Music to wash your hands to

Even in ideal circumstances most people’s hand-washing routines are lacking. How many of us scrub away like maniacs to get hands as clean as a pre-op surgeon’s? Attention to detail is one key. Longevity is another: the longer you wash, the better chance of getting rid of undesirable stuff.

This has never been more important than now. In the middle of a pandemic, survival means access to quality healthcare (lol), social distancing, and of course hand-washing.

To that end, composer Isaac Schankler held an open call for 20-second pieces — 20 seconds being the minimum length of time the CDC recommends to effectively soap, scrub and rinse your hands — with the idea that the resulting music will encourage people to spend more time on their ablutions. I talked with Schankler via email about their crafty plan.

How did you come up with the idea?

Isaac Schankler: It felt like a pretty natural outgrowth the CDC’s recommendation to sing “Happy Birthday” while washing your hands, and all the song suggestions floating around after that. Why not write our own songs?

Last year when the US started putting immigrant kids in cages, my friend Jen Wang, also a composer, organized a project where, if you donated to an org like RAICES [Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services] that provided advocacy and legal representation for immigrants, a composer would write you a one-minute piece. It was a great way to do something positive and feel a little less helpless as artists. I don’t know if I would have had this idea if I hadn’t had that experience as well.

Were there any 20-second (ish) songs or pieces out there that already fit the definition? Or are we really lacking?

I know of a handful of minute-length music projects (60×60 comes to mind) but nothing specifically for 20 seconds! It seems like an area rife for exploration.

From what I understand the end result will end up on bandcamp. How much will it cost to download? Does the money go to the composers?

It will be free, with the option to pay what you want. I will be donating the proceeds (if there are any) to the Medicare Rights Center, a non-profit that works to ensure access to affordable health care for older adults and people with disabilities. It was important to me to find something that helped those populations since they are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Do you have any 20-second pieces you’re contributing?

I will be contributing a piece!

You’re a composer, music professor, and rhythm game designer among other things. How much have things changed for you because of COVID-19? Can you still work?

As a professor, I am in the process of moving my courses online, which is a lot of extra work and an imperfect solution in many ways. But I am extremely lucky in that I have a stable teaching job and that as a composer, I can do work from home. Many of my friends, especially freelance musicians, are not so lucky, and their income has been decimated by this crisis. Right now I’m looking into live-streaming as a way to help tide things over for these musicians.

All the news is pretty gloomy right now. Are there any positive things to take away from all this, for musicians and others? I see a lot of online collaboration beginning — resource sharing, artists commiserating, calls for support.

It’s heartening to see people set up things like relief funds for struggling artists in the wake of this. My hope for this is that people come out of this with a more community-minded approach to things, and realize that we have the ability to help each other in times of need. Maybe that’s naive. I hope not!


Hear the results: Songs to Wash Your Hands To.


By Will Roseliep

Writer for different outlets. Personal work appears here first:

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