A late starters’ orchestra for adults in Cambridge?

A musical challenge for Cambridge students on the Social Innovation Programme at The Cambridge Hub. They have until the end of March to come up with their proposals. And it all has to be done online.

Not easy by any means – but having seen what the students on the Cambridge Hub’s Social Innovation Programme have delivered in previous rounds, I trust they will overcome that barrier.

Their challenge? To produce a brochure containing their proposals for a large community music learning orchestra or collective for adults, based in Cambridge, covering town and gown.

Responding to the biggest peacetime catastrophe since the influenza pandemic of 1918.

I’ve just seen outpouring of rage online against the Prime Minister just now following the news that over 100,000 people have died untimely deaths due to the CoronaVirus. We are still under lockdown. The past few days have seen temperatures struggle to get above freezing. Social events are on hold, social contact has been reduced to a minimum, and people can only leave their homes for a limited number of legally-sanctioned activities.

And yet we have to hope that the vaccination programme will succeed, we will emerge collectively from lockdown, and we will rebuild our societies, economies and environments in far better forms than when we went into lockdown for the first time. Because we will be a society scarred by the experience – some of us with deeper emotional scars than others.

Music and mental health

BBC Radio 3 has this episode of Music Matters that covers the subject of Music and Mental Health. Furthermore, in recent years there has been a growing body of research about the impact that music – and in particular group singing can improve mental health and recovery. Given the collective trauma we are all still going through, society is going to need all the help and ideas it can get in order to support our collective recovery. That being the case, the planning needs to start now.

“Setting up an evening class or a weekend class – how hard can it be?”


Especially if you’re doing it alone in the middle of a pandemic when people and organisations either have far more important things to do, or have gone into hibernation as a result of the legal restrictions. In the past, getting in touch with organisations that have been successful in this endeavour such as the East London Late Starters’ Orchestra, might not be so straight forward this time. At the same time, the history, culture, and demographics of the city of Cambridge make this a particularly interesting challenge.

“Middle class is magical”

Some of you will feel very ‘seen’ by the BBC Mongrels at the 2011 Proms.

…which also reflects one of the barriers to music learning – and not just for children, but for adults too. For all the business news headlines about the supposed wealth of Cambridge, we are a very unequal city. That economic inequality entrenches social inequality, and creates barriers between people and communities. The student newspaper Varsity wrote about the rising demand and need that the Cambridge Foodbank is experiencing. What chance do people have in taking part in the life of the city if they cannot afford to put food on the table?

Increasing access to music – and removing the barriers.

Nearly a decade ago I wrote an article about school sports on my old blog. At the end, I noted that ‘You’re building a community through shared activities‘, and that in order to encourage people to participate, the shared activities need to be: 

  • Available: 
  • Affordable
  • Accessible:
  • Enjoyable:
  • Sociable:

Taking the principles of the above encompasses a host of things – including hosting gatherings at venues that are on public transport routes, and have good cycling links and safe parking.

A community orchestra for learning music – What will this collective be like?

One of the things you cannot do as a community sponsor of a Cambridge Hub team is to micro-manage the process. Define the big picture problem and give them the freedom and flexibility to design a response. Remember the challenge is to come up with proposals in a brochure – it is not about delivering on it. It’ll be up to the rest of the city (in particular, interested persons and organisations) to decide if they want to take their proposals further.

Cambridge is a city full of musicians, and is far more musically diverse than my generation was made aware of growing up in the 1980s/1990s Cambridge. That diversity has only increased as the economy boomed and the population grew – and as Cambridge University started opening its closed doors to the rest of the city. One of the things I’ll be looking for is how the students manage to incorporate that musical diversity.

Meeting the participants – five undergraduates, one postgraduate.

We had the first Zoom workshop earlier, where I was able to brief the participants on the background to the challenge. Several of them mentioned the freedom to innovate and come up with their own solutions as one of the reasons for selecting this challenge. This may have indicated that the alternative challenges available to them may have had more restrictive parameters than this one for example the list of tasks involved might have been more prescriptive – for example ‘You have to survey our membership using method X’.

Their second observation was the historical and contemporary context of the challenge. In terms of the historical context, the case studies I used were The Cambridge Folk Festival and the Junction. Despite having to close due to the pandemic, The Junction’s Supporters Scheme is still open. Both festival and venue are very much part of Cambridge’s post-war history, each founded at a time of huge social change. (The Folk Festival in the 1960s, The Junction in the 1990s).

On the contemporary context, the inequalities in Cambridge and how it related to music in Cambridge was also something that struck a number of the participants. Their project leader mentioned how when students arrive in Cambridge they take it as given the opportunities to experience musical performances from exquisitely talented musicians and vocalists. The example of the lack of public transport to/from West Road Concert Hall was one example of how Cambridge University’s Faculty of Music and the performances from it were out-of-reach in the design. It didn’t need to be like this – Gordon Logie’s plans for the Lion Yard originally incorporated the Faculty of Music, plus a large and a small concert hall in the redevelopment plans of the 1960s.

Above – Gordon Logie’s plan for Lion Yard. From The Cambridge That Never Was, by F.A. Reeve. No. 14 is where the music school was planned for. No.6 is where the current hotel is on Downing Street, and No.7 is where John Lewis is – and where Logie planned for the hotel to be!

Calling on volunteer community experts to be interviewed/consulted by the participating students

I was very fortunate last time around to have a diverse group of volunteers who were able and willing to assist the participants last term as they took on a local history challenge. They were able to introduce that group of undergraduates to a number of town and civic organisations. I’m hoping to do the same with this group. In the grand scheme of things, anyone who has lived in Cambridge for more than a few years and who has interacted with community groups and civic institutions is a potential expert – mindful that the students will not have had many opportunities (especially over the past year) to interact with Cambridge the town.

The time commitment is minimal – one or two conversations over Zoom, and that’s about it. If you are willing and able to assist, please let me know either via Twitter (https://twitter.com/ACarpenDigital) or by email (antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com).

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