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Theory and Practice

John Robert Brown

Colin Lawson's room at Thames Valley University contains heaps of foxed and faded pieces of music, many books on the shelves, a copy of Matisse's Snail on the wall, and numerous components of boxwood clarinets scattered around. A mixture, ancient and modern, of scholarship and performance.

Now the strands come together, as this friendly and modest man faces one of the top jobs and great challenges in British music education. Colin Lawson is to be the next director of the Royal College of Music, beginning in the 2005/6 academic year.

Lawson began learning the recorder at five. Before the age of eight he was playing the clarinet. At Bradford Grammar School he did Latin, Greek and Ancient History for A levels, then switched before going to Oxford, where he read music.

'I've always had this rather schizoid existence, between playing and scholarship,' he says. 'I started with a Masters, then I did a PhD on the chalumeau, in Aberdeen. Then, from 1980, I started playing the early clarinet. 'I wrote an article on the chalumeau in the journal Early Music. Somebody in Spain read it, and came for lessons. I was just slightly better than he was,' Lawson admits. 'Eventually I did a couple of trips to Spain in 1984 and 1985. Then in the eighties I joined an octet called Classical Wind. We did a Wigmore Hall concert. Period and professional managers attended, and by Mozart year, 1991, I was playing the Mozart concerto left, right and centre, and making lots of records with period orchestras. That began to dry up in the nineties. I was still at Sheffield University at that time. I started writing books for Cambridge, starting with the Cambridge Companion to the Clarinet. So theory and practice have combined.

Lawson clearly relishes bringing academics and performers together.

'I've seen too many conservatories where the trumpet teacher and the person teaching counterpoint don't get on,' he says.

After 20 years at Sheffield, Lawson subsequently taught at Goldsmiths and at the London College of Music and Media. He became conscious that there is something to learn from art and design departments. 'I think they got on to the research agenda rather earlier than musicians,' he observes. 'They've got artefacts, stuff you can look at and touch, whereas in the last research assessment exercise a lot of the conservatoires' submissions were regarded as professional practice, rather than real research. Is making a recording of 19th-century light music research? It's up to a new conservatoire director to make a case for that.'

Theory and practice proves to be a recurring theme in our conversation. 'I got into the theory through becoming interested in the early clarinet. I did a Masters on the 18th-century clarinet. After that I thought it would be nice to play early clarinets. Round about 1980 I started getting into that big time.'

Lawson's playing of the early clarinet has won superlatives from very distinguished sources. The Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung described him as: 'A brilliant, absolutely world-class performer, whose tone in pianissimo can scarcely ever have been surpassed.' Now, the first clarinet in the Vienna Symphony occasionally comes and has a lesson with him.

'Then, suddenly in 1997 there was a call to tell me that there was a chair in performance practice going at Goldsmiths,' he says. 'I did that for a bit, then there was another phone call saying that the LCMM was coming up. I was head-hunted for that, ending up here at TVU.' Now comes the RCM. Colin Lawson has suddenly started moving very quickly.

'It's fantastic preparation, being here. The faculty ranges all the way from classical music through media, advertising and journalism to digital animation. So I think that with partnerships and experience across media and technology, there's quite a lot of that I can take to the RCM, at least in my mind.

Will he really consider introducing this breadth to the RCM?

'Conservatories are designated special institutions. They get funded on that basis. You can't afford to dilute it completely. But on the other hand, there opportunity for talking to specialists in art and design, and music media. The relationship between conserving a tradition and innovating is very important. You've got to help students to find ways of making careers.'

I suggest that one popular innovation, music technology, may be short-lived.

'A very important point. But there's a balance to be struck. I've met many musicians who, at 23, are crazy about their instrument. At 33 they are a little less crazy. By the time you meet the trombonist retiring from the BBC Symphony at 55 he's wondering what else there is to do. You can at least plant the seed in people's minds in conservatories. It's a good thing to get some context round it.

'At the RCM there are half a dozen student applications for every place. Famous tutors are very important; that is ultimately why people come. They are not really interested in who the director is, or what's going on.

'In terms of the director's post, to be credible is even more difficult - finding time to practise, Keeping an instrument going while doing other things is quite tricky.'

First published in Classical Music magazine, 11th September, 2004. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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