March 10, 2020

Virus advice to pipers and drummers: keep to your instrument

Anyone who plays in a pipe band knows that they – perhaps pipe sections especially – are a place where the exchange of saliva can be almost routine.

Right now, many bands are doling out new chanter reeds to pipers, pipe-majors and pipe-sergeants testing and manipulating instruments to find the ideal set-up for their players.

Drummers don’t use mouth-blown instruments (the one exception being that time when a tenor drummer “inflated” his drum with a hose at the World’s). Other than being in close proximity with tenor sticks fanning conditions, drums sections don’t come close to pipe sections, so to speak.

But everyone’s around everyone at band practice, so perhaps some precautions are needed.

We wondered what a few well-known medical doctors from the piping community might think, so we asked them for their expert advice.

Keep in mind that you should always contact your own physician and also refer to guidelines from credible sources, but chances are they’re not familiar with the functions of a bagpipe or pipe band.

“Dr. Angus” MacDonald of Skye is one of the greatest pipers of all time. He has been a medical practitioner for more than 40 years, so he knows a few things about both piping and medicine. He’s also played in several bands, including the Grade 1 British Caledonian Airways, which evolved to become today’s ScottishPower.

Blowing a pipe belonging to someone else would certainly not be advisable.

“So far, there are 23 cases in Scotland, but they are slowly increasing,” Dr. Angus said. “As for the risk to pipers and risk of infection, blowing a pipe belonging to someone else would certainly not be advisable. It may be that the virus could survive in the pipe bag as well as on blowstick, but also on the chanter and reeds.”

Dr. Jack Taylor, a past member of Grade 1 Buchan Peterson, one of the great pipers of the last 100 years and now retired from the medical professional after a career of almost 50 years, agrees with Dr. Angus. He goes a step further: “My advice to pipers is to follow local guidelines – don’t blow each others instruments and keep your blowstick hygienic with some antiseptic.”

And what about the routine and outright necessity of pipe-majors and other testing the reeds of other players in the ranks?

“No to testing reeds,” Dr. Angus emphasized. “There will be no scientific evidence on whether blowing strongly, exhaling and inhaling deeply would increase the chance of spreading virus containing droplets, but in theory this seems likely.

Again, Dr. Taylor agreed. “It’s probably best not to be blowing directly on to a new reed if has been blown by somebody else immediately beforehand.”

Dr. James Feeney is an accomplished piper and Director of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York. He’s seen it all when it comes to emergency medicine, as well as a few things as a member of various pipe bands, including the 78th Fraser Highlanders.

“The first thing to remember is that not everyone who spreads the virus has symptoms,” Feeney said. “That being said, going to band practice is fine, because the virus is not spread by aerosols, but by larger particles (droplets). It would be prudent, of course, to not play each other’s pipes or even mouth-blow each other’s reeds out of the chanters, even in the absence of any symptoms.”

It’s all pretty much common sense at any time, but the habits of a pipe band can be hard to undo. It might also be a bit awkward telling the pipe-major or anyone else not to try your instrument or reeds.

Precautions are also common sense, Taylor said: “Remember to stay back from anybody with a cough, cold or fever, don’t shake hands, sneeze into your elbow, stay away from band practice if you are unwell.”

When pipers and drummers are often fighting for a spot in the circle, and generally want to be seen as keeners, they might fear that missing band practice will be frowned upon, but Dr. Feeney added, “It scarcely needs to be said that people should absolutely stay home if they are sick, and wash/sanitize their hands as often as possible.”

For the mitigation of risk, but also knowing the pipe band show must go on, Feeney is taking things even further.

“Controlling the contamination from droplets, small particles of mucus and saliva (like what gets ejected from one’s mouth or nose during a sneeze) is absolutely essential to curtailing the spread of this virus,” he stressed. “Pipers are especially prone to contamination from droplets, given the nature of playing and setting our instruments. Personally, because of that, I’m making a new plan for the distribution of reeds, just to avoid the transfer of any of the droplets that could spread the virus. My new plan for the distribution of reeds is to collect all the chanters, set the reeds each individually to my own drones, and then hand them back. Then, after that, I will not be mouth blowing other people’s reeds, at least until the infection spike flattens out, and the health care industry catches up with testing, treatment or vaccination/prevention.”

There’s a potential silver lining, though, to all this alarm and abundance of caution.

“On the bright side, if you have to self-isolate that should be the best opportunity you will ever have to get some great practice in,” Dr. Taylor said.

Dr. Angus MacDonald also couldn’t help but add a little humour to an often over-hyped situation. “Certainly, it would be difficult to wear a face mask while piping.”

And Dr. Jim Feeney shared his own light-hearted policy: “The rule of thumb is, if you can smell what someone had for lunch, you’re standing too close.”



Dr. Angus MacDonald: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 5
July 16, 2018


Dr. Angus MacDonald: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 4
July 2, 2018


Dr. Angus MacDonald: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 3
June 15, 2018


Dr. Angus MacDonald: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 2
May 30, 2018


Dr. Angus MacDonald: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 1
May 18, 2018


#TBT Dr. Jack Taylor on the boards of Braemar
February 22, 2018





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