Posting Date: January 30, 2009
Spotlight on John Lawless: An energetic musician
By Gina Gareri-Watkins
“Some people don’t know this about me,” confesses John Lawless, Director of Percussion Studies at Kennesaw State University, “but I’m a big-time triathlete. I’ve entered at least one every year since 1982. I have my sights set on the Iron Man competition this year.” Lawless has been a master of endurance for years, balancing a thriving professional percussion career with his career as an educator. A specialist in timpani, the large drums that form the backbone of an orchestra’s percussion section, Lawless is a musician, performer, studio artist, instructor, director and composer—and he seldom lacks for energy.
Lawless graduated from Georgia State University, where he studied with Jack Bell, snare drummer and former principal percussionist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. A former adjunct professor of percussion at Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State and the University of West Georgia, Lawless has been in demand for both his teaching and performing credentials.
A valued addition to KSU’s School of Music staff since 2004, Lawless won his principal position with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as a 17-year-old in 1978. He has been principal timpanist with the Atlanta Opera since 1979, a member of the Atlanta Percussion Trio since the mid-1980s, and principal timpanist with the Cobb Symphony Orchestra and director of the percussion ensemble for the Georgia Youth Symphony Orchestra for the last three years. Lawless was also principal timpanist with the Chattanooga Symphony for 21 years.
Lawless has a “make-it-fun” mindset with a deft percussion style that easily navigates the most complicated into more playful percussion pieces. A founding member of the Atlanta Percussion Trio—Scott Douglas and Jeff Kershner are his partners—Lawless is skilled at both solo and collaborative pieces, and brings his lively percussive methods to both university lectures and concert halls. Lawless has currently performed more than 600 school concerts for a total audience estimate of 300,000, and his skill and infectious enthusiasm often bring down the house.
Although his job at KSU is technically a half-time position, Lawless laughs when he explains, “I think I’m really teaching 80 percent right now: I teach all the percussion students, direct the percussion ensembles, and teach percussion methods to future band directors.” In his current position, Lawless has seen enrollment numbers grow dramatically in the School of Music. “The percussion methods class used to be eight students and now it’s 20,” reveals Lawless. “We have two full ensembles and we’re just brimming over the stage. It’s just phenomenal.” Lawless finds that Kennesaw offers an impressive combination of professional, academic and performing experiences. “Kennesaw State is an amazing place,” says Lawless. “We have the best of the best teaching here and we’re well-situated geographically with so many unbelievable musicians just a stone’s throw away.”
Lawless tries to tailor his teaching to meet the needs of each of his students. “Every student I approach, I work on their weaknesses and let their strengths shine,” says Lawless. “When I work with future directors, my biggest goal is to make them comfortable teaching. If you try to place everyone in a grid, that’s problematic.” When asked about his future goals for the percussion studies program, Lawless answers, “We want to build numbers, but we don’t want to outgrow the facility. With the space we have now, and the ones we’re building, we’ll be very comfortable.”
The new space Lawless is referring to is the recently opened KSU concert hall, the Dr. Bobbie Bailey & Family Performance Center. “It’s really magical. It’s a gorgeous facility,” says Lawless. The new building is designed to accommodate a wide range of programming including large orchestras and small ensembles, with a state-of-the-art technology that generates raves from Lawless. “The kids can record and play back immediately, and the technology can replicate 20 different concert halls and settings. It could be Carnegie Hall, the Berlin Philharmonic, or a smoky jazz club,” says Lawless, “but the ability to push a button and have instant playback is priceless.”
In addition to his teaching duties, Lawless records with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, with more than 55 albums to his credit, while maintaining a thriving freelance career as a studio and pit percussionist. Lawless often plays local touring Broadway shows, with his most recent the Fox Theatre staging of “Les Miserables” where Lawless performed alongside his wife, an accomplished violinist. Lawless is also a member of the Georgia Music Teachers Association and the Percussive Arts Society, a nonprofit music service organization promoting percussion education, research, performance and appreciation that delivers instruction and lectures at various music camps, clinics, workshops, and master classes.
Keeping with trademark energy, his future percussion projects include upcoming performances with the Cobb Symphony, Percussion Night at KSU in April 2009, and several recording sessions with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.