Who in 2019 would have thought that 2020 would see the music profession having in-depth discussions about the risk levels of playing a wind instrument? Indeed, that there would be university research departments across the world carrying out intensive observation of the “aerosol effect” (the spread of the air-stream from a wind instrument whilst playing)?
The aerosol effect in flutes
To date it would appear the results are consistent with each study: the aerosol effect with most wind instruments is fairly localised, and does not spread much beyond the individual player themselves.
The one exception to this is the flute.
Due to the side-blown nature of the flute – requiring the player to blow a compacted stream of air across an embouchure hole – a significant amount of air can be blown into the space immediately in front of the player. A Vienna Philharmonic study found that this distance was only 80cm, though – still in the safe zone for social distancing.
It is, however, believed that water droplets may remain in the air for a considerable number of minutes, which is the subject of some concern.
It is worth noting that these tests were carried out with professional musicians who in all likelihood put a lot of air down the flute at great speed, producing a greater spread; a younger student will probably put far less air down, with less focus and energy.
Reducing the spread of air
We have found two devices so far which may reduce the spread of this airflow. The first is the Flute Shield developed by Janna Huneke, a flute player and teacher. The Flute Shield is a simple but effective device which fits neatly onto the headjoint, and works as a visor for the flute. The shield looks very discreet when fitted: once you have adjusted for comfort, you can play unhindered and with no negative effect to the sound, but the shield does prevent the full force of the air-stream projecting into the room in front of you. An added benefit of the Flute Shield is that it acts as a sound mirror, projecting the sound back to you as you play.
The other device is the Win-D-Fender. We first stumbled upon this innovative product in 2019; it has been available for a few years in the US and has won some significant design and trade awards. Originally designed for flute players to play in marching bands in blustery weather, this box-like device fits over your lip-plate and is intended to prevent the wind from blowing away your sound, a job it does very successfully.
However, in 2020 the Win-D-Fender has found a new use: a large amount of the player’s airstream is contained within the unit itself, thereby potentially greatly reducing the spread of the air stream and the aerosol effect of flute playing.
It is important to note that neither of these products have been scientifically tested, and that there is no data to be able to confidently state that either the Flute Shield or Win-D-Fender reduce the distance and spread of the air stream, or the aerosol affect.
Ultimately and unfortunately, there is not currently enough available scientific evidence to be able to make fully informed decisions regarding Covid risk for wind musicians, and so players should make their own decisions based on their individual situations and risk assessments.
There are several other factors to take into account when playing and teaching the flute.
In addition to the standard best practice of sterilising surfaces in your teaching space, it is highly recommended to thoroughly ventilate it. In our showroom, we have invested in a high-powered fan which we use with the windows and door open after sterilising the room.
Use a fan with the windows and doors open to help disperse any water droplets which may be lingering in the air.
Some teachers are using a transparent pop-up screen between themselves and their students; we are using these in our shop for certain situations such as instrument repair drop-offs and collections.
We are using a combination of a UV-C light, alcohol wipes and a quarantine period to clean our instruments in the shop. As long as only you are handling your instrument, your usual cleaning regime should be sufficient.
Hand sanitiser and the flute
Based on our assessments, there should be no lasting damage from the regular use of alcohol-based hand sanitiser while handling the flute. Ensure that your hands are thoroughly dry before handling the instrument; if your hands are wet, the alcohol could draw out the stain in a wooden instrument, plus you wouldn’t want any sanitiser to enter the mechanism.