Sarah Willis

TED'S FRENCH HORN CHAMPION

Personal Life

One can say that the life of French Horn player Sarah Willis is… world-spanning, so to speak; both in her career and in her early life. She was born in Maryland, in the United States, then grew up in four different major cities: Tokyo, Boston, Moscow, and London. 

As a young girl, Willis already knew what she wanted to be: a horn player. This can be attributed to her trombone teacher, whom Willis absolutely adored (in her words) as well as the French Horn itself. In fact, she liked the instrument so much that she practiced playing it as much as she could. 

After gaining her brand new passion, Willis then practiced. A lot. So much so that she spent most of her time locked up in her bedroom, practicing and perfecting her technique. This also meant, however, that she didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. Willis says, again in her own words, “school became quite a lonely place as my fellow classmates didn’t really understand my passion.” 

Eventually, she would continue her musical studies at the Royal College of Music in Kensington, UK, then at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. 

Career

After studying for three years in London, Willis found her way to Berlin, Germany. There, her career as a French Horn player would begin in earnest. She took a job at the Berlin State Opera in 1991 as the second horn, under pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. She then joined the Berlin Philharmonic in 2001, under the renowned conductor Sir Simon Rattle. She was actually the first female brass player for the orchestra, which was a big deal at the time. 

Her work with the Berlin Philharmonic became her “day job,” and it regularly takes her all over the world for performances. But aside from her orchestra duties, she also did recordings. Among her best ones include the Brahms Horn Trio, the Rosetti Double Horn Concertos, and the records Opera and Four Corners. She also has her own album, titled Horn Discoveries, which was released in 2014. 

Willis also hosts a regular online series called Horn Hangouts, which she streams online. The series focuses on teaching how to play the instrument she loves, as she is noted to be passionate about education. She also invites renowned musicians for interviews. Aside from this, she also hosts a classical music TV program called Sarah’s Music, which is broadcast by Deutsche Welle (DW) TV. Lastly, she interviews members of the Berlin Philharmonic as well for the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall program. 

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Did You Know?

Sarah is the sister of Alistair Willis, who is the Grammy-nominated conductor and music director of the renowned South Bend Symphony Orchestra; an orchestra based in South Bend, Indiana.

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