Did Quitting Clarinet Cause My Asthma? And Other Stories About Wind Instruments

Today I had a weird realization, although I’m not drawing any conclusions here. Bear with me through this story: I quit school concert band in grade 10 due to a declining interest (and I practiced exactly never, and then I took up guitar and also practiced exactly never–okay maybe a bit more than that). I played the clarinet, primarily, with brief jazz band stints into bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, and later, tenor saxophone (True story: when I met my high school band teacher the first time he asked what I played. I said clarinet and Bari sax, and he looked at my 5’1″ self and said “You play the Bari?! You’re too small to play the Bari!” Let’s be honest, I could barely carry the thing!). I was also in choir which I stuck with through high school, despite a less than fun grade 12 choir year.

Strange Coincidence?

I realized today that I stopped band in June 2007. And—fast forward—in April 2008 I was diagnosed with asthma. I started having symptoms 2.5 months earlier. In my *right* mind, I know that it is a weird coincidence: I know that quitting band (probably) had NO bearing on my asthma diagnosis. And research supports that a study suggests there is NO difference in lung function between woodwind/brass instrument players and people who do not play these instruments1. By the way, research doesn’t lead me to anything that claims asthma can be prevented by playing woodwind or brass instruments, either. So it’s just a strange coincidence. In fact, one article that compares men in a military band who play woodwinds (like the clarinet or saxophone) actually had decreased pulmonary functions compared to those who didn’t play, caused by barotrauma to the lungs—which means injury caused by air pressure2. The more people practice, the greater the damage that might result. (Oh, so I was safe that way! ;))3

Okay, I don’t honestly believe that if I’d kept playing I’d have avoided asthma. I’m pretty sure I’d have had three terrible semesters of band with uncontrolled asthma and playing the clarinet. An Australian study also notes that asthma has an insignificant impact on participation in music, does not impact the choice of instrument, nor does it prevent musicians with asthma from achieving a high or elite level of skill in the instrument3. Had I continued playing and then developed asthma, I’d probably have treated band like exercise and pre-medicated prior to playing (as I have the few times I’ve played since my diagnosis), which is annoying but not a super big deal.

Clean Your Instrument!

And another tidbit for any of you wind instrument players out there: clean your instrument! A guy developed “saxophone lung” from an accumulation of mold and other grossness in his clarinet for not cleaning it for 30 years. Gross. This condition causes inflammation to develop in the lungs from exposure to mold and bacteria4. He was treated with prednisone and, go figure, his symptoms did not improve until he cleaned his clarinet3! I wonder how he went that long without taking his instrument in for servicing, where surely they’d have cleaned it, but maybe he’s smarter than me and just checks all the screws and whatever himself.

Of course, it’s one of those things I have to wonder about, one of those un-solveables. So now, though, I’m sitting here at 11:30 PM and asking myself questions and googling things related to asthma and woodwind and brass instruments! Research says: keep playing, but keep your instrument clean! (Which is always a good idea. And if your reeds have black stuff on them, that’s mold and throw them out because gross.) And, nothing—of course—indicates the fact that I quit caused my asthma. 😉

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