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A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  265 Ratings  ·  66 Reviews
A charming and deeply funny memoir of musical obsession, A Devil to Play is the story of Jasper Rees, a man who unearths his childhood French horn, and begins a quixotic but obsessively serious challenge: to play a Mozart concerto—alone—for a paying audience within one year’s time. It’s an endearing, inspiring tale of perseverance and achievement, relayed masterfully, one ...more
ebook, 336 pages
Published October 6th 2009 by HarperCollins e-books (first published January 3rd 2008)
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May 16, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: BBC Radio Listeners

Description: In the days before his fortieth birthday, London-based journalist Jasper Rees trades his pen for a French horn that has been gathering dust in the attic for more than twenty-two years, and, on a lark, plays it at the annual festival of the British Horn Society.

Despite an embarrassingly poor performance, the experience inspires Rees to embark on a daunting, bizarre, and ultimately winning journey: to return to the festival in one year's time an
Jul 20, 2012 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
This represents the dream of most of our Walter Mitty selves. I was in my mid-thirties when my son took up the trombone in school and, wanting to help him out, started French Horn lessons at the college where I worked. 20 years later he had long given up the trombone and I, after 15 years, gave up the French Horn, tiring (lazy, I guess) of the requirement to play every single day for 45 minutes to an hour just to maintain some flexibility in the lips. Skipping a couple days would set you back a ...more
Feb 19, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Loved this book! Jasper Rees decides to start playing the horn again at age 40 - 20+ years since he last touched it. He spends a year preparing for a solo performance at the British Horn Society. Along the way, he shares the history of the instrument and meets with current leading horn luminaries from around the world.

The result is a hilarious first-person account of someone facing their mid-life demons, interspersed with well-written and entertaining vignettes of the horn's history - including
Nov 19, 2013 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: No one
I thought this book was very boring. It is about a man who plays French horn in school, then gives it up. 22 years later, inexplicably, he takes it up again. There is no apparent reason for this. For the rest of the book, he alternates between rambling on and on about very dull history of the French horn, and subjecting his poor, poor family and friends to numerous 'concerts' at which he butchers Mozart. There are a few charming things. One - he has a very good vocabulary. Two - he calls his gir ...more
Jul 02, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
What a super-fun and informative read! I have always loved the horn, but the author is obsessed. Jasper Rees learned French Horn when he was in early high school but gave it up for 22 years. He then pulled his dusty horn out to play at the British Horn Society concert. He really sucked. But he decided at the concert that he was going to take up the horn and play Mozart's 3rd horn concerto a year later at the same concert.
The book is funny, lighthearted, and it takes unexpected turns into the
May 16, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Laura by: Bettie
From BBC Radio 4 Extra:
The author and journalist embarks on 'One Man's Struggle with the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument.' Read by Nicholas Boulton.
Sep 13, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Come to find out, I'm a sucker for books where people shake up their normal lives to dedicate a year to a crazy mission; this author actually verbalized why: he's in "those years when routine traditionally sets in like a stubborn winter fog, when you set yourself the monthly task of amassing enough money to pay for things you need rather than things you want, when horizons close in and clouds lower dully overhead, when pipe dreams of a second home in Tuscany - or, failing that, Wales - shrivel a ...more
Roisin Radford
Aug 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As a horn player myself, this book obviously held a lot of appeal for me to begin with. But I didn't expect anything like the amount of fascinating history that is packed into it! Jasper Rees' style is perfect; he is personable and funny, and presents a large amount of information in a totally engaging and interesting way. Sections of history are interspersed with the story of his 'struggle' with the horn, in a skilfully seamless way which would appeal just as much, in my opinion, to someone wit ...more
Jul 04, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
Pretty overly wordy at times, but enjoyable non the less. I play the trombone, and while I haven't done any solos on it, I can certainly relate to all of Jaspers feelings of panic during his performances.
Nov 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A suspense story: journalist and old Harrovian who played the horn in school then dropped it is seized by the desire at age 40 to resume it and master it so that he can play a solo with orchestra at a public concert to which people pay admission in one year from then. He settles on the Mozart K. 447
This is akin to taking up rock climbing at age 30 and planning to do a maor North Face in teh Alps inside a year.
The author comes across as good-humored, self-deprecating, humble but also pushy in s
Julianna Lopez
Oct 14, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When journalist Jasper Rees decides to pick up the French horn after twenty-two years to play at the festival of the British Horn Society, he fails. That day he decides that the next year he would return to the festival to play a solo, embarking on a year-long journey to master the French Horn. Although, essentially a story of a man’s midlife crisis it is, at its core, one of perseverance and achievement.

Reese is hilarious. He makes jokes that only French Horn players would get but that anyone w
Jan 25, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As with Richard Cohen's "By the Sword" this weaves the history of the instrument around a personal story, to the benefit of "I found my horn" since it has considerably more story and less history; the combination is enjoyable and gives the author a great chance to show off his obsession and his hard work. Jasper's zeal is infectious, despite his background he manages diffidence and humility. The ending is all about him, but I think after his travails that he has earned it, he does have a book to ...more
Aug 08, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was disappointed but perhaps I suffer from a case misplaced expectations. When I learned that A Devil to Play is a story about an obsessive young man, I assumed that Jasper (the character's name and the author's), would be a kindred soul to Rollo Hemphill, perpetually obsessed boychik of my comic novels. Yes, Jasper is obsessed with relearning how to play the French horn in his middle years. The description is detailed and, I presume, accurate. But it's not all that funny. Or even entertaining ...more
Apr 20, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library, book-group
Am still reading this book at this time, but am having issues getting very far as I am not very enthused by the subject matter. It is well written, but if it were not a book-group selection, I would never have even considered reading a book about a guy who decided to play the french horn at the age of 39 after he had given it up at the age of 17.

So I didn't finish the book, but put it on the read list so that it didn't sit on my to-read list (since I have no desire to ever finish reading this bo
Mar 23, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm sure that part of the reason I enjoyed "A Devil to Play" so much is that I play the horn, but I think it has broad appeal to any musicians or those who enjoy reading entertaining memoirs. Rees's descriptions of the frustrations of the horn were priceless--the spit! the cracked notes! the performance anxiety! the way no one really understands!--all so true! Best of all, the writing style was such that it was like reading a PG Wodehouse novel. Throughout the course of the book, he meets with m ...more
Nov 21, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I wasn't a huge fan of the way that Rees presented himself to the world in this book. He came across as rather arrogant, which to be fair is quite apropos given the nature of many professional musicians. Nonetheless, throughout the book I felt that Rees was talking down to me - as an amateur horn player, no less. However, I respect that this man took up an instrument in his mid-life more than I can put into words. That was truly inspiring. From a literary standpoint, I felt that Rees wrote like ...more
Justin Wu
Nov 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
If you play a horn, then you must read this book. If you play other instrument and want to know something about horns, you must read this book. Jasper Rees provides sufficient humour and history of the horn and popular usage of it (recall the Horn sound in Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band? Or that in John Williams' movies?). You don't have to know anything about the horn to understand this book, for Rees details everything clearly. He also makes some good recommendation about famous horn ...more
Jan 31, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music, memoir
It would be easy to relegate this book to the "midlife crisis shelf," but it is more than that. It is about setting a goal, a seemingly improbable one, and after a year of single minded effort, achieving it. Jasper Rees is a witty, irreverent writer, who makes this improbable journey a delight. From travelling all over Europe to meet the best horn players, to a week in New Hampshire at Horn Camp, we learn much about the horn and the Mozart concerto K 447 that he resolves to play at the British H ...more
Ailsa Mackay
Nov 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mine
I'm probably slightly biased being a horn player that returned to playing after a similar gap. However, I found this a genuinely funny and interesting read. It follows Jasper and has quest to play the horn at the annual meeting of the British Horn Society after a 22 year gap. There are loads of interviews with a large number of the players in the worlds orchestral horn sections (the author would probably admit to his newly rediscovered hobby becoming an obsession)and additional history on the ho ...more
Nov 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was my second time reading this memoir and I think it was even better this time. Jasper Rees decided to take up the horn again as an almost 40-year-old, after having quit in his teens. The book follows his efforts to play well enough to reach his lofty goal of playing a Mozart concerto at the British Horn Society annual conference. Along the way he meets a lot of famous horn players, and we learn lots about the horn, including, for example, a long section on how the Beatles used horn in the ...more
Emily Mace
Apr 15, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a French horn player, I loved this book! I'm just getting back into playing as an adult, myself, and found his descriptions of playing the horn and trying to relearn a Mozart concerto to be the most compelling part of the book. I can only assume that the humor of the many jokes and asides about horn playing would carry over to someone not steeped in horn humor, but as a hornist, I often found myself laughing out loud, which was awkward when I was reading this book in a public place. The histo ...more
Dec 29, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you ever wanted to know what it's like to play the French Horn but never actually wanted to play one this might be your perfect substitute. Rees is a journalist and has a strong grasp for description so it is funny reading a very verbal 40-year old's attempt to learn the French horn in one year. Also covered is the origins of the horn, maintenance and idiosyncracies of the instrument, renowned players and pedagogues, composers who wrote for it, and all of the stuff that you deal with as a "ho ...more
May 15, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: horn players, students
I only had a limited time in which to read this book so I skimmed through a lot of the historical segments to concentrate more on Jasper's horn playing experiences. I'm a hornist who hasn't played for a while, and this has inspired me to pull out the horn before too many years go by. As I was reading, I wondered how much interest the book would hold for non-horn players, and especially those that are not musicians, as the book goes into a lot of technical detail (personally, that's what I was af ...more
Heather Lovelace
May 25, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My enjoyment for this book is only heightened due to my being a horn player. The humor, the struggle, the appreciation of this beautiful instrument - it made me proud to be an instrumentalist. It is a candid look at how we each find a renewed passion for hobbies of old as we evaluate the truly important things in our lives. It is a reminder to better ourselves. It is a tribute to the talented craftsmen and musicians that have come before. It is a testimony to finish what you begin. A delightful ...more
Aug 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As a horn player, I absolutely loved this book. Rees was a man on a mission: a mission to once again take up the instrument of his youth and play a concert for some of the most recognized names in the classical music world. The humor is definitely British and had me chuckling quite a few times. I could understand this book being difficult to get through if you have never played the instrument or an instrument in general. His historical passages were also fascinating. I recommend this book to all ...more
Dec 08, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: classical-music
The devil is in the details a wise man once said this book was pretty durn good the author is humorous and interesting offering a history of the instrument as well as its appearance in history and literature as away we go. He's British, btw. Thus we meet, in person and in memoriam, the great trinity of British horn players: Dennis Brain, Alan Civil, Barry Tuckwell, as well as a few Sirs--andrewlloydwebber and paulmccartney--along the way. Incited me to dig out my Mozart 1 & 4, Britten Serena ...more
Sep 27, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: funny, music
This book is a definite must read for anyone who has ever played the French Horn (as I did). It's about the author's year long quest to perform a Mozart Horn Concerto - in public - after a 22-year lapse in ever having touched the instrument. He spent the year getting in shape, taking lessons, and traveling the world to meet famous horn players. As a former horn player, I thoroughly enjoyed the British author's quirky sense of humor and his mix of history, horn trivia, and anecdotes about famous ...more
Michael Fitzgerald
Another one of those "do something in one year" books. This one takes the challenge of preparing for a solo performance (after many years away from the instrument) and pads it out with all manner of horn history and trivia, notable horn composers/compositions, as well as the writer's background in music from back in his schooldays. What would have made this book more appealing would be the inclusion of the numerous photos which are mentioned in the text.
Dec 28, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What fun! 40-year-old journalist turns to the French horn instead of a red sports car to ameliorate that rite of passage called the midlife crisis. The Horn, originating in the Hunt and the Woods, brings out the best in horsey language from author Rees as the music is always galloping or cantering or trotting along. Rees takes the reader on the grand tour of the Horn's history, the composers who wrote for it, the musicians who have played it.
Heather Painter
Dec 19, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very interesting book, especially since I play the clarinet and the bells in two community bands. I enjoyed learning more about the French horn, and I couldn't help but cheer him on. I only gave it 4 stars, because he spent too much time discussing a few topics I wasn't interested in (such as the French horn's connection with various European battles and fox hunting). All in all though, I did enjoy the book!
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“The horn . . . is the joint hardest instrument to learn. . . . (The other is the oboe).” 4 likes
“By the age of eleven it was . . . too late for the piano and the violin.” 2 likes
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