This is why I play music
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‘I think that the main reason why so many students loved camp so much was because in camp, they were no longer an oddity. They were with a group of like minded people.’

Cate Davis, 1935-2023

Border Music Camp was terribly saddened to learn of the passing of Cate Davis, our Founder Member, on Sunday, after a long illness. She was predeceased by her son Tony, and by her wonderful husband Ian, who was Camp Treasurer for 26 years; her younger son Hugh succeeded her as Director of the Camp. We want to extend our deepest sympathy to Hugh and his family, and to Tony’s family.

There will come a time to talk in greater detail about how Cate built Border Music Camp from nothing, and about how it is still very much her creation. I don’t mean the nuts and bolts of timetables and ensembles, but the ethos – of excellence, of encouragement, of kindness, of fun. These are things that Cate instinctively believed in, and they are things that she infused into her Camp.

For the moment, though, we want to reflect on someone who was energetic, tenacious, and tough. In those early years, she had to be. But Cate’s formidable exterior was really a necessary mask for a profoundly kind, warm-hearted, empathetic person, and for someone who even at her most fierce was always ready to laugh. Often, I may say, at herself.

Empathy is the key here. Cate could see things in people that they couldn’t see in themselves. She was one of those born teachers who took huge pleasure in the exploits of her students. It’s no surprise that she knew each individual at Camp, and would remember their progress from beginner to intermediate to the senior ensembles. Spending time on the troubles of one child among a couple of hundred was not, for her, a distraction from more important things; it was the important thing.

Her empathy was allied, I think, to her insatiable curiosity. She was incredibly open-minded about all aspects of music and pedagogy and was always searching for things that might improve the kids’ experience at Camp. (In a broader sense, though, we are talking about somebody who entertained herself in retirement by researching and writing historical books. One year she wagged Camp because she was cruising – not in Tahiti but in the Arctic, by way of the North Atlantic.)

Years later Cate wrote ‘I think that the main reason why so many students loved camp so much was because in camp, they were no longer an oddity. They were with a group of like minded people’. That empathy, again. That was what drove her: the desire to make people’s lives better. And she did. There are many, many people who would not be where they are today without Cate. She changed our lives.

After she retired as Director at the 20th Camp, in 1994, Cate played a few different instruments at Camp until tinnitus made it impossible, which was an exceptionally cruel blow. She didn’t come for a few years after that. That was hard. But eventually she started to come back again. She worked in the Camp library for a few years; it’s a tribute to her lack of self-importance and her love of the Camp that she was perfectly content to industriously count music. Her fellow librarian Rob Diffey christened her ‘Cate-o’, which would have been an unthinkable irreverence back in the day. Cate was very amused.

In later years Cate would come to visit for a few days, and just sit in on rehearsals and watch what she had built. She last came to Camp in 2019. She sat happily in the hall for hours, listening to rehearsals (and knitting), and from time to time she’d amble down to the stage to tell the conductor and the ensemble how impressed she was with them, and why. Everybody knew who she was, that sweet old silver-haired lady with the fingerless gloves, in a blue Border Music Camp windcheater, and everybody loved her.

The first music Cate heard at Camp was, in fact, the first music anybody heard at Camp: it was an A (fairly shaky, by her account) from the senior orchestra. 44 years later, that same orchestra, by now named in honour of her, and Ian, and Hugh, played the last music she heard at Camp, the golden, glowing, transcendent final movement of Ravel’s Mother Goose. She didn’t know, of course, that it was the last time she would be there. I don’t know if she reflected on that journey, that transformation of what she had worked so desperately hard for so long to keep alive, toward that ecstatic C major chord. But I hope she did, and I hope she was pleased about what that chord meant, and how it rang in a great life well lived.

– 17 November 2023

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