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Charle's Rufino's Tips for Cleaning and Sterilizing Instruments

A member of the NYSSMA Task Force for Ensemble Safety recently contacted LIVS Director Charles Rufino asking about strategies for cleaning and disinfecting school instruments. Mr Rufino gave the following advice and answers to the question that had been asked:

  1. It's important to keep in mind the difference between sterilizing and  sanitizing an instrument, and I hold that focusing on the latter is realistic goal.  As soon as an object hits the atmosphere it is no long sterile- obviously an impossible status to maintain.  So the true goal is mitigation of any infectious matter, keeping germs to the lowest practical level.  The best way to do that is keep the instrument clean in the first place.  Thus every musician should sanitize their hands before touching an instrument, and again before they touch another instrument.
  2. The contact points of the instrument are the main vectors of transmission, the neck and strings, chinrest, and various spots on the body to a lesser extent.  If the above protocol is observed, I suggest wiping the chinrest off with a disinfectant wipe and then doing the same to the neck and strings.
  3. No matter what is used, never apply it directly to an instrument.  If you have a spray or pump bottle, apply the stuff to a cloth away from the instrument and then sanitize the instrument with the applicator.  And have a clean, dry cloth at hand to wipe up excess or spills.

-Is it safe to use alcohol/alcohol-based cleaners on strings MULTIPLE times per day? Obviously, this is the easiest way to disinfect, but I worry that while many sources are telling string teachers to do this, it’s not a sustainable solution to do say, 6 times a day, 5 days a week on a poor school cello.

If you mean a standard hand-sanitizer gel, you will get a problem of the gel building up. If you are thinking of rubbing alcohol on a rag, I am EXTREMELY leery about using plain alcohol to clean or disinfect instruments. Let me get into the weeds on this point. Here is what I have seen many times: a player hears they can easily clean excess rosin from their fingerboard and strings with a little rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball. They do so with a nice wet ball and scrub away, failing to notice that they squeezed out drops which are now running freely all over the body of the instrument. If they spot it and wipe up the runs right away all they get is a mild scar.  If they don't see it, hours later they find a huge running white spot where the varnish has been stripped away. I am passionate about this issue because a prominent NYC violinist did this to her Rufino violin and earned herself a $1500 retouching job. There are any number of solvents that will kill the virus but the risk of damage to the instrument is just too great unless proper training has been undergone. 

A safe alternative is a water-based disinfectant. Germicidal "Lysol" or "Clorox" wipes are perfect because they are damp enough to do the job but will not drip even if you squeeze them. Getting people to understand how little it takes to make a cloth damp is the hard part, and a Lysol wipe does it for them.

A useful alternative is a 10% solution of bleach.  Take 9 parts water and add one part bleach to the water (whenever diluting dangerous liquids, put the water in first to reduce the risk of splashing the nasty stuff when water is dumped in).

Just about any water-based germicide will not damage an instrument if you wipe it off and don't leave pools or drops.   Even plain water will damage most finishes if drops are allowed to pool and dry.  

Follow a simple rule and you should have no problems:- the applicator should be damp.  "Damp" means no matter how hard you squeeze or wring your applicator no drops come out of it.  And if all else fails, have a dry cloth handy to dry off the instrument.

-I’ve heard rumors that hydrogen peroxide might be a viable solution for cleaning string instruments...thoughts?

Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) is an effective germicide and as a first cousin to water is quite benign and non-toxic. It breaks down in very little time to water, and will not harm instruments if runs are wiped up promptly. Once it is poured out of a bottle any unused excess must be discarded as contaminated H2O2 will spoil the stuff in the bottle if poured back in.  Like if some was poured into a bowl, sponged onto a fiddle, and the leftover returned to the bottle.  Also if it is left uncapped it will break down to water quickly.  

-Is there any household product that might help to mitigate some of the damage done by disinfecting cleaners on an instrument? (ex: if we’re forced to use disinfecting Windex on a non-lacquered instrument, is there an oil that could be applied daily to the wood that would at least help)?

I would avoid Windex, which has some alcohol in it.  A nifty trick I teach in the repair classes for music teachers I have taught at Stony Brook University is to put a little mineral oil onto a small bit of  "0000" (Pronounced Four-Oh) steel wool and rub the fingerboard, neck, and strings with it.  Keep the oil away from the bowed part of the strings or you will ruin the hair on the bow.  And if you get oil on that area of the string, take a clean, dry bit of steel wool and scrub off the oil.  Mineral oil you can get at any pharmacy or super market and 0000 steel wool is in most hardware stores.

I would not worry about the wood being damaged.  All this stuff you hear like "It feeds the wood" is advertising bunk. The wood of the neck, mostly bare, is constantly being moistened with perspiration and doesn't suffer materially in the normal course of things.  Except in the exceedingly rare (3 I know of in my career) cases when a player has very caustic perspiration that destroys the wood.  Lightly wiping the instrument with a benign polish- even Pledge if nothing else is available- will keep it looking nice.  

Let me repeat my injunction about excessive amounts of any cleaner, disinfectant, or even plain water being allowed to remain on an instrument. Wipe it on, then wipe it right off so there are no drops or runs remaining, and you should have no problems

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