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Lead the College like a Musician Interview with Prof. Kevin Thompson
“I grew up in quite a silent household with hereditary hearing impairment in my familial genes. When I heard music for the first time, it was an unalloyed revelation and left an indelible impression. It was like someone accustomed to viewing black-and-white television flicking a switch and suddenly seeing a thousand-foot technicolour cyclorama wrapped around them,” recalls Prof. Kevin (Kit) Thompson, an eminent musician and newly-appointed college master at UM, about his unforgettable initial introduction to music.
“Macao is a city of work and leisure.”
After that first unforgettable experience with music in his childhood, Kit threw himself wholeheartedly into the world of music and has never looked back. He studied trumpet and composition, and subsequently conducting. He was awarded scholarships for master classes, with Pierre Thibaud in Paris, and Pierre Boulez in the United States. In 1983 he received his PhD degree in music. In 1988, when he was only 34, he became the founding principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire, and in 1993 the director of the Dartington College of Arts. Under his leadership, the two institutions became excellent centres for music and creative arts in the United Kingdom. In 2003, the Dartington College of Arts was designated by the Arts Council England as a new national centre of excellence. In 2004 he was appointed director of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. In recognition of his services to the arts and cultural exchanges, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s New Year Honours List 2011 and a French Knight, Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2012. In July 2013 he acceded to UM’s appointment as master of the Moon Chun Memorial College.
Only several months in his new position, Prof. Thompson says Macao and UM have already left a deep impression on him, especially the moment when everyone burst into a spontaneous cheer and applause as the bus passed through the underwater tunnel towards the new campus after it came under the jurisdiction of Macao SAR. Recalling his first visit to Macao with his wife in 2004, Prof. Thompson says that even before he came, he had already known Macao from a 1938 poem by W. H. Auden, and a 1959 piece by Ian Fleming. Now that he’s back he is impressed by the cultural richness and diversity of Macao, as well as the overwhelming kindness and consideration of the people here. “My wife and I have discovered a genuine concern for people of all kinds, all ages and all walks of life. In practically every park there is a place where elderly people can exercise, which is fantastic,” Prof. Thompson enthuses. “Someone once said, when societies forget to cherish the elderly they have forgotten whence they came and whither they go. Macao seems to care. We have found truly remarkable politeness and widespread kindness. It’s a kind place. Hong Kong is a great city of work. Macao is a city of work and leisure. There is some balance and a sense of equilibrium in the lifestyle of the people here. My wife and I like to go to the galleries, museums and concerts in here.” Gentle and soft-spoken, Prof. Thompson doesn’t resemble someone who has lived in Hong Kong for a long time, but rather someone who feels at one with the more relaxed and laid-back way of life in Macao.
“Teacher is a badge which I wear with pride”
Prof. Thompson is grateful that when he discovered music, he had a very charismatic music teacher Ms. Thomson, who took him under her wing and with whom he still keeps in touch even today. “I’ve never forgotten the early influence of some truly unstinting people, schoolmasters, and later academics being not only enormously kind but so generously putting high-quality formative experiences, and, unknowingly at the time, those which were to prove defining and decisive moments in life, in my way,” says Prof. Thompson. “And I think that’s why I’m so passionate about students being at the very centre of all we do and strive for in our work.” In his eyes, Chinese students are extremely hard-working and motivated. He feels that in addition to hard work, the ability to constantly re-invent oneself is also an important tool all students need to master, especially in view of the fast-changing world we are in. “Take the music world for instance,” he explains. “In mainland China, there are some 30 million pianists that we know of, and there’s probably another 30 million, albeit amateur and self-taught, some with no less innate talent and potential, perhaps, that we don’t know about. There are some 10 million violinists, so one can just imagine how intense and unparalleled the competition must be. Every one of us has to constantly re-engineer ourselves, to re-sharpen the saw regularly if we are to succeed and continue to do so in the future. I could not have conceived for a moment that, as an orchestral trumpet player, I would find myself running major international institutions.”
To coax a truly memorable performance from an orchestra a conductor needs to first coach, to give something quite extraordinary to the orchestra. In turn they return the favour. So what does Prof. Thompson wish to give to his students as a college master in order to help them achieve full potential? “First of all, we strive to enable and deliver - where we can - some truly life-changing experiences to students, key formative moments, realistic expectations, whilst leaving room for those expectations to be exceeded. We provide tools by which students can accomplish something for themselves but in and enhanced by the presence of others. One plays, one acts, one speaks and one learns in the company of others. One’s life is spent in the company of those around us. What a tremendous resource that community proves to be, one made all the richer in a university and residential college environment where we rub shoulders with some of the brightest and most talented on a daily basis. And secondly, we have to provide tools by which students can live lives which are rich and meaningful.”
Prof. Thompson says he isn’t hung up on the title of “professor” and when he was at Dartington, students called him by his first name, which he didn’t mind. “The arts are great levellers. I don’t get hung up on the title of professor, because students don’t care who you are, or how many qualifications you have,” he says. “What they care about is ‘Can you do it’? Not in a Nike ad swoosh sense: ‘Just do it’ but can you relate to me?’ ‘Can we learn something together that’s worthwhile?’ So when someone asks me if I am a teacher, I say yeah, and it’s a badge which I wear with pride. I am reminded of those lines from the St Crispin’s Day Speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V. ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.’ We are, indeed, a lucky few to be able to enable students – brothers and sisters – to shape rich and rewarding lives.”
Recommended Reading from Prof. Thompson
Philosophy in a New Key
Philosophy in a New Key, by the American philosopher of mind and of art Susanne Langer, was published in 1942. Prof. Thompson thinks this book is intensely lyrical and tugs at the reader’s heartstrings like a piece of music.
How to Win Friends and Influence People
First published in 1936, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, remained a New York Times bestseller for ten years. Prof. Thompson says the theories introduced in this book are simple yet highly effective in helping the readers to improve themselves and those around them through positive thinking.