December 5, 2013

Staying Healthy in the Studio

Music can be a disgusting trade to get into. Percussionists have it easy, since (for the most part) they make contact with their instruments through mallets and sticks. String players usually don't play anyone's instruments but their own. Wind and brass players however are in a field where everyone is constantly buzzing their lips and exhaling gallons of their filthy microbe-laden air. Singers are constantly sick for the same reason. Pianists have the unique experience of sharing instruments. Because pianos are too big to carry we get to put our fingers on the same keys that hundreds of other pianists, or piano students, have also been putting their fingers on. Fingers that have been on door-knobs, toilet seats, eyes, ears, get the idea.

Kids are notoriously bad at basic personal hygiene and controlling their bodies around other people. It is because of this that piano studios can be the gateway to an illness-ridden lifestyle. Every day I see kids wipe their noses with their hands, cough into their hands, pick their ears with their hands. Sometimes kids will even sneeze or cough directly onto the piano keys, aerosoling their invisible illness into my previously pristine air. Of course, I try to get hand sanitizer onto them before the digits hit the ivories but most of the time it's too late. When flu season kicks into high gear I'll often send an email out to parents reminding them to talk to their kids about proper coughing and sneezing techniques, but there are always students who come in and spend a third of the lesson coughing with open mouths, eyes bugged out, directly onto the keys and music stand and my hand if I haven't gotten out of the way. Coughing into my face at a close proximity? Yes, it's happened.

So what do I do to keep healthy? Well, the first year I just wasn't healthy. I got sick constantly throughout the year with the apex being a nasty hit of norovirus at my family's Christmas celebration (sorry I blamed the meatballs, mom). But this is an experience many teachers can relate to. The first year is the sick year, then your immune system gets stronger, you sleep better because you know what you're doing, and the workload eases down (sort of). So first step to staying healthy? Get sick because you have no choice.

Make sure you stock plenty of hand-sanitizer in your studio. If your school is really nice they might do it for you, but a big bottle of sanitizer is worth the cost. When I was teaching group piano classes, I actually bought one of those two-liter mondo-bottles for the piano lab. Students were very appreciative. Like I said before, you won't be able to catch those dirty paws every time, but sometimes is better than never. Also, make sure you have a box of facial tissues. It sounds obvious but my school doesn't supply them, and I'm sure I'm not alone. Plus they're handy when kids cry.

Reminders are always good, but kids (hell, grown-ups too) have a hard time remembering not to touch their faces during lessons. We touch our faces constantly. I've gotten better about not touching my own face during lessons, but most of the time I forget and then immediately use some hand sanitizer (I go through a lot of hand sanitizer and I would gladly accept a sponsorship from any leading brands). Adult students can often remember decently well when I warn them, but we have a compulsive need to wipe our runny noses and the hand is nature's tissue.

One of the hardest things about sick kids is that you can't do make-up lessons for them. I mean, you can but you shouldn't, because you would constantly be chasing make-ups. Parents feel obligated to bring their sniffly child into the lesson because lessons are expensive and they want to get their money's worth. I absolutely understand this, but I still encourage them to leave their infectious precious ones home.

I've tried to mandate hand-washing before and after lessons but it didn't work. It takes time, is hard to implement, and realistically, it's often the chronically sick kids who aren't very good at washing hands in the first place. Also, it just takes one nose wipe for those clean aromatic hands to become sinful petri dishes again.

I keep my distance from sick kids. Often I will share the bench with younger children because the proximity makes it easier to see what they need help with and it creates an environment less like a scary doctor's office and more like a game. When kids are sick however I will sit across the room and see how long I can hold my breath for. I then sanitize my hands every time I touch the keys. I also have a chair that I sit in which I can move closer or farther away depending on the severity of the sick student.

Flu-shots are excellent. When I started teaching I decided to get annual flu vaccinations. This year however my insurance provider (HEALTHPARTNERS, I will name you because you did me wrong on this one despite being generally great) pulled my coverage for pharmacy flu shots, and required me to go to a clinic for one. I have been bad, a public menace, an irresponsible teacher, by not getting one. Because instead of going next door (I literally live next door to a pharmacy) I now have to make an appointment, drive to a waiting room, sit around, and waste clinic time to something that used to take 15 minutes (and zero precious provider minutes). I'll probably end up just paying the $30 at the drug store for the convenience.

I feel intensely guilty about this (apparently not quite guilty enough to schlep over to the clinic though) because although I don't want to get sick, I really don't want to make the children in my studio sick. Getting sick as a privately-employed piano teacher is rough. You only have three options:

1) Teach while sick and be miserable

2) Re-schedule the lessons, which is a different kind of miserable

3) Cancel the lessons and pay the parents back, which is expensive and thus, miserable

Teaching while sick is also bad because you have a greater chance to make your children sick, and they get their friends and family sick and soon you've contributed to a public health crisis. Great job. It's for this reason that health is super important in our field. Children are more susceptible to the severe aspects of illness and teachers should take all the precautions they can. That means get over your unfounded paranoia of vaccines, use real cold medication, get sleep, and do all of the things that you are probably able to do and afford.


I'm going to go get my flu shot now.

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