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MU Member's Response to the Guidance on Playing Wind and Brass Instruments

Richard Steggall has written to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, in response to the recent announcements regarding the guidance on playing wind and brass instruments.

Published: 10 July 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 09 June 2021 | 11:06 AM
Blowing brass wind instrument on table
"The rate of airflow leaving the bell of a brass instrument is tiny" Photo: Shutterstock

Richard Steggall is a highly-respected member of the MU West End Sub-Committee, French horn in Phantom of the Opera, London (2007-20), a member of the National Symphony Orchestra, Magazine editor and Trustee of the British Horn Society, a brass teacher with Bromley Youth Music Trust and a freelance resource writer for Music Teacher magazine. Our thanks to Richard, who has agreed for the contents of his letter to be published on the MU website.

Adressed to Mr Oliver Dowden, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA

"Dear Mr Dowden,

I would like to express my tremendous thanks to the government, and yourself, for the recent £1.57bn cash injection for the arts in the UK. I am aware of your passion and determination to keep the arts alive in venues of all of sizes throughout this country. There are grave concerns for those self-employed artists who have “slipped through the cracks” of the SEISS scheme, which include many of my colleagues, but I am contacting you today with regards to the government’s guidance on playing wind and brass instruments.

My name is Richard Steggall. I am a professional French horn player and brass teacher, so my expert knowledge is in the brass family of instruments, rather than woodwind, or indeed singing, a group that we seem to have been bracketed with. I am well aware of the personal devastation that COVID-19 has caused many families, so I do not take corresponding to you lightly, however I am concerned with some aspects of the government’s approach in restricting the playing of these instruments in professional, amateur and youth environments.

Much of the rhetoric of why wind and brass instruments might help spread coronavirus has involved the idea that we “project” air as we play. Although we do use air to make vibrations in our instruments, we project sound waves, just like a piano, violin or loudspeaker. As I believe Sir Simon Rattle told you, “You cannot blow a candle out with a trombone.” The rate of airflow leaving the bell of a brass instrument is tiny, and, after going through at least 1.4m of tubing (the length of a trumpet), the droplets in the breath are caught in the instrument and can be disposed of.

I recently made a two-minute video explaining the difference between airflow and sound waves. So far, it has been viewed over 130,000 times on social media.  

Many people were surprised that I felt that I had to make this video, but it appears that, although the government keep telling us they are “following the science”, they are in fact going on their perceptions. When answering Kay Burley’s questions on Sky on Monday you said, “with singing, you are projecting a lot and with some instruments you’re also projecting a lot,” which was accompanied by a hand gesture away from your body. This suggests that you are perpetuating the myth that we “project” air into our environment. We do not, we project sound.

If the concern is about the larger amount of air that we breathe, rather than the speed, the news that indoor gyms and fitness studios can reopen will be confusing for many.

I am, however, pleased that some phased opening is happening, and that your guidance for the performing arts is getting clearer and more detailed. Yesterday’s guidance said, “playing wind and brass instruments, especially in groups, are considered higher risk activities because of the potential for aerosol production and the absence presently of developed scientific analysis to assess this specific risk. The evidence is being developed rapidly.” So, I hope you are moving away from the idea of air projection. The idea of aerosol production being behind early “super-spreader” choral events I know is one that must be looked at, for the safety of musicians and the containment of COVID-19. However, I do wonder if health clubs were made to research aerosol emission from aerobic and anaerobic exercise before they were allowed to open?

I am heartened to read that studies into aerosol production have now been commissioned and started in the UK. I know that the study by Dr Declan Costello, and that of the London Symphony Orchestra in St. Luke’s, will clear the path for a safe return to playing for many of us. I would also hope that you look outside this country for answers. In the USA, the National Federation of State High School Associations has brought together an unprecedented international coalition of performing arts organisations and are conducting research into aerosol emissions in wind and brass instruments at the University of Colorado. The results are due to be published later today (with a further result on singing due on the 25th July).

The importance of music to the mental health and well-being of many amateurs and young musicians cannot be understated. A swift and, most crucially, safe return to work for the thousands of wonderful freelance musicians in this country is also of paramount importance. I would implore you to stop using damaging hunches about how wind instruments work and listen, and act on, the best scientific advice as soon as it is available, from home or international sources.

Yours sincerely

Richard Steggall"

The call for meaningful evidence and gudiance

We're thankful for Richard's excellent letter. Our General Secretary, Horace Trubridge, has been involved in several government working groups at which he has made these arguments about sound rather than projection. We are calling for Public Health England and their equivalents in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, to produce meaningful evidence and guidance as soon as possible.

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