Friday Review: Blow Your OWN Horn! by Fergus McWilliam

For this week’s review we’ll take a closer look at Blow Your OWN Horn!by Fergus McWilliam. Mr. McWilliam is probably best mcwilliamcoverknown for his work with the Berlin Philharmonic, where he has been a member of their famed horn section since 1985. In addition, he is an internationally recognized clinician and teacher. Subtitled as “horn heresies” and “an anti-method method,” this book is in part a collection of his thoughts and ideas on playing the horn, but it also tackles many big picture ideas relevant to brass players and other musicians. He notes early on that his goal with this publication is “to instigate, to provoke, to invite a new discussion, a re-examination of traditional and conventional horn pedagogy by both teachers and students.” (p. 2), and proceeds to state the central axiom or thread that runs throughout the entire book; “The horn cannot be taught; it can only be learned.” (p. 2)

McWilliam takes his role as provocateur seriously, and goes on to explain his philosophy on education.

If we look first at the word education, whose roots are found in the Latin ex ducare, “to lead out,” then we shall see that all we teachers can, and indeed really should aspire to is to help our students discover what is inside them and to provide them with useful tools for their journey of learning. (p. 3)

I agree wholeheartedly with this philosophy,  and also think that the best and most effective teachers are those who tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. Numerous chapters confront head-on generally accepted principals of brass playing, including the importance of air vs. embouchure, the use of a mirror when practicing, the importance of our kinaesthetic sense, hesitating before attacks, and whether warm-ups are really necessary. But readers should beware: if you don’t like the idea of questioning existing horn methods, and if the thought of challenging venerated masters makes you uneasy, you might want to read the book in small chunks! Nothing escapes critique, including his own ideas, and he cautions that “Horn methods at best shouldn’t be truly necessary and at worst can be outright confusing, if not damaging. All of them — including this one — should be seen as suspect.” (p. 7)

Are you intrigued yet? If you disagree with some of the concepts he presents I think Mr. McWilliam would certainly approve, provided that you in turn set out to develop your own way of explaining things. That is, after all, the goal of education – to teach ourselves how to learn.

Another area in which dogma has often held significant sway is the concept of sound and tone color. Of all the other great ideas in this book I found McWilliam’s discussion of sound (Chapter 3) the most interesting. He adopts a supremely practical approach: one’s sound should be whatever serves the music the best, i.e. “the kind of sound most appropriate for the context.” (p. 47) He believes that we should strive not to create the same kind of sound every time we play, but rather to create a fascinating sound. “Fascinating” is a wonderful word, and one that isn’t used often enough when discussing tone color. He also includes several visualization exercises to help us find our own fascinating sounds.

There is much more to be found in Blow Your OWN Horn!, but hopefully this brief review will be enough to get you interested. It’s a fabulous book, but isn’t always easy to read.  I’ve read it at least three times, and am still wrapping my mind around some of the concepts and questions found inside. My advice is to go into it with an open mind (and ear), and be willing to question everything!

You can read another review of this book in the May 2012 issue of The Horn Call. 

About the Author

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Great review, James! M

Melissa Morey

Horn Teacher & Performer 612-803-4139

“In a time lacking in truth and certainty and filled with anguish and despair, no woman [person] should be shamefaced in attempting to give back to the world, through her [their] work, a portion of its lost heart.” – Louise Bogan


“fascinate” comes from the Latin “fascinum” for “spell” or “witchcraft”.

As an undergraduate in the 60’s had a literature professor talk about how when we’re fascinated by something we are as equally attracted to it as we are repelled by it.

Having taught myself horn – first with the Farkas books and then with the Smiley book, this one sounds right down my alley!

Really enjoying the Portuguese etude books – thanks for that tip.


I’ve gotten the book and am now reading it. It reminds me of the Smiley book because of the premise he’s giving you the info, but you have to do the work and make the decisions – not just do what someone else tells you. So many of the points he makes apply to making music in general. At some point hope to do a review myself – but for now want to thank you again for this tip. It’s the best thing I’ve read about horn and music making in years.


James – I got that book by Epstein on your recommendation and enjoyed it, but it seems a bit more geared to horn specific things, especially all the detail on those excerpts. As a music therapist I’m always looking for fresh ways of helping clients find their own ways to the music making that works for them. The therapy is not just the music making, but also helping clients understand they need to be active participants in the learning process – that they are not just robots that need to be programmed by a “method”. I think most people who are good enough to succeed in educational programs have a sense of that – but beginners and amateurs often don’t trust themselves.

What I so like about the Smiley book and the McWilliam book are the multiple ways they let the student know they need to figure out what works for them. At some point in the fullness of time I hope to create some learning materials for beginners and amateurs to simply have fun with making music – and the Smiley and McWilliam books are full of ideas and approaches that I think can be broadened to music making in general. Also, that some of their ideas overlap with approaches I’ve already used as a therapist is very validating for me. This is especially true of the McWilliam book. That someone that high level is saying things I’ve been thinking about for years really helps me feel I’m on the right track.

Thanks for all the work keeping up the blog – lots of blogs these days seem to be slowing down or going dark. Your efforts are appreciated!


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