musings of a professional bassoonist

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What lurks inside the bassoon??

Many musicians read with horror the NPR article about "trombone players' lung" which circulated a few days ago.  A mold called fusarium was detected inside the trombone of a musician suffering from chronic coughing and according to the article, "mold and bacteria could grow in any brass instrument."  It's not much of a stretch to imagine mold and bacteria growing in bassoon bocals (and reeds) as well!  To compound the problem, bassoonists are known to regularly "suck in" and then, in the attempt to avoid gurgling sounds and fuzzy attacks, we actually swallow the contents of the bocal.  Ewww.......

Come to think of it, this could be the main reason why I always prefer to play on new reeds.  Long before scientists ever examined the interior of the trombone, I was leery of the dark interiors of reeds and bocals.  Wood, due to its porous nature, is even more likely than brass or other metals to trap and grow bacteria and mold!  The older the reed, the more time it's had to attract and harbor such toxins.  And since the reed is in direct contact with the player's mouth, I think it makes sense to be very afraid of what's inside of them.  Mold and bacteria thrive on darkness and moisture, so after playing, I rinse my reeds with water and then leave them out to dry off.  (I have paid dearly for that habit, though.  Since I don't keep my reeds in the bassoon case, it's not unusual for me to show up at work without my reeds!)

To further promote bacteria-free reeds, I always brush and floss my teeth before playing, every time.  Most bassoonists carry toothbrushes in their cases  for this purpose.  Sometimes we are offered snacks during rehearsal breaks.  I do not indulge unless there's plenty of time to brush and floss before playing again.

As a more indirect precaution, I always wash my hands thoroughly before playing the bassoon.  If there is any bacteria on your hands, there's a great likelihood of introducing that bacteria into the reed.

If I find it necessary to clean a reed more thoroughly, I wash it carefully with hot water and soap and then soak it in hydrogen peroxide.  This is the procedure recommended by a biologist whom I questioned once about the most effective way to clean a reed.

Keeping bocals sanitary is easy as long as cleaning is frequent.  The bocal I'm using now is only a year old, and I have swabbed it every 2 weeks with a silk pull-through bocal swab.  The bocal looks quite clean and nothing comes out on the swab (although bacteria is invisible).  I wash the swab after each run-through and then hang it outside in the sun to dry.  The sunlight has a bleaching effect.  For the wing and boot joints I also use silk pull-through swabs, and every few days I wash them and hang them out in the sun to dry.

After reading about the toxic trombone, I considered pouring rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide through the bocal for extra sanitizing but decided against it due to the drying effects of alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.  I don't want to dry out the cork on the bocal!

 Do you have any other ideas to add which might enhance the safety level of the bassoon playing experience?



TB said...

Whoa. That's going right on FB!

Once in H.S. or college, I crushed a dead read, and the inside was almost completely black. Nasty.

I usually preferred playing on well-aged reeds that hadn't jumped the shark yet. My new reeds were always like 2X4s.

Arundonax said...

I'll never forget seeing this fellow's presentation at the 1991 IDRS Convention. Apparently the Staph colonies in the reed are part of the break-in process. You just can't get away from them microbes!

Amy said...

Gross!! I was thinking about this very thing the other day, attending my first ensemble rehearsal in over ten years on bassoon (I've played in other ensembles with flute or piano.)

I remember my bassoon instructor in college telling me about "sucking it in" for the first time. I was thinking there HAD to be another way. Alas, no.

Lucky for me (maybe), the bassoon I'm playing is (was) a brand-new rental and so I know that it's only my germs I'm sucking in, but the bassoon I played on in college was not new. And to make things worse, the woodwind instructor (who encouraged me to switch from flute) smoked. So when he'd come to my lesson from sneaking a puff from the staff bathroom and play on my reed, it tasted like smoke! Eww!

In such a germaphobic society these days, it's a wonder any of us play basoon!

I haven't been back on the wagon long enough to contribute how I take care of my things--I just follow the advice that I read on here and on other bassoon threads/blogsites. I have yet to find a swab that I can use with my bocal, and I hate the cotton swab that came with the instrument. I have a really nice silk swab back home that I need to retrieve.

TFox said...

I use an ultrasonic cleaner on my reeds, after every (or maybe nearly every) practice session. This is mostly about keeping gunk from building up and changing the behavior of the reed, but removing gunk probably reduces bacteria too, since they will have less to eat. Not sure what the bugs in the trombone were surviving on -- perhaps bits of protein from saliva. Nothing short of an autoclave will sterilize reeds or instruments, of course, and that sterility will be compromised as soon as it touches something nonsterile (like your mouth), but keeping things clean seems like a good idea.

B.S. said...

Dear TB,

Those dead reed innards sound pretty nasty! I know that some bassoonists really prefer older reeds though, despite the pitfalls.


B.S. said...

Dear Arundonax,

I am still trying to gather the courage to follow this link. I'm afraid it's going to be more than I can handle! I will read it though, on a day when I'm feeling courageous.

Thanks, I think....


B.S. said...

Dear Amy,

There is another way, although it's not practical. You can constantly take out your bocal and blow the moisture out.

I do think that silk swabs are best, if only because they're less likely to get stuck!

I agree that it's a wonder any of us are brave enough to play the bassoon, with all of these sanitation issues on top of everything else!


B.S. said...

Dear TFox,

I think that the ultrasonic cleaner is a great idea. I'd be willing to bet that it gets rid of bacteria, because my understanding is that bacteria really only needs to be "broken up" to be removed.

You're right, though- it's really impossible to keep our setup sterile, despite our best efforts!


Chris_Rawley said...

Hey guys! I'm new to this blog. Betsy I love it : )

What is an ultrasonic cleaner? I too prefer playing on new reeds and like to keep their qualities. Am interested to find out more.


B.S. said...

Hi Chris! Welcome!

Here's some info on the ultra sonic cleaner from Tom Hardy's site:

This cleaner does indeed increase the life span of a reed. It also seems to make them play better! It is particularly impressive on contra reeds.

It is available on ebay from David Crispin - Crispin Creations.


RWRoesch said...

Of course a thorough cleaning of a tuba is a lot more involved than what I'm about to say, but in a pinch, a pot of boiling water for my mouthpiece and a garden hose always do the trick :)

Malpitts said...

I'm coming back to the bassoon after years of inactivity. I don't have a bocal swab or brush. When I was younger, I used to soak my bocals occasionally in soapy water, then rinse them out. Is that an acceptable cleaning method, or could it be bad for the cork?

B.S. said...

Soaking the bocal in warm soapy water won't hurt the bocal. I think you need the additional benefit of friction inside the tube, though, to really clean it out. You can make a cleaner by twisting the ends of 3 pipe cleaners together to make one long pipe cleaner. Push that through the bocal, then rinse with water.