Brief review: The Creative Hornist by Jeffrey Agrell


Creativity. One observation I have had is that people outside of music, often they are looking for creativity, that special spark, tying that idea with the idea of innovation. Who does not want innovation? That is what moves the world forward!

People outside our musical world would tend to think we in music are creative people. We are to a point of course; we are hardworking and have our skill sets and problem-solving skills. But also we tend to turn to tried and true ways of doing things, including among other things relying on dated resources for our practice and teaching. We tend to have systems of doing things that were passed down to us that we pass on to the next generation – systems that in reality may not work that well, but we lack the some of the creative spark that would be helpful to develop a new system that might lead to doing things better.

Another observation would be that teaching systems and student goals that tend to focus on audition preparation reinforce not being creative. The person with the most creative and innovative interpretation of Tchaik 5 is not likely to win the audition! However, someone who has a greater level of creativity might be able to play it more convincingly at the audition….

Jeffrey Agrell has been working to address the issue of improving creativity in the horn world for years, through in particular a long series of articles in The Horn Call. Have you read them? People do not much read the back issues these days unless maybe researching a dissertation or something, and not everyone is in the IHS either. Online resources such as Horn Matters and books that focus on topics in depth are more likely to be read. Print journals can be a place content goes to die….

This is where the new (2017) book by Agrell comes in, The Creative Hornist. The content is based on his series of Horn Call articles, in the format of topical essays, organized by type of content.

One thing I enjoy about reading Jeff Agrell in general is he writes in a very different style than many other horn writers. What is great about that is he expresses things in a way that can open up new insights for the reader, this is not at all another Farkas book. Subtitled “Essays, Rants, and Odes for the Classical Horn Player on Creative Music Making,” this 229-page publication is a welcome addition to the horn literature.

The book contains 30 chapters divided into seven sections, with plenty of quotes and innovative ways of approaching the topics at hand. There is a comparison to make with his other recent publication, Horn Technique, reviewed here. The Creative Hornist is substantial, but at the same time a shorter and more focused publication. Ultimately, it has a focus on building technique in creative ways, toward a goal also of finding your own musical voice. In the process, you will also develop your critical thinking skills, which will help in working through problems of all types, not just horn problems.

For a little flavor of the content, Chapter 3 is based on a Horn Call column, one that Agrell summarized a few years back in a comment on Horn Matters, which we then expanded into a short article, “The Words of the Great Horn Players are not Infallible Words.” Check it here, the article relates a point I have been making for years in various ways in Horn Matters. I would offer this quote from the book version to consider:

As horn players, we are blessed with a multitude of great books, methods, teachers, and performers, and we can learn much from them all. But watch out. There are hidden dangers, and the danger increases with the level of greatness. The heart of the problem lies not in their greatness, but in that we regard them as Authorities – the special ones who have all the answers. For the Creative Hornist, the danger is that your spirit of adventure may shut down and your mind may close. Since all the answers are to be found in the Authority, you don’t have to think for yourself, since you studied with the One Who Has All the Answers, you may (subconsciously) feel that now you have them too. This attitude may kill the desire to explore new territory, take chances, invent new solutions, play outside the box, so to speak.

I’m not telling you to disregard what they say – on the contrary, you need to study hard and absorb everything they have to tell you. They have, however, one big disadvantage: they aren’t you. You have your own unique needs, desires, mental and physical characteristics, talents, likes, and dislikes. They have discovered what works for them. Much of that may work for you, but you may need more than their words from yesterday to find your way to success tomorrow. Most teachers in fact will be delighted if you show initiative and think for yourself. Surprise them with your discoveries, stand on their “musical shoulders” and surpass them.

As he says later in the chapter, “The future belongs not to those who merely try to clone the success or careers of those who came before. New tradition will come from the amalgamation of the old with the new.” There is much more to absorb in just this one chapter, not to mention the entire book, which I am enjoying reading.

The collection together has a vastly different impact than the long series of articles it is based upon. Nicely printed and bound, a print copy of The Creative Hornist is a huge bargain at only $19.99 and the E-book version is an even better deal. Check the website below for more info:


University of Horn Matters