musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Bagpipe lung" for bassoonists

Nearly every musician on earth has probably heard the latest trending news about "bagpipe lung". This is old news for most of us, since scientists have been warning for years about the possibility of mold, fungi, yeast and pathogens lurking inside of wind instruments, ready to be inhaled into the lungs of the unsuspecting player.  That news has undoubtedly sent some former wind players scrambling to the string, percussion and keyboard instruments, but for those of us who steadfastly stand by our potentially deadly wind instruments, what can we do to ensure our survival?

Mold Basics

 Mold needs three conditions in which to grow:
  1. Moisture
  2. Food (This means actual food, or wood, leather, cotton, paper products, etc.)
  3. Ideal temperature (Mold grows in temperature between 32 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit - a generous range!  The 70-90 degree range is most conducive for mold growth.)
Of the above conditions, the two that we bassoonists can affect are moisture and food. (I suppose we can also affect temperature by storing reeds in the freezer.  I don't know about you, but for me that would increase the likelihood of showing up for work without my reeds!)

Oral hygiene

It's best (necessary, in my opinion) to brush and floss your teeth before playing the bassoon.  (Yeah, I know.....the trending news on flossing claims that flossing is useless after all.  I'm choosing to ignore that claim while waiting for future studies which refute the current news.)   Any food particles which find their way into your reed or bocal can become food for mold.  Not only is that gross and unhealthy, but it also prevents the reed and the bocal from functioning optimally.

Reed care

Although the reed must be moist for playing, we absolutely must take steps to dry out our reeds after playing.  I leave my reed container out of the bassoon case and open.  If I'm at a rehearsal or concert, I take out my reeds as soon as I get home.  First I rinse them with a strong stream of cold water and then set them out to dry.

reeds drying out after use, with the reed container open

Bocal care

For bassoonists, the cleanliness of the bocal is important.  The best way to keep a bocal hygienic (besides brushing and flossing of the player's teeth) is by running a clean bocal swab through the bocal at least once a month.  I wash my bocal swab after each use, since the last thing I want to do is send a germ-laden swab through my bocal.  After hand washing it with a mild soap, I allow it to dry outdoors in the sun, since sunlight is a natural sanitizing and bleaching agent. 

bocal swab with a tail on each end in case it becomes stuck
After running the bocal swab through the bocal, flush the bocal with water.  Allow water to accumulate inside the bocal and then blow it out forcefully so that any residue from the swabbing will be blown out.  (If you swab the bocal frequently enough, there shouldn't be any residue!)  Then force water out of the whisper key hole on the nub to ensure that it's not clogged.  Just cover the end of the bocal with your hand to force the water out of the whisper key hole.

Suck it up

One unique aspect of bassoon playing is that while playing, moisture accumulates in the bocal and at a certain point it begins gurgling or "knocking".  Some players seem to ignore it as if hoping the listener can't hear it.  The listener can hear it.  What do we do about it?

There are three ways I know of.  One is to take the bocal out of its socket and blow into the larger end of the bocal forcefully, expelling the moisture.  Another is to take the reed off the bocal and blow forcefully into the bocal, thereby blowing the moisture into the instrument.  The third method is to suck the moisture out of the bocal through the reed, which means the moisture enters the player's mouth, presumably to be swallowed.

The first method described above is impractical during rehearsals and concerts; it simply takes too much time.  Also, unless you are alone in a practice room, it makes too much noise.  The second method produces even more noise, and can absolutely disrupt a rehearsal or concert.  Furthermore, it forces moisture into the instrument.  The boot can actually accumulate so much moisture that it begins to gurgle.

Gross though it is, it's that third method which I use, and I'd be willing to bet that most professionals use it.   If you're assiduous about keeping your bocal clean, it shouldn't pose any problems.  My bocal was purchased brand new fairly recently, and I've swabbed it religiously.  I don't think it harbors mold.  (One reason I don't like to try other people's bassoons is because I'm afraid that I'll accidentally suck the moisture out of the bocal through the reed, thereby ingesting its mold, bacteria, and heaven knows what else.  This act of sucking in the moisture is habitual for me, since any moisture inside of the reed or bocal can cause things to go wrong during rehearsals or concerts.  I'm constantly sucking the moisture in through the reed.) 

Mold is more likely to grow in the reed than in the bocal because the cane itself provides food for mold.  The metal bocal does not promote mold growth UNLESS food particles have been allowed to accumulate inside it.  If you play the bassoon without brushing or flossing first, you may have created an environment for mold growth.  On top of that, if you don't regularly swab your bocal, well, some new habits may be in order.

Boot and tenor joints 

The only other action we bassoonists can take to ward off mold is to make sure that our boot and tenor joint swabs are kept clean.  It goes without saying that the boot and tenor joints must be swabbed each time the bassoon is placed back in its case.  Keeping the instrument dry is critical for the health of the instrument and its player.

On top of that, the swabs used for the boot and tenor joint must be kept clean.  It's not practical to wash those swabs after each use, unfortunately, but for heaven's sake, we should definitely wash them as frequently as possible, using mild soap and sun drying.

Sun-drying a boot swab




It's really that simple - that's all we can do.....brush and floss our teeth, dry out our reeds, swab bocals often, swab boot and tenor joints after each use, and keep those swabs clean and dry, thus holding "bagpipe lung" at bay!



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