Gemma Lawton’s time as a student has been characterised by highs and lows. Since arriving at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the French horn player has achieved a distinction average and travelled to Europe to perform. But she has also faced health challenges that interrupted her studies and even threatened her life.
“It’s been a bumpy road,” says Lawton, now in the final year of her degree. “But my time at university has been the most incredible learning experience, not only in the practice room and on stage, but within myself.”
In first year, she was awarded the Richard Merewether French Horn Fellowship – recognition for the strength of her performance at the entry audition. The award was established through a gift from the Merewether family, in memory of horn player and designer Richard Merewether.
My time at university has been the most incredible learning experience, not only in the practice room and on stage, but within myself.
The fellowship’s financial support made a big difference to Lawton, who grew up in a household where money was tight. Her mother has multiple sclerosis, which forced her to give up her work as a registered nurse. The family relied on Lawton’s father’s income as a TAFE teacher.
“I always wanted to go to the Con, but I worried about being able to pay the fees or being in debt,” she says. “The fellowship lifted an immense weight off my shoulders.”
It also provided support through a series of health problems. In first year, she tore a muscle in her lip and had to take a year off playing her instrument. She recovered from the injury, only to struggle with severe depression. Then, in third year, the week before a major recital, she was rushed to hospital with blood clots in both lungs – the result of an autoimmune condition. Her doctors feared the clots would cause a stroke but, with the help of medication, she recovered.
“Having the scholarship meant I had one less thing to worry about and could focus on getting as much from the university experience as I could,” she says.
This year, she performed her final recital and achieved a distinction result. She is now dreaming of a career that combines performance and teaching.
“Every day I spend at the Conservatorium reconfirms why I chose to go down this path,” she says. “The Con just keeps giving and Sydney Uni just keeps giving.”