people were exposed to the virus in the air for a prolonged period (hours). Even if they were 50 feet away (choir or call center), even a low dose of the virus in the air reaching them, over a sustained period, was enough to cause infection and in some cases, death.

Social distancing rules are really to protect you with brief exposures or outdoor exposures. In these situations there is not enough time to achieve the infectious viral load when you are standing 6 feet apart or where wind and the infinite outdoor space for viral dilution reduces viral load. The effects of sunlight, heat, and humidity on viral survival, all serve to minimize the risk to everyone when outside.

When assessing the risk of infection (via respiration) at the grocery store or mall, you need to consider the volume of the air space (very large), the number of people (restricted), how long people are spending in the store (workers – all day; customers – an hour). Taken together, for a person shopping: the low density, high air volume of the store, along with the restricted time you spend in the store, means that the opportunity to receive an infectious dose is low. But, for the store worker, the extended time they spend in the store provides a greater opportunity to receive the infectious dose and therefore the job becomes more risky.

Basically, as the work closures are loosened, and we start to venture out more, possibly even resuming in-office activities, you need to look at your environment and make judgments. How many people are here, how much airflow is there around me, and how long will I be in this environment. If you are in an open floorplan office, you really need critically assess the risk (volume, people, and airflow). If you are in a job that requires face-to-face talking or even worse, yelling, you need to assess the risk.

On to disinfecting instruments (unfortunately, at the moment, I don’t have any advice for wind instruments except flutes and piccolos):

  • For ivory and wood piano keys, use Dr. Bronner’s fragrance-free soap and water on a damp cotton swab. Scrub each surface of the piano key for 20 seconds (don’t forget about the fronts, but you can ignore the sides of the white keys unless you’re doing glissandos). Rinse with a second damp cotton swab, and dry with a clean white cotton cloth. Discard the cotton swab after each surface (for black keys you will need 4 swabs per key, for white keys, 2).
  • For plastic piano keys, use any of the agents on the EPA’s List N. You probably have one or more of these at home, but test on the front of a piano key and give it 24 hours before using it on an entire piano.
  • For violins and violas: Cover the chinrest with a washable fabric. Remove and replace between students. Leather chinrest covers may be cleaned with saddle soap, follow directions. Metal strings can be cleaned with 70% isopropyl alcohol; wood can be cleaned with mild soap (I use Dr Bronner’s fragrance-free soap, diluted 8-1 with water, on a damp cloth, another damp cloth to rinse, and another dry unbleached, undyed cotton cloth to dry—don’t use a microfiber cloth to dry as they don’t absorb water well).
  • Brass instruments, piccolos, and flutes can be steam cleaned with a handheld steam cleaner between students and each student should have an individually-assigned mouthpiece. Mouthpieces can be thoroughly disinfected with steam cleaning.
  • Leather drum heads can be cleaned with saddle soap.

Every music teacher should be aware of the risks of spreading this (and any) disease through lessons. Be safe and keep your students safe.

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