Piano maintenance - Cleaning piano keys

Learn about pianos and how to maintain them

Postby Christine » Tue Jan 03, 2006 7:26 pm

Hello everyone,

I just have a quick question regarding cleaning my piano keys. After several students playing my piano, I can almost see the germs on the keys (I am a germ fanatic!). I even had one student that constantly would "lick" her fingers several times during the lesson right before playing (nervous habit?). Especially with so many colds out there, how can I really "clean" my keys after lessons? I won't let my own kids on the piano after students until I have thoroughly wiped them down, but then wonder if that even does anything (just using a dry or very lightly damp cloth). Must be the nurse in me. Thanks everyone.
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Jan 04, 2006 8:21 am

Christine,

Welcome to the Board! We have covered this topic on The Piano Education Page in a thread here on the Board entitled Piano Hygiene and in an article, with more complete information, entitled, Piano Hygiene in the Teaching Studio. As far as we are aware, they are the only ones of their kind on the web. :)




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Postby Christine » Wed Jan 04, 2006 8:59 am

Hi Dr. Ziegler,
Thank-you for the response (I guess I have to get better at finding out which topics have already been covered before I start a new one!) After reading everything, I think I will keep with wiping the keys with a cloth (very) lightly dampened with water. I love the Purell idea for students right before the lesson. I carry a bottle with me in my car, and even a small one in my purse at all times, but never thought to offer it to students before the lesson. Thanks for the great ideas and the quick reply. :)
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Wed Jan 04, 2006 10:52 am

Christine,
I have students wash their hands before starting a lesson and have bottles water available for a wuick drink. I also use the purell myself . I clean the keys daily with alcohol. I have ivory keys . Besides germs, allergies can be passed on the keys too - I was told by a Mom with a son with peanut allergies.
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Postby Christine » Wed Jan 04, 2006 11:02 am

Thanks Joan,

I never considered allergies. We have a friend with a severe peanut allergy (though she is not my student) and she has to be very careful. Handwashing before is a good idea (hopefully nobody would be offended if I suggested this :) )

Thanks for reading my post.
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Postby Stretto » Wed Jan 04, 2006 3:00 pm

Christine,

Welcome by the way!

The article PEP has on Piano Hygiene is the best and most detailed info. I have ever read on the subject of cleaning the keys and also takes into account what is safe for not damaging the keys themselves. The article is available on PEP's new CD but even that article in and of itself probably makes it worth it.

As a mom too, here is some info. I came across that made me feel better about germs taken from a pediatric's medical reference book called "Your Child's Health" by Barton D. Schmitt: "Cold viruses can live on toys, phones, doorknobs, toilet handles, tables, and other objects for up to 3 hours."

Of course this is only taking into account cold viruses and not other contagious illnesses. So here is what I do personally. Right now I only have one student per day, but if I had back to back, I would probably have them use wet wipes or Purell before starting. I also remind myself that these same students have been in school all day being exposed to as much or more than what they would get here from my piano. Although, if a student came with a cold, I definitely try to clean the keys a little for the next person or offer the Purell when they leave.

As far as when all the students have gone for the day, I figure according to the info. on how long germs live on objects, that most germs on the keys would probably be dead on the keys by the next morning. I try to have myself or my kids use the piano before the students come for the day. If I want to use it after students leave, I just don't touch my mouth and face while practicing and wash my hands good afterwards. Probably sounds like I'm paranoid but I guess that's a mom coming out and I try to consider all the other student's moms who probably appreciate the keys being cleaned between students. I also have a policy if students are sick, they are allowed to cancel with no penalty as I'd rather have them stay away anyway if sick.

Again, however, one has to be sure what will not damage the keys. A piano tech. may be the best person to ask for that.

PS - I edited this to add that some piano teachers use computers in their teaching studio. I'm sure you've all heard that computer keys can harbor more germs than bathrooms. So any teachers wishing to cut down on transfer of illnesses may want to consider cleaning their computer keys too. Does anyone have a suggestion on how to disinfect computer keys?




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Fri Jan 06, 2006 11:47 am

Stretto wrote:As far as when all the students have gone for the day, I figure according to the info. on how long germs live on objects, that most germs on the keys would probably be dead on the keys by the next morning. I try to have myself or my kids use the piano before the students come for the day. If I want to use it after students leave, I just don't touch my mouth and face while practicing and wash my hands good afterwards. Probably sounds like I'm paranoid but I guess that's a mom coming out and I try to consider all the other student's moms who probably appreciate the keys being cleaned between students. I also have a policy if students are sick, they are allowed to cancel with no penalty as I'd rather have them stay away anyway if sick.

Again, however, one has to be sure what will not damage the keys. A piano tech. may be the best person to ask for that.

PS - I edited this to add that some piano teachers use computers in their teaching studio. I'm sure you've all heard that computer keys can harbor more germs than bathrooms. So any teachers wishing to cut down on transfer of illnesses may want to consider cleaning their computer keys too. Does anyone have a suggestion on how to disinfect computer keys?

You're right that a dry surface is usually inhospitable to most germs (i.e. bacteria). However, many bacteria simply turn into spores when faced with a shortage of water or food and, thus, are not killed by sitting on a dry surface. In fact, believe it or not, a couple years ago, people successfully cultured and grew paleo-bacteria from Permian-age rock (now called Bacillus permiensis, if I remember correctly) over 250 million years old!:O Thus, you can't depend on dryness to kill all bacteria or, for that matter, any viruses. You have to disinfect if you want to be reasonably sure of removing both.

I'd be a little concerned about asking a piano tech for information about disinfection. They almost never have sufficient chemical background (i.e. an advanced degree in chemistry, preferably organic) really to understand what they recommend.

Computer keys can be disinfected by the same quaternary ammonium salt disinfectants that you can use on piano keys. Just make sure you don't spray it directly on the keys (use a slightly damp cloth or throwaway disinfecting wipe), that the computer is off when you do it, and that you allow the keyboard to sit about 30 minutes before you turn the computer on again to make sure the keyboard is completely dry.

P.S. Since I strive for, but don't always achieve, accuracy, let me make a correction: the species name for the "Permian" bacterium is Bacillus permians (nominative, rather than genitive, case in Latin). Its age is disputed, since, for highly technical reasons having to do with rRNA substitution rates when compared with a modern bacterium, it seems too similar to some known modern species. None of that changes any of the arguments I made above.




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Fri Jan 06, 2006 6:25 pm

I don't mean to put too fine a point on all this, but I would think that those tiny horrobibbles could live for awhile on music, music racks, chairs, piano benches, doorknobs and lots of other places as well. Since we can't keep our studios constantly flooded with ultraviolet radiation, I wonder what thoughts you all might have about the other places students contact. Am I complicating it needlessly?

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Fri Jan 06, 2006 8:25 pm

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:I don't mean to put too fine a point on all this, but I would think that those tiny horrobibbles could live for awhile on music, music racks, chairs, piano benches, doorknobs and lots of other places as well. Since we can't keep our studios constantly flooded with ultraviolet radiation, I wonder what thoughts you all might have about the other places students contact.

You're right about that, though, as a practical matter, the piano is touched by more people than probably anything else in the studio. Even flooding the studio with deep UV wouldn't necessarily kill all the viruses, but would surely give everyone in the studio a major sunburn, and, ultimately, basal cell carcinoma or melanoma. Even if all that could be tolerated, you'd still have to be concerned about airborne microorganisms.

Thus, unless you want to emulate the reported lifestyle of the late Howard Hughes, you have to make some compromises with bacterial and viral exposures. Hand washing and disinfection of the piano keys will go a long way toward reducing your risk of contracting or passing along "bugs" to the studio clients.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sat Jan 07, 2006 7:49 am

Well, imitating Hughes wouldn't be ALL bad--I understand he was an ice cream fanatic.
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Sat Jan 07, 2006 3:54 pm

I could enjoy the ice cream and not have the aggravation of the drivers on the roads too! :p
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Postby Cy Shuster » Mon Feb 06, 2006 4:17 pm

If you have ivory keys (with a visible wood-like grain in them), it's important not to get them wet. They can curl up and separate from the wooden keystick below.

It's also good to leave them exposed to the air after cleaning. Since they're an organic material, they're porous, and can hold moisture. The sunlight also helps keep them from yellowing.

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Postby Cy Shuster » Mon Feb 06, 2006 4:20 pm

Since we're talking about piano maintenance, let me mention the wealth of information available on the Piano Technicians Guild website:
http://ptg.org/resources-pianoOwners.php

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Postby Stretto » Wed Feb 08, 2006 3:09 pm

Cy Shuster,

Welcome and thanks for being willing to share your piano- related knowledge with others.

In relation to this thread about cleaning the keys on pianos, I've always been kind of leary to clean the keys too frequently as one would if trying to keep them clean for each student that arrived. I've often wondered if too frequent of cleaning in this way would do harm to the keys. My tech. told me when I first got my piano just to basically clean the keys with a damp cloth dampened with plain water and that's it. I'm not sure if that would help to keep germs down. Again, to be honest outside of dusting the keys with a dry cloth, I haven't cleaned them obsessively just because I have wondered if overdose of cleaning could do harm. Even with plain water, if excess water (or cleaning solution) got between the keys, could this cause any ill effects?

For cutting back on transferring viruses like colds and such, I think offering students the option of wipes or a product like Purell before and after the lesson would be the most effective way to keep germs at bay as opposed to cleaning the keys between each student. (I don't worry too much about this either as germ conscious as I am!) But then the other thing I wonder about is the products one would have students use to clean their hands interfere with their playing ablility in any way. For example, make the keys more slippery, etc. (Cleaning the keys may do this too.)
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Postby Cy Shuster » Wed Feb 08, 2006 4:34 pm

Thanks for the welcome here. I hope to learn from all of you, as well.

I can't speak to the hygiene issue; that's not my field. The hygiene document here on the PEP is your best guide there.

Here's a cross-section of a piano key and the other action parts:
Piano Action Model

The key is like a see-saw, resting on a vertical metal rod about 1" long near its center, and riding up and down on another vertical rod near its front. There are paper and cardboard "punchings" (paper circles with holes in their center) sitting on each of those pins, which precisely align the key (to a thousandth of an inch). If those got wet, they would swell up, and throw off that alignment.

The sides of the keys are typically unfinished. Moisture there may cause the keys to warp (look at yours from the front: are they all even and square?). Lastly, the keybed itself that the rods are attached to needs to stay flat and level, and it's also unfinished wood.

Plastic keytops aren't damaged by moisture, but ivories can warp.

So -- wipe the keys along their length, where they are strongest, and not side-to-side like a glissando, where they are weaker (and this also might wring water out of your cloth to run down their sides).

This typically isn't a big deal, but if you're talking about wiping down after every lesson, I would be concerned about long-term damage. Even though I cringe when I saw the commercial where Lysol was sprayed directly on the keys, I think that would be a way to prevent excess moisture.

It would be safer for the piano to just clean the keys perhaps once a day (always wetting the cloth, not the keys directly), and make students clean their hands before each lesson.

--Cy--
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