Book Review: The Creative Hornist by Jeffrey Agrell


For classically trained musicians, the word improvisation always gives a feeling of uneasiness. When we (and yes, I lump myself into that category) think of this creative music making style, our first reaction is playing as fast as we can – like Dizzy or J.J. – and hope that we don’t miss a note or sound terrible. But really the only difference between improvisation and “printed” music is well just that – a framework of structure that allows you to move about freely within a set and preconceived notes on a page. Both are still music making, and both can help each other.

In this new book The Creative Hornist: Essays, Rants, and Odes for the Classical Horn Player on Creative Music Making, Jeffrey Agrell, Professor of Horn at the University of Iowa, explores the notion that creative music making can be simple to start out, a collaborative experience, and above all – fun. At first glance, this collection of essays may seem to be a book solely horn players, but don’t be fooled. All exercises, games, and concepts can be related to all musicians. Agrell has spent much research in finding ways to swim against the flow of “traditional music education.” One portion of the book describes a case study of Agrell going through the rigors of teaching a horn student in a non-traditional method, or what Agrell calls, the “non-Chicago” method. Side Note: read the book to find out the results.

Throughout this book, Agrell gives many personal examples of finding ways to be creative beyond the sometimes dull routines of going through the motions of a classically trained horn player. Having spent time as a professional horn player in Switzerland, Agrell tells how he fell victim to “classical only” and, in a light-hearted manner, finds a way to intertwine both objective note-reading and improvisation into his personal music making.

While reading this 229-page book, the thought periodically came up – “Well how does a classically trained professor involved in the structured systems of higher education try new teaching concepts on students who are expected to know scales, etudes, solos, and excerpts for their upcoming juries?” Thankfully, Agrell gives a personal example of using the methods prescribed in this book in his own horn studio. While students were at first hesitant of learning something “new”, by the end of the semester they couldn’t wait to play more of these creative games in classical music, all the while applying what they learned to the standard routine of scales, etudes, etc. Proof has been given and should be spread to other facets of higher learning

This book is a disruptor in “classical music” education. While these concepts could certainly be more received on a college level, students at the beginner and intermediate level would be equally receptive to the exercises and game idea from this book. Students at an early level see music as fun and enjoyable. Agrell gives you a plethora of tools to keep making it fun. With an increase in students needing to be fluent in multiple styles, this book lays the groundwork for anyone – students and teachers alike – to grab the bull of creative music making by the horns (pun intended) and make music a more enjoyable art form. All instrumentalists, not just horn players, would be served well to take the many lists of ideas from this book and apply them not only to their personal practice but also on collaborative efforts with fellow colleagues.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Jeffrey Agrell. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith is a trombonist, brass teacher, and blogger. He studied music performance at both Grace College and Carnegie Mellon University, and currently is the bass trombonist for Orchestra Iowa and the Huntington Symphony Orchestra. In 2014, Jeremy started Last Row Music as an online resource of job postings and artist links for brass musicians around the world. When he is not performing or blogging, Jeremy is giving brass lessons to students throughout the country from his home in Centerburg, Ohio.