Wind instruments are perfectly safe – so why can’t the band play on them?


The effects of the pandemic on the UK classical music industry are well known, with concert halls remaining empty and musicians (many of whom are independent) losing their livelihoods. Now, Covid-19 is claiming another victim – school orchestras.

Recent guidelines from the Department of Education urged schools to consider the “added risk of infection” potentially posed by wind instruments or brass instruments when played. The DfE states that orchestras and music groups should be limited to a maximum of 15 people, while students should play outdoors whenever possible, sitting back to back or side to side (rather than face to face) and never share instruments.

The guidelines, coupled with widespread concern about the extent to which airborne particles from wind instruments can spread the Covid-19 virus, have left piccolo players in deep trouble. Some schools respond by purchasing ukuleles in bulk to replace bassoons, flutes, clarinets, trombones and recorders in their orchestras or bands. Young musicians will be particularly affected: the recorder remains the fourth most popular instrument taught to entire classes, according to a study by Music Mark, the British association for music education.

Other schools have banned face-to-face teaching of wind instruments until October at the earliest. Meanwhile, the Oxford Flute Summer School, which caters to people over the age of 16, has been forced to cancel its course – which was due to start this week – for the first time in its 34-year history, in due to the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

And yet, the science behind these changes is unclear. It seems the nanny state is on shaky ground as it spreads its tentacles into school music rooms. Of course, precautions must be taken. The health of people must remain the primary concern.

But by watering down orchestras on unproven science, the richness and enjoyment of music is suddenly diminished. Without wood or brass, there would be no hen, no fish, no cuckoo in Le Carnaval des Animaux de Saint-Saëns. Without a flute, Debussy’s faun would not play in the woods. Without a clarinet, Gershwin’s rhapsody would be neither blue nor any other color. Removing the woodwinds and brass from our children’s orchestras whitens our musical rainbow beyond recognition.

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