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.

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