Words of Wisdom: Professor John Wallace CBE

Professor John Wallace CBE, the outgoing principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, has been awarded an Honorary Fellowship by Trinity Laban. Professor Wallace was a distinguished orchestral and solo trumpet player, serving as principal trumpet for the Philharmonia Orchestra for almost two decades. In Trinity Laban’s Faculty of Music graduation ceremony on 10 December, Professor Wallace gave some words of wisdom to our music graduands.


Professor John Wallace CBE

What we all need to do with our own careers is to conjure opportunity out of thin air.  Just as composers like Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Stravinsky and Stockhausen (to name a few) revolutionised the use of musical instruments and orchestrated them into a team construct we call today the ‘orchestra,’ so we need to conjure coherent and orderly musical notes out of the very same jumbled atmosphere of nothingness.

Fill the void. Fill it with your humanity. Fill it with your notes, trillions of them. If 12 notes an octave are not enough double them to 24 by using quarter tones. If 7 positions are not enough on your trombone use all 174 positions that great innovators like Christian Lindberg seem to have found. You all possess the urge to make music and to communicate great abstract ideas about the universality of humankind through your music. I would suggest you can do that in well over a trillion diverse ways. As a student of a Conservatoire like Trinity Laban you will have learned how to think for yourself, and if you manage to swim against the tide of cloning orthodoxy which afflicts all of our art forms in the present day, then you will be able to create a great career for yourself.

They will call the history of Trinity Laban over the first decade of this millennium ‘How to achieve the impossible’, and that must be how most of you perceive your immediate future – how on earth to turn your potential into a viable career. Christmas is approaching, and far from fattening up the geese, most of you can only look skywards at the migrating geese making a faintly ironic v-sign in the sky.

Yet you are poised on the threshold of… what? What are your choices? Do you have any choice? Is it a gateway, a launchpad, a germinating pod? How do you see it? What does the future hold for each and every one of you?


It’s becoming very popular to see the contemporary world as devoid of choice. What chance do you have of exercising any free will whatsoever? Are the constraints of modern society with all its HMRCs and UKBAs and sister regimes of governmental control just far too strenuous and overbearing? We also have net immigration of just over a quarter of a million people annually at the moment into our wee island making it one of the most competitive labour markets in the world.

In fact all of these people are coming here because this is a tremendously inventive land of opportunity. When I signed on at Peckham Labour Exchange at Christmas 1971, 43 years ago and they didn’t have any jobs for musicians I just went and practised 9 hours a day till I got a job as a musician. It sounds simple minded, doesn’t it? But we all know from our earliest musical experiences how being simple, and being that simple is really hard, but really effective.

Your future career all boils down to this: what sort of a world do you want it to be, both for yourself and for others? Stephen Hawking talked last week about his fears of Artificial Intelligence overtaking human intelligence. Now, Artificial Intelligence is much better at being boring even than humans. So unless you want it to be a super boring world in future – where artificial intelligence is telling you what to do all the time – you have to retain your human spark, which is imbued with eccentricity and unorthodoxy. Places like this, and academic institutions in general, thrive on divergent thinking, on unorthodox thinking, on eccentric notions, and start to flounder once groupthink and perceived wisdoms take over. The great thing about Trinity Laban is you, the students. You are such an unmanageable lot, and you are encouraged in your wildly divergent artistic way of thinking by your teachers, who are masters of the art of thriving in contra suggestive multiple adversities.

You cannot go wrong. You are the musical future of our great country, which has a musical culture going back 1000s of years, and I look forward to listening to your music coming at me on every platform and on every present and future retrieval system known to humankind from the comfort of the surround sound system I have installed in my allotment in Glasgow. Your music will be the aural fertiliser which will help my plants grow and keep the world going round.

The best of luck.

As we say in Glasgow, “you’re dead brilliant, so you are”.


Class of 2014

Professor John Wallace CBE

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