Did you know that it is possible to be allergic to metal?
The truth is that people can be allergic to almost anything, and believe it or not, it is possible to be allergic to metal. Some of the more problematic metals for band students are nickel and silver. An allergy to nickel or silver (or any other metal) can cause itching, pain, or redness to the skin at the contact site. In some cases, the reaction can be even more severe.
Many woodwind and brass instruments have nickel-plated keys, bodies, or other components, and higher quality instruments may have silver-plated or even Stirling silver bodies or components. If a student is allergic to either of these metals, it doesn’t mean that they have to give up playing their chosen instrument. There can be ways to deal with this.
Woodwind Instruments: Most student level woodwinds have nickel plated keys, and most student level flutes have nickel bodies as well. If the student has a nickel allergy, stepping up to an instrument with silver-plated or Stirling silver keys is the way to go. Higher quality flutes will have both Stirling silver bodies and keys. For saxophones, you’ll usually be able to step up to silver or gold-plated keys—for a price, of course. This will usually mean that renting an instrument won’t be possible any longer. Sorry parents; if you have to step up to a higher quality instrument, you’ll likely have to purchase the instrument outright.
If your student happens to have a silver allergy, don’t worry. It is possible to buy flutes, clarinets, and saxophones with gold-plating. Failing that, you can even have the offending parts of your student’s instrument gold plated by a third party. See your local music store for help with this. They usually have connections with companies that do metal plating for band instruments.
Brass Instruments: The main offending component for brass instruments, like trumpets, trombones, tubas, etc. tends to be the valves, finger hooks, and especially the mouthpiece.
Mouthpieces are almost always silver-plated. So, if the student is sensitive to the silver, most mouthpiece manufacturers offer their mouthpieces with gold-plating for a little extra cost.
Other areas of difficulty can be valves, finger hooks, or other fittings on the instrument. Nickel is a pretty common material for these, because it’s so durable, but lots of brass instruments are available with silver-plating on the entire instrument. Once again, this means that renting the instrument is often no longer an option.
If the student is allergic to silver, it is possible to have the offending parts of the instrument gold plated if needed.
If your student has a metal allergy, they don’t necessarily have to give up playing their favorite instrument. As with any medical issue, see your doctor to make sure the options you're considering are safe and viable. Then, with physician approval, stop by your local music store, and ask to speak with one of the repair technicians. Chances are they’ve worked with parents and students to overcome metal allergies with band instruments before. They can likely help you too.