Brass: Life in the Metal

          Brass is a metal alloy, made from copper and zinc. It has a relatively low melting point, around 900 to 940 degrees Celsius (depending on the composition) which makes it an ideal metal to be used in casting. Many churches are adorned in brass, from crucifixes to door handles, giving them a grandeur that impresses upon anyone entering, the significance of what they contain. Important buildings have brass trimmings and rails, portraying a regal status in an otherwise bland concrete jungle. It can be polished over and over again to a high gloss finish, and undoubtedly its similar appearance to that of gold is part of why the metal is always in common use. Of course, my primary interaction with brass is in saxophones.

          I have been working with saxophones (and therefore brass) for 20 years. To be in contact with a substance for that long you start to notice things about it along many different dimensions, and if you approach it with an imaginative mind, you can draw parallels between it, and life in general. One of the most intimate way I connect with the brass of a saxophone is when I am removing dents. To remove dents technicians, use a variety of tools, mostly all of them steel and in some cases rare earth magnets. I have come to think of brass as less like a metal and more like clay. When I am removing dents from a saxophone, I first have to find the steel tool underneath the brass and position it under the dent. Then, depending on if I am pushing, hammering, burnishing, etc., I can see the brass moving and taking the new shape I am molding it into.

          Sometimes brass even seems to have a life of its own, for example: sometimes a saxophone can be warped. It isn’t uncommon for the upper section to be leaning forward, which bends keys, rods and damages tone holes. Once the bend is taken out, in a procedure violent enough the owner likely couldn’t watch, the brass can bend back into its damaged position (only slightly of course) which will require further corrections after the instrument sits for 24 hours. This is what is called metal memory. Another characteristic of brass is “work hardening”. A dent will stretch the metal, and once that happens it can never go back in its original place (although you can get very close). As you work a dent out of brass the metal compresses, which makes it harder. I have worked on instruments which have had such poor dent work done to it, it was almost impossible to correct.

           So here we have a metal, something that we usually think of as hard, solid, ridged and permanent, which can be shaped into virtually anything we like. It can be reshaped after it has been damaged, although the scars can be still be seen. The metal becomes harder with every impact. It has a beauty to it, that once polished resembles gold, a substance which has captured the worlds collective imagination for thousands of years. It is here that I can’t help but notice between brass and life itself.

           When we are born, an alloy of our mother and father so to speak, we have the potential to be anything with the right forging and craftsmanship. Each person, has within us the ability to be the doctor who creates the cure for cancer or to be the first person to walk on the surface or Mars, or if forged improperly, the chance to turn into a monster. Again, like brass, if we are damaged, we can reshape ourselves. The scars may be visible, and we are hardened, we may never return to our original shape, but with the proper skill and craftsmanship we can get very close. Again, like brass, if we polish ourselves up, work on our blemishes, until we shine like gold, we can impress out into the world our significance and grandeur and even capture the worlds imagination.

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