An eye, ear for detail

Instruments: From his shop in Boonsboro, a former BSO member makes some of the world's finest French horns.

October 28, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

BOONSBORO -- Deep in the woods above town, Walter Lawson and his boys help others make beautiful music.

In their hands, fat rolls of sheet metal and long tubes of copper become the graceful curves and polished bells of some of the world's finest French horns.

To the untrained eye and ear, Lawson horns might look ordinary. But to music's hottest lips, including several in Baltimore, a Lawson horn is worth a year's wait.

Each one is crafted to exacting specifications and adjusted to the player's needs.

"They don't gloss over anything," says Barry Tuckwell, one of the world's pre-eminent horn soloists until he retired from playing two years ago. "They're superbly built."

The French horn is a treacherous beast, its coils of tubing perfect for tripping up the performances of its practitioners. Individual pitches are so close together that depressing a single key might let loose a cascade of notes.

"In a sense, you feel everybody in the audience is waiting for you to make a mistake," says Tuckwell, the first chair of the London Symphony until 1968 and founder of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. "We probably have a little bit of a persecution complex."

Lawson, 76, knows a good horn when he hears one. For 29 years, he played second chair with the Baltimore Symphony. He retired in 1976.

"There's a time to get out," he says matter-of-factly. "I knew I wasn't going to get any better. I didn't want to be remembered as poor old Walt."

Instead of turning to the classroom or offering music lessons, Lawson decided to build on the business he started while with the symphony.

Back when the BSO's musicians were paid $70 a week for a 17-week season, Lawson supplemented his income as an instrument repairman, working first for someone else and then opening a Catonsville shop with fellow musicians.

"Repairing was good because you got to look at everyone else's horn," he says.

In 1975, Lawson set up shop on a winding rural road outside Boonsboro on 18 acres he bought for family camping a decade earlier.

The transformation from repairman to Lawson Brass Instruments Inc. happened "by osmosis," he says, as he learned first to modify horns and then make ancillary parts. By 1979, he was ready to put it all together.

"Some small makers can buy parts and assemble them. But you don't have any control about how the horn plays unless you make the parts yourself," Lawson explains.

The horn that launched his new career -- serial No. 801 -- also launched that of the buyer, who took out a second mortgage to own it.

Margaret Robinson had two French horns when she met Lawson at a brass player's workshop at Indiana University. About to receive her master's degree, Robinson "was looking for a horn that did everything well."

After asking her if she was sure she wanted a horn from an untested manufacturer, Lawson handed Robinson a section of valves, a box of horn parts and "a whole bunch of black electrician's tape," she says, laughing.

She tried out different combinations -- more than 100 in all, she estimates -- before settling on the sound she liked.

Loyal to Lawson

Now an assistant professor of instrumental studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Robinson says she's tried other horns "but I always go back to my Lawson."

Lawson's latest creation -- No. 1352 -- is just pieces on the workbench in Boonsboro. A horn takes 187 hours from start to finish.

It is a family affair. Son Paul, the machinist, builds the valves. Paul's brother, Duane, polishes the surfaces until they shine, then lacquers them. Bruce, the acoustician, makes sure each horn has the Lawson signature sound ("Musicians sense it, but they don't have a clue what it is," he says).

Cruelly, Walter Lawson has never had the pleasure of performing on a Lawson. In 1979, a mugger attacked him on a Frederick street, fracturing his skull and jaw and paralyzing part of his face.

"I just test horns now. That's all," he says quietly.

Musicians might love their instruments, but sometimes it's a tough love. Horns get dropped. Bells get bent. Acid from sweaty palms corrodes the smooth surfaces.

"And sometimes people drop something in them," says Bruce Lawson. "Peanuts, even a bullet. Yeah. He couldn't explain how that got in there."

Looking for magic

Lawson and his sons also get called on to modify horns. Sometimes a new conductor wants a different sound from his predecessor -- brassier, more mellow, whatever. Other times, a soloist is looking for a little magic.

Right now, Bruce Lawson is tweaking the horn of a top performer, who will be playing a piece next year that will push the instrument's upper reaches.

Working with a computer that analyzes the vibration of air within the horn, Lawson believes he can coax out some higher notes by inserting a small plastic tube inside the horn near the mouthpiece.

"We're giving him a crutch," he says. "It only has to work in his mind."

At $6,800 for a double horn (12 feet of tubing) and $9,000 for a short horn (6 feet of tubing and less room for error), Lawsons aren't for everybody.

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