When second year graduate student Theo White was an underclassman in the University of Idaho Marching Band, he said his trombone slide kept binding up.
“So I took it apart, and there was this black stuff,” White said. “I thought “This doesn”t rust this color. This must be mold.””
White then wiped down the inside of his instrument and kept playing – until a week later, when it grew back again.
“That time I left the trombone apart to dry, and the black stuff didn”t come back,” White said.
White isn”t the only musician to experience the unwelcome colonization of microbial worlds within his instrument, though molecular biology professor Jill Johnson said it isn”t an extremely common experience.
“The actual cases of people getting sick from their instrument are actually very low,” Johnson said. “In general, this isn”t a widespread threat or anything.”
Still, when the dean and associate dean of UI”s College of Science asked for additional ideas to represent the college at the 2015 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Johnson and her colleague Doug Cole volunteered.
Johnson said she”d been inspired by an article about a bagpiper who”d been hospitalized with a sickness caught from fungi growing in his in instrument.
“I was reading this story and became curious about how often this type of thing occurs,” Johnson said. “We saw it as an opportunity to kind of take this fun angle to describe what types of organisms could be living out there, how do you study them, what do they need to grow, why can they grow in an instrument?”
Johnson and Cole”s workshop, titled “What Might Be Living in My Instrument?” is a lecture-type presentation in which the professors address those questions, as well as methods to avoid organisms setting up camp in the attendees” instruments.
Last year, the first time the professors hosted the workshop, Cole said the feedback from school group leaders and students was increased curiosity, leading to an extensive question-and-answer session.
“They were also partly scared, like “how scared should I be?”” Cole said. “But also just, “what could be in there? What could be growing? How worried should I be?””
Cole said over 1,000 organisms have been identified living in the mouths of people. Most of those are bacteria and fungi. He said that while instruments aren”t necessarily the best host for bacterial organisms because they need something to feed on, fungi are more resilient, and therefore a problem organism.
“Given the right conditions, they are very robust organisms,” Cole said.
As far as fungi (and other intrusive organisms) having a host to feed on, fourth-year music education major and French horn player Abbey Cheever has firsthand experience. While scrubbing out her section”s instruments, a mellophone harbored a haunting surprise.
“There was lettuce, moldy bread and some little black insect-like things,” Cheever said. “I immediately told the marching band director – now any food before football games is banned.”
Cheever”s story may not be common, but it is preventable.
“Part of this is just making people aware that this can happen, and then how to take steps to avoid that, or to take care of it,” Johnson said.
“What Might Be Living in My Instrument?” will be held from 10:30-11:20 a.m. Friday in the Clearwater-Whitewater room in the Idaho Commons.