December 28, 2010

What Is Living in Your Instrument?

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International Musician, October 2010

Trombonist Scott Bean of Local 400 (Hartford, CN), like many professional musicians, spends many hours of each day practicing and teaching trombone. However, for many years he suffered from a lung condition that sometimes made playing his instrument difficult.

“I coughed. I had a horrible deep barking cough-especially when I played trombone,” explains Bean in a recent National Public Radio interview. “I had a sore throat, lost 60 pounds at a time, had a low-grade fever. It was a huge hindrance.”

Doctors diagnosed him as asthmatic, but none of the treatments they tried seemed to help. After 15 years of suffering from this mysterious ailment, he went on vacation without his trombone and a funny thing happened-he felt better. That’s when he first began wondering if the instrument could somehow be causing his sickness.

When doctors from the University of Connecticut, where Bean teaches, took a culture from the inside of his horn they discovered it wasn’t his trombone that was making him sick, but it was the things living inside it. The culture revealed a mold called fusarium, as well as a type of bacteria called mycobacterium, which is related to tuberculosis.

These inhabitants of Bean’s trombone had been entering his lungs each time he played. His immune system reacted to the invasion, causing a severe inflammation of his lungs called hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

Though many players would not react to the molds and bacteria as strongly as Bean, for those with such sensitivity, it is no joke. And besides, for wind players, their lungs are their livelihood. Should they really be risking that type of pulmonary contamination?

Upon learning of Bean’s condition, University of Connecticut professor Mark Metersky, who works in the Medical School’s division of pulmonary care, set out to study just how common the problem was. “One hundred percent of the instruments studied had the same bacteria and 80% of the players admitted to having pulmonary dysfunction,” reports Bean.

Today, Bean has made it his mission to make other brass players aware of the dangers of not cleaning their horns. He admits to previously being lax about cleaning his. “You talk about cleaning out your instrument, and they laugh and make some funny remark about it,” he says. “I never cleaned out my trombone-maybe once every other year.”

Today, he realizes it is no laughing matter and he is diligent about cleaning his instrument. “I use a rod with a cloth and I use alcohol-rubbing alcohol or isopropyl alcohol-pour it down, and it cleans out the germs,” says Bean.

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