By Jamon Smith
Titles like “best of the best” and “best in the world” still don’t sit well with University of Alabama doctorate of musical arts candidate Joshua Williams.
But, the 25-year-old Tuscaloosa native will have to get used to them, because on Sept. 3 the French horn virtuoso won first place in the professional division of the International Horn Competition of America held in Fort Collins, Colorado.
For horn players, it’s one of the highest achievements in the world.
“It happens every two years, bringing in horn players from multiple continents who are literally the best of the best at what they do,” said Charles “Skip” Snead, director and professor in the UA School of Music.
“The professional division is for professional players and people who have established professional resumés. …Though he’s still a student, Joshua entered the professional division and won. The winner of the professional division represents the finest in solo horn playing throughout the world.”
Snead said William’s achievement is among the most monumental in the 100-year history of The University of Alabama’s School of Music.
“For someone to win the top honor in their discipline is very rare, and that’s something many schools cannot say has ever happened in their history,” he said.
Williams said he still hasn’t grasped the magnitude of the win.
“Honestly, I am still blown away,” he said. “It hasn’t sunk in. Professor Snead has encouraged me to compete in this competition three times in the past. I backed out every time thinking I wasn’t ready.”
The professional division of the competition started with 30 competitors from across the United States, Asia, Europe and South America. After the first round, seven semifinalists remained.
And then there were three: Markus Osterlund, a highly decorated player and member of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.; Jorge Mejia, principal horn of the Bogotá Symphony Orchestra in Bogotá, Colombia, and one of the most widely recognized South American professional horn soloists of this generation; and Williams.
Williams said he went into the competition with a two-pronged strategy. First, he didn’t come to compete against the other performers. In fact, he didn’t even listen to their performances.
“I didn’t listen to their performances because I wanted to stay in the zone about what I could do to create a compelling performance,” he said. “I stayed away from the building where the performances were held until they were done. I had my friends send me text messages about when each competitor was finished.”
The second part of his strategy was simply not worrying about giving a perfect performance. Instead, he concentrated on telling a story.
“I went in thinking that it wasn’t about competing, but it was about creating music and sharing my music with the audience. I think that attitude carried me through the competition.
“And I didn’t focus on hitting the right notes all the time, just telling a story.”
The win came with $3,500 in award money, membership in the Laureates Council of preeminent international solo competitors, enormous publicity and opportunities to perform around the globe.
“Life has changed a lot in the last few weeks,” he said. “I’ve been invited to be a guest performer and featured artist in various workshops, most notably the International Horn Summer Symposium, which is one of the largest gathering of horn players in the world.
“…I’ll be doing guest appearances at various schools around the country, which is weird being a student and talking to someone else’s students who are probably in the same degree program as me.”
How it All Started
Williams started playing French horn in seventh grade at Hillcrest Middle School. Due to a mid-year change of schools, he couldn’t play sports, so he joined the band. His dad suggested he play the French horn because he wasn’t interested in buying him an instrument at the time and the school had a French horn he could use.
“My instrument sounded a lot different than everyone else’s,” he said. “Beginning band players can probably relate. It’s an extremely difficult instrument so there were some rough times early on.”
Though he felt like he had a natural knack for the instrument, it wasn’t until he got to Hillcrest High School and met band director Andy Pettus that he decided to pursue a music career.
“He believed in me from the beginning and pushed me to my limits for sure. He had me send in an audition tape to the National Honor Band of America as a sophomore and I got second chair at that event. At that moment, I realized that this is something that I was meant to be doing.”
Williams said he also owes a great debt of gratitude to the Sneads. Snead’s wife, Angie Snead, was the one who first heard him play in the ninth grade and connected him with her husband. Williams and Skip Snead began to take private lessons together and they’ve been together since.
The Sneads also influenced his decision to stay in Tuscaloosa and attend the music school at UA where he attained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horn performance, is a candidate to attain his doctorate and teaches an introduction to listening class.
“I definitely made the right choice choosing UA, and it’s why I decided to stay here for all of my degrees. A lot of students peak in their senior year, but I’ve felt a steady progression throughout my entire time here…. I feel like the music culture at UA and in Tuscaloosa is seriously underrated.”
Now that he’s reached the top, it would seem that there’s nowhere else to go. But Williams said he has many other goals that he’s working to accomplish.
“I’d love to play in a major symphony orchestra and do college teaching. If I can be half the teacher Skip is that’d be great – just motivate the next generation of horn players and help someone realize their dream because I’m living mine every day.”