Sarah Willis is an American-born British-American French horn player.

Her dream came true in September 2001 when she joined the Berlin Philharmonic as a horn player – and as the orchestra’s first-ever female brass player!”

“The horn is for boys”, her school teacher told her, and so he suggested that she learn the flute or the oboe. That remark served as a challenge to the US-born Brit, who grew up in Tokyo, Boston, Moscow and England and had her first horn lessons at the age of 14. After studying for three years on the Performer’s Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, she put the finishing touches on her training with Fergus McWilliam in Berlin.

From 1999 to 2001 she was a member of the Staatskapelle Berlin and became the first female brass player to be accepted into the ranks of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2001. Sarah Willis has performed with other leading orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic and has appeared as a soloist in England, Germany, Italy and Asia.

She plays in various chamber ensembles including Divertimento Berlin and the Berlin Philharmonic Brass Ensemble and is also involved in Zunkunft@BPhil, the orchestra’s education program. In her free time Sarah enjoys dancing salsa!

(This interview was originally conducted in February 2012)

You are known as the “First Lady of the French Horn”; How did you achieve that title of being the only female to enter the Berlin Philharmonic? Any intimidation whatsoever playing amongst the others?

I have to smile when I read this title “First Lady of the French Horn”. It’s a huge honour that Jasper Rees wrote this about me on the ArtsDesk. But there are many great horn ladies out there – Marie Luise Neunecker, Froydis Ree Werke, Gail Williams to name but a few…so I am not a First Lady in horn playing in general but in the Berlin Phil I guess I am.

It’s a huge honour and pleasure to play in this great orchestra and I don’t think “intimidation” is the right word – I have total respect for my colleagues and try and do the best job I can. Sometimes it can get a little scary though, I admit!

I’ve always seen your face conducting video interviews for the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. What is all that about?

Anyone who wants to know what this is all about is welcome to visit our Digital Concert Hall site. It is a wonderful way of sharing our music live and in the DCH archive with people who cant get to our concerts in Berlin. We interview our guest artists ourselves and I think it works well, having musicians talk to musicians. My father was a journalist and I seem to have inherited his curiousity about what makes people tick. I love doing the interviews and finding out about our classical music stars. Have a look!

It has been said that horns are one of the hardest sections to blend together. What do you recommend?

For me, the secret of a good section, whether horn section or any other instrument, is that everyone has to to listen and be aware of what is going on around them. The best sections listen and support each other ( on and offstage!)

What is your daily warm up routine like? Are there any practice materials you swear by?

I tend to vary my daily routine and fit it around what I have to play that day. For me, there is no point in doing a heavy warm-up when I have to then play in the orchestra for 6 hours. So it is important to listen to your body and try and feel what it needs. For example, if you have played a lot the day before and the lips are tired, do flexibility exercises. If you need a harder work-out and don´t have too much else on to play, push yourself hard. It’s important not to just warm-up mindlessly… it is so easy to do but I always try and think about and listen to what I am doing.

Are there any exercises and repertoire that you would recommend for young horn players and beginners? 

I recommend that all horn players- young and old, beginners and advanced, try as often as possible to play together in duos or larger groups. It teaches us to listen and react, gives us endurance and is a lot more fun than practicing alone! I have been playing duets with my colleague Klaus Wallendorf for years – we much prefer it to normal practice, although that is also necessary. Horn playing should be as fun as possible, especially if you are just starting out. Also join a band or youth orchestra as soon as possiblem, I did after half a year of playing and absolutely loved it!

What is the ideal tone on the horn like? How does one achieve good tone quality?

This is very individual. Everyone has or should have their “ideal tone” in their head and should always try and make the best sound possible, whether warming up or playing solos or with others. A good idea is to listen to as many great horn players as possible. These days, it is so easy to do with YouTube and form your own ideal sound for yourself. I always loved the sound of an Alexander horn, even growing up in England where not so many people played them. The most important thing about horn playing is making a great sound, I think.

Stopped horn is one of the techniques young horn players here have difficulty with. Can you share the technicalities of it?

Stopped horn can be a pain! But there is no way around it … you have to practice it. I made a chart a long time ago about what fingerings to use for my horn when handstopping, this has been a help. Also try and use a hand position whilst playing which lets you stop notes with the minimum of shifting the hand with the bell. I find that practicing hand stopping faithfully, even for 5 mins a day but every day, really helps. Horn players tend not to want to practice hand stopping … but there is no way around it. Play a favourite tune handstopped each day.

Recently, you mentored the young brass musicians of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2011 where musicians obtain their places from all over the world via successful video auditions on a technology platform. What was the experience like? How did you manage to get the section together within a minimal period?

Being part of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2011 was one of the most exciting projects I have ever been part of. It was great and also very moving to experience musicians from so many countries and with totally different styles of playing coming together and in just a week creating a wonderful concert. Michael Tilson Thomas did a fantastic job rehearsing and inspiring the musicians, my job as the horn mentor was to help the 6 horns (who came from four different countries, thus different styles of playing) create a harmonious section. This was not easy in such a short space of time but the players were all so good and willing to listen and support each other. It was a pleasure to work with them and I was so proud of them at the concert! It was a wonderful project and should it happen again, which I very much hope, I really encourage everyone to apply!

You’ve already accomplished so much with the horn; are there anymore personal goals you wish to fulfill, horn-related or not?

Thanks for the compliment! The horn is a tricky instrument … just when I think I’ve got the hang of it, it misbehaves and I feel like a beginner again! So I have an ongoing goal to be the best player I can and this means practice and practice and practice!

Another goal of mine is to try and get the message out there that classical music is cool and fun and rewarding, whether as a player or a listener. Classical music sometimes get branded as old fashioned or even boring – this couldn’t be further from the truth and thanks to the social media these days, we have a chance to get that message out there.

And a personal goal…to get to Singapore again very soon!


Written By Editor

A contributing editor at TBP.