I have a background in jazz and orchestral youth outreach projects, through school and my local music service in Devon, and Cambridge Music Education Outreach (CaMEO) was an important factor in my choosing Cambridge over other universities. In an institution so often criticised for being insular, it is refreshing to know that the Faculty of Music has such a commitment to taking its musicians to work with the community in ‘the real world’. As rewarding as it is to strive for technical excellence in performance, I have found that it is very often music-making at grassroots level which touches people most deeply.
My first involvement with CaMEO took place a few weeks into my first term as part of the 2012 Festival of Ideas. Upright pianos were decorated by various local organisations and placed in public areas throughout the city centre. The project, replicated around the world, encouraged anyone who walked by to engage with the instruments, whether performing, observing or listening. A number of Cambridge music students were filmed improvising on the pianos for a video which synthesised performances from all over the city. Other recent CaMEO initiatives include the staging of interactive musical theatre and opera as well as visits to local schools, care homes and hospitals.
The striking thing about CaMEO is that it’s so open to new ideas. Students here are imaginative and, when a department is as keen as the Music Faculty to support its students, nothing is beyond the realms of possibility. The main CaMEO event I’ve been involved with has been the choral singing project in HMP Bedford. The initial idea of performing at a prison carol service has developed into a series of workshops in which the prisoners themselves form a choir and perform to other residents and prison staff. A team of music students led a morning workshop, beginning with gentle vocal exercises and teaching familiar pop and folk songs before tackling more challenging repertoire. By the end of the workshop, two participants had stepped forward and volunteered to sing solos in the afternoon concert performance. There was a real sense of togetherness as singers from Cambridge chapel choirs stood alongside prisoners and made music together, and the experience has had a long-lasting impact on all involved.
I feel that there’s only so much we can learn from slaving away in the library unless we actually go out and engage with people on a musical level; my involvement with CaMEO has contributed just as much to my development as a musician as my studies have. I can honestly say that teaching a room full of prisoners how to sing Lady Gaga was one of the most memorable, surreal, and transformative experiences of my life, and I can’t wait to see where CaMEO takes me next.