There's a great appetite at the moment for TV programmes and books about people having a go at something they don't normally do. Celebrities learn to dance, people swap jobs and partners, try one another's diets. Often these efforts are trivial, but sometimes they provide genuine insight.
So it is with Jasper Rees's I Found My Horn, his tale of a year spent getting to grips with the French horn, an instrument he had learnt as a boy, but gave up in his teenage years when practising became tiresome. On the cusp of 40, scenting a mid-life crisis, Rees takes up his horn again and discovers that tackling a musical instrument can be profoundly rewarding. He sets himself the goal of performing two movements of a Mozart horn concerto in front of the British Horn Society, the most daunting audience for a fledgling player. His summary of that event will be inspiring to many people who wonder if they should have another go. "I took a risk and lived, and breathed the sweet, rarefied air of utter, inner contentment."
The book is constructed as a mosaic of learner's diary, illuminating conversations with leading horn players and teachers, and a colourful history of the horn from its earliest appearance in the form of ram's horn or conch shell. There are pleasing glimpses of the composers, such as Handel, Mozart and Strauss, who brought the horn into the concert repertoire. Mozart's friendship with the horn player Joseph Leutgeb, a fellow joker, is a touching thread.
The subtitle refers to the horn as "the orchestra's most difficult instrument", a claim which might make a few violinists raise their eyebrows. Certainly, it is the most technically challenging of wind instruments (with the possible exception of the Baroque trumpet). I thought I knew a fair amount about it from working with horn players, but Rees's blow-by-blow account made many things clearer.
The horn is difficult because, essentially, it's a very long tube coiled up. Players spend much of their time producing notes in the upper register, where fine control of lips and breath is essential to avoid the dreaded "split note", that mirth-inducing error feared by the most seasoned performers. No other modern wind instrument requires this walk along a high wire of notes produced by minute changes in lip aperture and pressure. Reading Rees's description of his laborious progress, his efforts to build up strength and conquer performance nerves, I could understand why so many horn players develop their characteristic air of mysterious preoccupation. They are, or feel, somehow set apart from other wind players by the intricacy of their task.
"We are the true outcasts", boasts the director of a horn summer camp in New Hampshire. "We're doing an old-fashioned thing that takes time. Horn playing can teach you a great deal of wisdom." With an easy, matey style, Rees gives a very approachable insight into a world of obsessive perfectionists.
Susan Tomes is the pianist with the Florestan Trio and author of 'A Musician's Alphabet' (Faber)
Weidenfeld £14.99 (294pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897