People often ask me for more detail about my life and career than my official biography gives. Not dates and names but how and why. So this – call it a personal biography – shares a bit more and touches on the most influential and inspiring events in my horn-playing life.
It’s absolutely true that I decided I wanted to be a horn player at my very first horn lesson. Really! My first teacher was a trombone player and I adored him and the horn, so much so that I practiced as much as I could. I’d played the piano from a young age and so was used to doing practice. My parents were quite strict about it, something I’m very grateful for.
Because I was spending all my time in a practice room with my horn, school became quite a lonely place as my fellow classmates didn’t really understand my passion. So I lived for Sunday evenings when I rehearsed with a youth orchestra. I have to say that being a member of various youth orchestras was one of the most important and enjoyable parts of my musical training. Here, I found other young people who did not think it weird to spend lots of time alone practicing and listening to classical music. And nothing beat the fun we had on our tours!
After 3 years at music college in London, I ‘discovered’ Berlin. The city was incredibly vibrant and exciting, and the first time that I heard the Berlin Philharmonic live, I decided that I just had to be as close to this orchestra as possible and so I moved to Berlin. My first job was with the Berlin State Opera under Daniel Barenboim in 1991,just after the fall of the Berlin Wall so it was a very exciting time to be in the city. Before I started at the Staatsoper, I was worried that I would not enjoy playing opera, but I ended up adoring it.
In 2001, I won the job in the Berlin Philharmonic – something I had dreamed about ever since I first heard them play. It’s the truth when I say that I am proud and grateful every day to play in this incredible orchestra.
I started playing on an Alexander horn when I was 16. My teacher at the time told me that the sound I made on the horn suited an Alexander. This was very unusual at the time in England! I fell totally in love with the sound of this horn and wouldn´t play anything else. The Alex I play on now is a hand-hammered 103 Model with a yellow brass mouthpipe. It is a luxury for us in the Berlin Phil that we all play on 103s, it makes blending as a section a lot easier and we enjoy the close collaboration we have with Gebr. Alexander
My ‘day job’ takes up most of my time and head space, but since I began doing interviews with soloists and conductors for the BPh´s Digital Concert Hall, and also being involved as a mentor and a presenter for the You Tube Symphony Orchestra 2011 in Sydney, I have become very passionate about online music communication. I started the Horn Hangouts in 2013 and have been presenting the TV progamme “Sarah´s Music” (live link) for Deutsche Welle TV since 2014. I love doing both with a passion and I enjoy connecting with musicians all over the world, reaching people who may not have easy access to live concerts or teachers, and also to trying to encourage the younger generation to realize how great classical music is.
Enjoy my website and keep in touch!
Sarah Willis was born in Maryland, USA and holds dual British and American citizenship.
Her father’s work as a foreign correspondent took her family around the world and they lived in USA, Tokyo and Moscow before moving to England when Sarah was 13. She began playing the horn aged 14 at school and then attended the Royal College of Music Junior Department. She went on to study full time at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where her teachers included Anthony Halstead and Jeff Bryant.
Sarah later studied with Fergus McWilliam in Berlin, where she became 2nd Horn in the Berlin State Opera under Daniel Barenboim in 1991. During this time, Sarah played as a guest with many top orchestras such as Chicago Symphony, London Symphony and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and performed worldwide as a soloist and in various chamber music ensembles.
In 2001, Sarah Willis joined the Berlin Philharmonic, becoming the first female member of the brass section. As well as her work with the orchestra that takes her all over the world, she has recorded various acclaimed CDs including the Brahms Horn Trio, the Rosetti Double Horn Concertos as well as the much celebrated CDs, Opera! and Four Corners! with the Berlin Philharmonic Horns. Her solo album, “Horn Discoveries” was released in 2014.
Sarah is involved in many of the Berlin Philharmonic education projects and especially enjoys creating and presenting their Family Concerts. She interviews conductors and soloists for the Digital Concert Hall and in 2011, she presented live to 33 million viewers during the Final Concert of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.
Sarah is passionate about music education and makes full use of digital technology and social media to reach audiences worldwide. She was chosen to be one of the first testers of Google Glass and used this experience to see how new technology could be used in classical music.
She runs a successful series of online interviews known at “Horn Hangouts” (is also a regular broadcaster and interviewer on TV and online) and fronts the classical music programme Sarah´s Music for Deutsche Welle TV.