Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

My saxophone, my shield

Self-portrait with saxophone

At age 7, I decided to play the saxophone.  Little did I know that decades later this seemingly innocent decision would help shield me from the dreaded COVID-19 virus.

A recent article at Vice.com (Copper Destroys Viruses and Bacteria. Why Isn’t It Everywhere?) surveys the proven medicinal properties of copper.  In addition, the preventive and healing properties of this metal luckily extend to its alloys, i.e. brass and bronze.  The article documents copper workers’ immunity to cholera, as well as brass players’ phenomenal health.  The Vice article documents Parisian physician Victor Burq’s 1852 discovery of copper’s magical properties:

“In 1852, physician Victor Burq visited a copper smelter in Paris’s 3rd arrondissement, where they used heat and chemicals to extract the reddish-brown metal. It was a dirty and dangerous job. Burq found the facility to be “in poor condition,” along with the housing and the hygiene of the smelters. Normally, their mortality rates were “pitiful,” he observed.

“Yet, the 200 employees who worked there had all been spared from cholera outbreaks that hit the city in 1832, 1849, and 1852. When Burq learned that 400 to 500 copper workers on the same street had also mysteriously dodged cholera, he concluded that something about their professions—and copper—had made them immune to the highly infectious disease. He launched a detailed investigation into other people who worked with copper, in Paris and cities around the world.

Then the author reveals Burq’s startling discovery!:

“In the 1854 to 1855 cholera epidemic, Burq could not find any deaths of jewelers, goldsmiths, or boilermakers—all those who worked with copper. In people in the army, he found that musicians who played brass instruments (brass is partly copper) were also protected.

“In the 1865 Paris epidemic, 6,176 people died of cholera, out of a population of 1,677,000 people—that’s 3.7 people out of every 1,000. But of the 30,000 who worked in different copper industries, only 45 died—an average of around 0.5 per 1,000.

After visiting 400 different businesses and factories in Paris, all of which used copper, and collecting reports from England, Sweden, and Russia on more than 200,000 people, he concluded to the French Academies of Science and Medicine in 1867 that “copper or its alloys, brass and bronze, applied literally and pregnantly to the skin in the cholera epidemic are effective means of prevention which should not be neglected.”

The article then continues and opens the door for other possibilities:

“Today, we have insight into why a person handling copper day in and day out would have protection from a bacterial threat: Copper is antimicrobial. It kills bacteria and viruses, sometimes within minutes. In the 19th century, exposure to copper would have been an early version of constantly sanitizing one’s hands…
Since then, studies have shown that copper is able to destroy the microbes that most threaten our lives. It has been shown to kill a long list of microbes, including norovirus, MRSA, a staph bacteria that has become resistant to antibiotics, virulent strains of E. colithat cause food-borne illness, and coronaviruses—possibly including the novel strain currently causing the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Courtesy (Copper plant workers, 19th c.)

To the left of my desk my Bb tenor saxophone is poised majestically on its stand.  I bought this now vintage instrument in a pawn shop for pennies in 1970 while I was taking the census in a not-so-safe Roxbury, MA neighborhood around Dwight Street.  For the last five decades I have practiced this instrument, sometimes as much as fourteen hours a day.

After Boston, I lived for a decade in Bennington, Vermont where winter temperatures often descended to 15 or20 degrees below 0, BEFORE calculating the additional wind chill factor.  While other local Vermonters were constantly sick with flu (even despite the immense volumes of whiskey they consumed),  I sat in my apartment, practicing long hard hours, but rarely had even a snivel.  It took me five decades to find out why!

Photo of the author by Warren Burstein

And so now, in my ripe age, I am asked (or ordered), to sequester myself, save for the precious thirty minutes a day I allow myself to roam the 100 meters square, running around the block six to ten times like an idiot, panting through my ffp2 mask.  I return to my studio and hug my saxophone.  Apparently, doing this everyday now insures my continued health.

Furthermore, the hours of practice create minute particles of brass in the airflow emanating from my horn, helping to heal those around me.  If I am super lucky, I will also play beautiful sounds and melodies which people might also enjoy. If I am super super lucky these sounds will also help heal.

Courtesy (author in the upper third of picture during election time)

Now that Pesach and matzah are over, I desperately need to exercise.  Thank G-d that I still have my faithful brass companion and the desire to play long hours.  The longer I play, the longer I live.  The longer I camp out besides my saxophone, the fresher the air seems to be.  The brass fragrances are like ripe flowers spreading their healing properties in and around my body.  Yes, the longer I play, the longer I live. How I love this simple equation! I bask in its simplicity, while knowing that it is NOT so simple to live a life of magical realism.

Brass!!! (photo: Mike Sager)
About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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