One of the weirdest things I was taught when I started French horn lessons was that I had to give the instrument a weekly bath. At the age of 12, a weekly bath was something I regarded as a chore in my own life; having to do the same for my French horn seemed the ultimate in idiocy. But, keen as I was to learn, and anxious as I was to impress my teacher, I duly filled the bath every Saturday afternoon with lukewarm water, stuck my horn in it and let it soak. I’m glad I did: I’m still alive to tell the tale.
The real value of the weekly horn bath was only driven home today when a news item on the BBC told of a man who died following inhaling the build-up of fungus from the inside of his unwashed bagpipes ( www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-37152871 ). A keen bagpiper in the UK has died at the age of 61 and investigations revealed that he had developed a fatal infection from the mould and fungus collected over the years in his instrument.
Every brass player knows the problem. Water (condensation rather than dribble) collects inside the instrument, causing an uncontrollable clicking sound, and needs to be released by means of a valve or through simply pouring it out of the end of a piece of pipe or of the instrument itself. In the days when music exams were done in private houses, it was common for the householders to insist on “no brass” in order to protect their carpets from wet deposits from brass instruments. Others would ostentatiously put old sheets or newspapers on the floor and instruct the hapless brass player to “empty your spit on that”. One socialist householder, seeing me arrive with a copy of the Daily Telegraph under my arm, got his own back on my choice of right-wing reading material by insisting I place it on the floor whenever brass players came into the room. I’ve even heard of brass students told not to empty their instruments in the exam: with disastrous consequences.
Emptying and cleaning the inside of wind instruments is now shown to be not just musically essential but medically so as well. We are well aware of the problems of Repetitive Strain Injury in violinists and cellists, and Alexander technique specialists spend hours working on musicians’ posture in an attempt to prevent long-term injuries, but never before has anything associated with a musical instrument been shown to have potentially fatal consequences.
The French conductor Lully was the first recorded examples of a musician killed by performing his instrument (he stabbed himself in his foot whilst conducing a performance of a Te Deum on 8th January 1687). Let’s hope that our unnamed bagpiper will be the last. Lovely as music-making is, it really should not be a matter of life and death.