Blow Your OWN Horn!: Horn Heresies

Blow Your OWN Horn!: Horn Heresies

by Fergus McWilliam


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Fergus McWilliam has been a member of the Berlin Philharmonic since 1985 and was a founding member of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet in 1988. He has spent the last twenty years touring the world with the Berlin Philharmonic and has made over a dozen recordings with his ensemble. During his career, he has performed with many of the major conductors of our times, including Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Ababado, Sir Simon Rattle, Leonard Bernstein, Carlos Kleiber, Seiji Ozawa, Pierre Boulez, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim and more. In addition, McWilliam also founded the Horns of Berlin Philharmonic and has helped re-establish the Winds of Berlin Philharmonic. His solo and chamber music activities continue to take him throughout Europe, the Americas and the Far East. Fergus McWilliam is also an internationally esteemed and sought-after teacher. He continues to give master classes at leading music schools in many countries, including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Academy, the Hans-Eisler Musikhochschule in Berlin, the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School in London, the Paris Conservatoire, the Tokyo University of Fine Arts, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, the Venezuela Youth Music programme and more. Blow your OWN Horn is Fergus McWilliams ‘take’ on horn playing and more generally on music education. Written in a very spirited style, the book covers all aspects of playing and the profession, including, practical elements such as: auditions, embouchure, breathing, exercises. In addition, McWilliam explores topics such as: mind games, attitude, strategies, relativity, under pressure, why do we need teachers and much more

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780889629271
Publisher: Mosaic Press NY
Publication date: 07/10/2012
Pages: 180
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Fergus McWilliam was born in Scotland and grew up in Toronto. He has been a member of the Berlin Philharmonic since 1985 and was a founding member of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet in 1988. He has spent the last twenty years touring the world with the Berlin Philharmonic and has made over a dozen recordings with his ensemble. During his career, he has performed with many of the major conductors of our times, including Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Ababado, Sir Simon Rattle, Leonard Bernstein, Carlos Kleiber, Seiji Ozawa, Pierre Boulez, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim, and more. His solo and chamber music activities continue to take him throughout Europe, the Americas. and the Far East. Fergus McWilliam is also an internationally esteemed and sought-after teacher. He continues to give master classes at leading music schools in many countries He currently resides in Berlin.

Read an Excerpt

Blow Your Own Horn!

Horn Heresies

By Fergus McWilliam

Mosaic Press

Copyright © 2011 Fergus McWilliam
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-88962-927-1



1.1 The Truth/Heresy Conflict

1.2 Why do we need Teachers?

1.3 Permission and Authority

1.4 The Heresies – Dangerous Words and Ideas


The Truth/Heresy Conflict

My motive for this book is to offer advanced horn students and horn teachers a contrasting and possibly useful perspective in their search for truly effective learning and teaching tools, as well as strategies.

Why? Because, over the course of my life as a hornist and teacher, I have been confronted — with ever increasing frequency and with an ever-increasing sense of the unavoidable — by the fundamental paradox that the way it's "supposed to be" is rarely, if ever, the way it actually is. The way the horn is taught is too frequently not the way the horn actually needs to be played.

Huge amounts of traditional horn pedagogy are often misunderstood and misapplied, not only by students but also by their teachers, and what numerous successful professional hornists teach their students is frequently not even what they themselves actually practise. To make matters worse, too frequently neither students nor teachers recognise and admit to the situation.

This problem is particularly relevant for the advanced student and young professional. For beginners and intermediate horn students, addressing this paradox may seem less urgent, as they are most commonly interested in simply making technical progress and tend to see their teachers' authority and knowledge as irreproachable. Nevertheless, as they advance and mature, these young beginners will encounter the paradox soon enough.

In the course of my teaching over many years I have attempted to address these issues. It has not been enough simply to try to provide students with the tools to teach themselves. I have tried to confront them with the necessary challenge of accepting ultimate responsibility for their own development, of empowering themselves and freeing themselves from the authority of their teachers, even freeing themselves from the support and inspiration of their mentors, accepting that finally they have to be able to work it out for themselves.

The contents of this book are therefore a distillation of the sorts of things I have been telling horn students around the world in private lessons and master classes over the past 35 years or more. I describe "truths" which I myself have been forced to accept about the learning and teaching of the horn, "truths" which however frequently conflict with conventional or "received" thinking and assumptions. For many readers then, these ideas may indeed appear to be heresies.

I therefore chose "Horn Heresies" as my working title, with the specific aim of trying to be at least a little controversial, and with any luck, this will also turn out to be something more than just a simple polemic — or rant.

My goal is to instigate, to provoke, to invite a new discussion, a reexamination of traditional and conventional horn pedagogy by both teachers and students. Some may feel that I shall be aiming a lot of criticism at a lot of people in the horn world, but I fully expect criticism to come my way too. That will be only natural and fair, and ideally, will be part of what I hope may become a useful and productive debate.

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.

Although I have made every attempt to escape being seen by my own students as any kind of "guru", I have also had to accept the fact that many students seek exactly that in their teachers. I believe that the most constructive and at the same time benign role a teacher can assume in response is one that is also imbued with enormous responsibility, namely that of mentor.

Furthermore, we must accept that even though we are motivated by real concern for horn students and their future, we teachers are in the end fallible and none of us is more than partially qualified.

Ultimately, it will be up to the student himself to decide whether or not he succeeds and how he chooses to do it. I could not agree more with the noted Spanish trombonist Ricardo Casero who put it: "All successful players are, in the end, self-taught."



Why Do We Need Teachers?

An interesting memory comes up if I cast my mind back to those halcyon days of childhood when I would return home from my weekly horn lesson and meet up with my two younger sisters who had just had their ballet class. Our mother would ask us what we had learned that day. I remember how the girls could always name a new movement they had learned and then attempt to demonstrate it, whereas I sat somewhat confounded, unable to come up with anything more coherent than, "today I learnt NOT to ..."

It seemed to me that the business of learning the horn was more an UN-learning, a process of intuitive discovery of the essentials, a kind of reduction, like peeling an onion or unwrapping a present to get inside at the contents. Learning backwards? I loved music and I loved playing tunes on my horn. This way of learning did not conflict with that great, simple pleasure, and it seemed easy.

Later however, as a teenager, I abandoned this childish innocence and sought to learn the horn in the grown-up, logical, mechanical (forward?) mode of learning we are taught in schools. I came into contact with other young horn students and, collectively we yearned to "build up" our techniques. Although we never lost our passion for the music, our technical obsession seemed to divorce us from music. Sure, we loved attending live concerts, we collected LPs obsessively and our horn-playing heroes enthralled us. But we all began to believe that musical fulfilment was only achievable through technical prowess, which in turn seemed to be a strange, magical mix of athletics and sports science. Unfortunately our teachers could not (or would not) convince us otherwise and it all became much more difficult than it had to be.

Student and Teacher: Who is Who?

The healthy human infant develops spoken language ability without any conscious, intellectually based, pedagogical effort on the part of surrounding adults. He does not "learn" but rather "acquires" language. Certainly little about language is "taught" until the school years begin. So is the infant his own gifted teacher, or is he a phenomenal student?

Language acquisition by children (up to perhaps 3 years of age) requires the parents talking to and looking at them. Speaking naturally, as well as story telling, demonstrates to them a sense of intonation and sentence structure. They mimic this and begin to develop the ability to communicate with their language.

However learning a new language in an academic manner ("book-learning") actually results in inhibited speech ability and results only in a kind of "book-speaking". Comprehension ability exceeds communication ability.

With respect to classical music and young students, concentrating first on their technique at the expense of making music, is like "book learning" and achieves at best merely competent instrument-operation and mere music reproduction, NOT musical communication. Young musicians taught this way are in danger of not developing the ability to communicate in the language of music, and mastering their instruments becomes much more difficult than it need be.

I imagine that in an ideal world there would be no need to actually "teach" the horn. Youngsters would simply watch and listen to their "teachers" playing their horns, acquiring the new language and all of the necessary motor skills by the same processes they used to acquire spoken language: listening and imitating.

Assuming that the "teacher" really can play the horn both well and musically, has enough stamina, and that both he and the student have enough time, I wager not one word need be uttered in the course of the lesson. Only when the need to read music notation occurs — if it occurs — would the parallel to becoming language-literate pertain. At this point conventional "teaching" might indeed have to begin. Note, though, that I refer here to music literacy and not horn technique. (The number of successful and creative but music-illiterate rock and jazz musicians is enormous. And what of the uncounted folk musicians across the planet, technical masters of their particular musical instruments and accomplished performers but who are unable to read music notation?)

The young toddler making his first "self-taught" efforts in language learns by experiment, by trial-and-error, listening acutely to vocal sounds, gradually identifying their functions in their communicative context, while attempting to control his own air and manipulate his own mouth to re-create these same sounds. He is able to use only his own ears to judge how close he gets to the "real thing". Children who are born deaf encounter enormous difficulties trying to acquire language skills, precisely because they cannot hear. They can neither hear their role models nor can they judge their own efforts.

Unfortunately my experience as a student, player and teacher of the horn forces me to admit the sorry fact that we simply don't listen closely enough to what is coming out of the bell of the instrument. If we did, we would actually have all the information we need. But since we don't, can't, and often are not allowed to listen, we turn to others for help: to teachers. In so doing, we surrender our most potent learning tools, our own ears, and become dangerously — yes — dangerously dependent on these, our teachers. And we actually handicap ourselves.

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.

Philip Farkas, one of the most influential American horn teachers of the last fifty years, said late in life — and only half-jokingly — that he thought he might have done more damage than good with his famous books The Art of French Horn Playing and The Art of Brass Playing. Although he laughed ironically while making this statement, Farkas was also obviously quite sincere. He was pointing to what is perhaps the most intractable problem in teaching the horn, the fact that too many horn students are dangerously good horn students. They are too ready to obediently swallow everything teachers dish out as truth.

And what if these truths are only opinions?

The Three Blind Wise Men and the Elephant

There is a wonderful fable that is common to many venerable Asian cultures, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim. It is the story of the three learned, wise, but blind spiritual men who encounter an elephant for the first time, and who argue amongst themselves about the true nature of the beast.

The first teacher touches the trunk and pronounces that in truth an elephant is most like a python. The second touches an ear and claims that the elephant is like a giant fan. The third touches the leg and is convinced that an elephant is like a tree. In some versions of this fable, the learned men actually descend to fighting over their differing points of view.

The lesson is in fact, that they are all three correct, but only as far as their own individual perceptions go. And all three learned but blind wise men are unable to "see" the big picture, the totality.

This is the fate of teachers.

We try to do our best. Whether we only suggest to our students, or ideologically insist, we do so from a personal, subjective and limited point of view. None of us can ever describe "the whole picture".

I fear it may indeed be true that we horn teachers and method writers generally can do more damage than good. But having said that, I hasten to add that it is of course not the teacher's fault. It is not amateurish, flawed theories and unqualified teaching that ruin young hornists. Ultimately it is the students themselves who permit it to happen!

Now to be fair, the reverse corollary should of course also apply: whether they like it or not, successful students will owe less to their teacher(s) than they would like to be true. And while the students must ultimately bear the responsibility for their own development, it is the teachers who should probably shoulder the blame for preventing their students from doing just that.

We horn teachers may contradict and be hostile to one other. We may be abusive to our students. We may tell them to their faces that they will never make it as hornists and eject them from our studio. Some of us will even admit that we have no idea how to help our students. But virtually no teacher will actually try to PREVENT his students from progressing on the horn.

We teachers like to think we know what we're talking about and students also like to believe we know what we are talking about. Well maybe we do and maybe we don't. After all, we are only human.

Students trust us too much. They constantly hope that the next teacher they visit will be the one with the "magic bullet" that will fix all their problems. If their own discoveries reveal something that impugns the authority of their teacher, even if the idea works, they are prone to doubt themselves first. After all, they are only human.

And yet, although a thousand different teachers will describe it a thousand different ways, we still all play the horn basically the same way — and it is not at all complicated. The more students have contact with different teachers, the sooner they will see this.

Nevertheless quite a few teachers actually discourage their students from taking lessons from different teachers, arguing that they will become confused.

About what? About whom they "belong to"?

If we never cease trying to "sing", to phrase on our instrument, and if we use our own ears to honestly compare the sound(s) we are making with "the tune in our heads", we shall discover that we can in fact take charge of our own learning.

We shall then be in a position to take advantage of all the ideas, suggestions and critiques available to us from all those actually very useful resource people, people otherwise known as teachers. And rather than being confused by conflicting pieces of helpful advice, or dogma, we shall be able to start making the necessary connections for ourselves, we shall cease "not seeing the forest for the trees".


Permission and Authority

A Warning to Students:

If it is important for you that the authority and credibility of your teacher should remain intact, if you believe your own observations might be suspect (whether or not they seem to produce results) if they reveal something that impugns the authority of your teacher(s), then there will not be much point in reading further. You are not going to be comfortable with my opinions.

If you believe that horn technique can be successfully separated into constituent parts and that careful, deliberate, technical analysis and diligent practice will lead to the sequentially successful build-up of a complete technique, then you should stop here. I am going to seriously frustrate you.

If you believe that one first needs to acquire sufficient technique before attempting to make music, then this is not for you. Yours is still a flat earth.

* * *

When asked once what single attribute an aspiring writer should possess, Ernest Hemingway is supposed to have answered, "a good crap detector".

The famous American author's impertinence and irony are important and anybody travelling the road of inquiry and discovery, not just the would-be writer, will sooner or later find relevance in his answer. Hemingway's sardonic response also points the way toward some important truths for our subject, the learning and teaching of the Horn.

He challenges us in two ways. In the first, more direct sense, he tells us not to flinch at the prospect that Truth may not always be so self-evident, that we'll have to dig around a bit, perhaps get our hands a bit soiled with untruths before we'll be able to tell the difference.

In a second and profoundly more important message, Hemingway warns us that we shall have to do this dirty work ourselves, that there is no higher authority, no final arbiter of truth. Truth passed down "from on high" should be, by nature, suspect and we are going to have to assume the responsibility for making our own discoveries.

Then there is social critic Neil Postman's Teaching as a Subversive Activity. What a title! Five words that speak volumes (and for my purposes the title alone suffices) about the inherent unreliability of "received truth". The author contends that the only morally justifiable and pedagogically effective form of teaching will be one that encourages the student to ask questions rather than memorise answers; to actively question the status quo, not to dutifully accept it. This places the responsibility for learning in the hands of the learner, not the teacher. A well-chosen title!

None less than Leonardo da Vinci is supposed to have claimed: "It is the student's duty to surpass his master." This is a fairly straightforward but unsettling statement which, if properly understood and taken to heart, will ultimately require the student to insist upon his own independence and grow away from his teacher, perhaps finally rejecting him and/or even admitting the possibility of competition with him.


Excerpted from Blow Your Own Horn! by Fergus McWilliam. Copyright © 2011 Fergus McWilliam. Excerpted by permission of Mosaic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


PART 1 - Philosophical & Political Stuff,
1. Politics and Heresies,
2. Mind Games, Attitude, Strategies,
3. Relativity,
4. Under Pressure,
PART 2 - Practical Stuff,
5 Technical Stuff,
6 Auditions,

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