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NYO alumni 1980s


Sarah Willis

Instrument and Dates

Horn 1985 – 1987


Member of the Berlin Philharmonic horn section.

What made you decide to audition for NYO?

Who wouldn’t want to audition for the NYO?? I played in the Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra and the Sunday evening rehearsals were the highlight of my week. There were quite a few NYO members in Stoneleigh at the time and so I thought I would have a go too. I travelled up to Bristol for my audition and remember being horribly embarrassed as my Dad kept peering through the glass window on the door whilst I was playing…

How has being in NYO influenced your career?

I credit my time in Stoneleigh, NYO and the EUYO with me getting the job in the Berlin Phil. I learned SO much from my time in the NYO. The brass coaches were astonishing – not only Jim Beck for us horns but also Peter Gane, Jumbo Wilbraham and John Fletcher were total inspirations. And they were strict with us! I felt I not only learned the pieces backwards but we learned a lot about life in a section: when to support, when to lead, how to listen. All the pieces I played with NYO remain “NYO Pieces” even now. Gürrelieder, Walton 1, Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances etc… ever since the NYO days whenever I play these pieces I still feel like I know them inside out and think of the NYO days.

Most memorable NYO experience?

Gürrelieder at the Proms with Pierre Boulez and Jessye Norman, and John Fletcher´s Tuba lectures.

You are the first female member of the Berlin Philharmonic’s brass section. Can you describe what that was like and what it’s like playing in Germany?

It´s an honour to be the first woman in the brass at the Berlin Phil but it was nothing new for me – I was used to being the only girl. Brass playing used to be a boys “sport” but this has totally changed. I was the first girl but certainly won’t be the last!

I feel very lucky to have a job in Germany – Germany is very good to its musicians. And in the Berlin Phil we are in musical paradise – not a day goes by where I am not proud and happy to be in this great orchestra (sounds corny but it´s true!!)

You’re not alone in Berlin. Jonathan Kelly, Rachel Helleur and Sir Simon Rattle are also former NYO members.

We Berlin Phil Brits are proud to be Brits in Berlin and often have British evenings together when we are on tour. It´s great to be British for an evening! I was in NYO with Jonathan, we both agree that NYO was such an important part of our lives and like to remember the good old days… I must ask Sir Simon for some of HIS stories about his NYO days…!!

Do you have favourite pieces of the repertoire?

It´s impossible to answer that one. There are too many wonderful pieces out there.

What was the last piece you heard at a concert?

The last piece I heard at an NYO concert was Beethoven 9 at the Proms in August. It blew me away! There is nothing like that NYO energy – onstage and off. The last piece I heard at a concert was the St Matthew Passion played by my orchestra conducted by Sir Simon in a special version directed by Peter Sellars. An unforgettable and moving performance.

You’re passionate about online communication and you have a fantastic website Could you tell us about it and what got you involved?

Thanks for the compliment! In 2011 I was invited to be the horn mentor for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra in Sydney. There I met young musicians from all over the world who had auditioned and won via a YouTube audition video. Many of them came from places where it is difficult to hear good concerts and get good teaching so they are so thankful for any masterclasses and tips put on YouTube and they all knew and adored our Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall. I felt very strongly that I should share the privileged musical world I live in as much as I can. Together with my wonderful webmaster Tim Kelly, we regularly livestream interviews and masterclasses on my website and the feedback has been great.

You came to NYO’s Prom and spent the afternoon with the horns. Did it bring back memories?

It brought back so many memories! NYO tours were highlights of my musical life and will never be forgotten. But a big shock to realise how long ago they were – I don’t feel much older than I was in NYO…and it was a bit of a shock to see the current members and realise how quickly time has flown!

Making the Google Glass video was fun and it was great to see the enthusiastic response. I wrote a blog post about it for BBC Radio 3.

What do you do to unwind?

Unwind? What´s that? Got to go, have to practise…

What advice would you give to young horn players?

Practise, practise, practise! Don´t forget to really listen to and record yourselves. Also play as much with other people as possible – from duets to symphony orchestra. Always be prepared by learning the pieces you have to play backwards with a score and various recordings. Listen to as many different genres of music as you can – opera, jazz, soul…anything. And, last but not at all least, don’t forget to have a laugh!

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