Brief Review: Horn Technique by Jeffrey Agrell

During the summer I tend to take a break from reading horn-related books and articles, reading more science fiction and other types of “for-pleasure” stuff than I do during the academic year. This summer, though, I made it a point to dive into Professor Jeffrey Agrell’s magnum opus, Horn Technique: A New Approach to an Old Instrument. As John Ericson noted in his review on Horn Matters, a “brief” review of this nearly 500-page tome is next to impossible. But…if I could offer only two words about Professor Agrell’s new book, they would be “buy it!” You won’t find a more thoughtful, comprehensive, top-to-bottom, nuts and bolts discussion of horn playing anywhere. In a holistic yet meticulously detailed way, Agrell addresses not only horn playing, but overall musicianship as well. While many of the chapters cover traditional material – warming up, practice strategies, fingering, etc. – Agrell’s approach is always fresh and full of unique ways to tackle familiar problems. Jeff loves to challenge our (mis)conceptions, and brings to bear decades of teaching and performing experience. In some ways, though, the title is misleading, as Horn Technique is much more ambitious in its scope. Agrell proposes a reboot of the traditional way we approach music education. Instead of obsessing about note names and fingerings as beginners, we ought to learn music the way babies learn spoken language – through imitation, improvisation, and memorization of brief patterns which can be built upon later. Only once those basics are mastered should notation be introduced.

Stepping back a bit, here are some of the big themes I took away from Horn Technique. There are certainly more, but these are the ones that jumped out to me.

  • Horn (and all brass) players need to have a detailed working knowledge of the overtone (harmonic) series. We need to know the overtone series number and intonation tendency for every note on the horn – Agrell calls this “horn math.”
  • Warm-ups and practice sessions should begin without using the valves (all overtone series) and then progress to using the valves. Historically, the horn developed this way, and it makes sense from a physical perspective as well. Many of the exercises in Horn Technique begin without valves and add valves later.
  • We need to know how to apply our knowledge of music theory to create real-world practice strategies. Agrell walks the reader through this approach, showing us first how to identify and analyze patterns, and then to create our own custom exercises based on those patterns.
  • Less Notes, More Music. One of the big principles in Horn Technique is that we spend entirely too much time with our heads buried in a music stand. Agrell advocates for more notation-free practice. Related to this, Agrell is also a big proponent of performing from memory.
  • Question Everything! At the heart of this book is the idea of questioning traditional approaches to horn playing. There is of course much to be learned from the great players and teachers of the past, but Agrell asks that we be willing to consider alternative methods along with traditional ones.

Although I’ve read the entire book cover to cover, I’ve only just begun to dig into Horn Technique. The principles and exercises in it will keep both my students and me occupied for some time. And at $19.99 for the hard copy, this is an incredibly affordable text.

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. 

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