Why a music camp?
Children in regional Australia do not enjoy the same musical opportunities as their peers in the cities. Regular, quality ensemble experience, specialist tuition or even just broad musical stimulation are by no means nonexistent outside the big cities, but they are not the norm.
Border Music Camp exists to alleviate this for students in the Border district, the Riverina and north-east Victoria. Our aim is that these students may play in an ensemble that can challenge them, while being equal to their musical standard.
The Camp is not just for school-age students, with many adults also attending. Nor, for that matter, is it only for locals. Students regularly attend from Melbourne, Sydney and regional centres; we have had Campers from as far away as Hobart, Perth, Alice Springs, Darwin, and Singapore.
Most powerfully, like all good music camps, we provide the 'immersion factor'. The ideal way to learn a foreign language is to live in a country where it is spoken. Camp is a musical version of the same thing. It is a community whose focus is music, where the distractions and fragmented rehearsals inevitable in a week-by-week school music program just don't exist. This can be irresistibly exciting. And although most students play purely for recreation, Border has been a powerful inspiration for many alumni now making a living from music, including many current and past staff members.
Border Music Camp was established in 1974 under the auspices of the National Music Camp Association (now Australian Youth Orchestra Ltd.), and the first Camp was held in 1975. It was one of a number of similar 'day' camps which the NMCA established between 1962 and 1977, mainly to cater for students too young to meet the increasingly high standards of the National Music Camp.
Border arose when the late Rev. Derek Evans, a Methodist minister, was posted to Wodonga. As a student, he had attended National Music Camp and had subsequently been principal double bass in the AYO. This attracted the interest of a local high school music teacher named Cate Davis. She contacted Evans to see if he could help with her bass students, but the discussions unexpectedly proved more fruitful: Evans mentioned the NMCA ‘day’ camps, Cate instantly saw the potential of such a thing for Albury, Evans was persuaded to write to the NMCA to have one under its imprimatur in Albury, and the whole thing was off and running.
The Camp began precariously. The Committee resigned en masse before it even began, 61 students attended (the budget had assumed 100), and the Camp was bailed out by a loan from the NMCA. This was thanks to the formidable advocacy of the late Ruth Alexander, after whom the ensembles at Border and National Music Camps are named. With John Bishop, Alexander was the co-founder of NMCA, and she basically ran it and the AYO for their first thirty years. She retained considerable clout in retirement. Her constant support for Border, usually in the face of total indifference from the NMCA hierarchy, was vital. Looking back ten years later, Cate Davis said flatly that 'financially, our camp was a disaster'. She added that, prior to the Camp, 'many people did not expect us to attempt another - few people had any idea of what could happen at a music camp and they were hesitant about paying money for their children to find out.' But, she continued, 'by the end of the camp we were all excited about the potential'.
Derek Evans directed the first two Camps and, after leaving the district in 1977, returned for several more as a double bass tutor. When he left Albury, Cate Davis was appointed Director (having been essentially doing the job for the first two Camps anyway).
The first Camp had two ensembles, the Bishop Orchestra and Alexander Wind Group. It ran from Sunday to Friday, with the final concert on the Friday. There was no elective program; the main ensembles rehearsed in the afternoon as well, and all the chamber performances were ad hoc groups. There were also no day students, with all Campers living on site.
The Camp grew quite quickly. A third ensemble (the Alan Jones Orchestra, named for the Scots School principal) was added in 1976, and the Camp was extended until the Satuday night. By 1978, the Camp had 155 students, and the elective program was established. The beginner wind ensemble (then called Davis) was added in 1981, the massed choir in 1982, and Newman in 1983. The youngest ensemble is Hardie, established in 1986.
Evening concerts have been a fixture from the beginning, but the format of public concerts took a while to settle. For instance 1984 saw the now familiar Friday night elective concert (finishing with the Big Band) and Saturday night final concert, but there had also been a public concert on Thursday night, given by the staff. By 1980, the final concert had become so large that it was held at the Civic Theatre (now the Albury Performing Arts Centre) in Dean Street, with all the other concerts being held at the old assembly hall at the Scots School. The elective concert moved to the Civic Centre at the tenth Camp, in 1984. When the magnificent Alistair Todd Chapel Hall opened at the Scots School in 1990, all concerts moved back onsite.
The Scots School, Albury has always been the home of Border Music Camp. This is a superb facility, and as it becomes more so, with an extensive ongoing program of upgrading the buildings and grounds, we're the delighted beneficiaries. In late 2003, our partnership was cemented when The Scots School became our Principal Sponsor.
By the early 1980s the Camp was steadily around 200 students, but the 1990s recession saw numbers drop to the point where only four ensembles were run in the 1993 and 1994 Camps. In 1995, however, numbers were again healthy enough to run all six ensembles, and this has remained the case ever since; in 2003 we had the biggest Camp ever, with 281 students.
The ensemble names
Cate Davis retired at the twentieth Camp, in 1994. She had directed eighteen Camps; merely stating this record makes plain the immense debt Border Music Camp owes her. Cate's sheer hard work over that vast span of time was arguably what kept the Camp functioning. Moreover, Cate was immensely curious and open-minded about all aspects of music and pedagogy. If she discovered something she thought would improve the students' experience then she would give it a go. Actually, 'discovered' is perhaps not quite the right word, as it implies an entirely uncharacteristic passivity. She was not content to wait for new ideas to cross her path but would go out and actively hunt them down. She worked obsessively for the enrichment of each individual student. As much as the Camp's continued existence, its characteristic musical vitality is her legacy.
Since 1974, the senior orchestra had been called Bishop (as per National Music Camp usage) but in 1997 we decided it would be more appropriately named Davis. This was not only in honour of Cate. Her late husband Ian was treasurer from the beginning until 2001, and he can be thanked for the Camp's financial security. And Cate was succeeded as Director by her and Ian's younger son Hugh, a former Camper, who directed the 1995 and 1996 Camps.
Over time, the other ensembles were similarly named (or renamed) for long-standing members of the Camp family. David and Colleen Hardie joined the Committee in 1984, retiring in 2004 and 2006 respectively. David was Deputy Director from 1987-92, and Colleen was Secretary or student administrator (or both simultaneously) from 1984-2006. Ross and Ruth Newman joined the Committee after the first Camp and swiftly became indispensable. They were last on the Committee in 1983, but remained involved with the Camp for a further five years. Sue and Tony Pringle joined the Committee in 1990 and 1992 respectively, and remain there to this day, Sue having been publicity officer since 1991. Like most Committee families, the Davises, Newmans and Hardies had children at Camp, and the Pringles still do, their son Alex having attended Camp in one manifestation or another since 1987. Finally, the late Barbara Cran first tutored at the 1981 Camp and (except when she took a break in 1986) conducted the beginner string ensemble from 1983 to 2008.
Some Camp traditions
After Hugh Davis retired, his deputy Alastair McKean (a former Camper, and also Hugh's former viola student) was appointed Director, taking over for the 1997 Camp. This is the most egregious example of one of the stronger Camp traditions: from the earliest years, students who have gone on to musical careers have come back to Camp to join the staff. In 1988, for instance, Cate Davis wrote on clarinet tutor Craig Hill, a former student who 'was first called on to tutor when a tutor did not arrive at camp, and did such a good job at almost no notice that he has been asked to tutor ever since. It is marvellous for campers to see someone who has risen from the ranks as it were to this level of proficiency'. Craig is today a member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Most students, of course, play purely for recreation (many continue to play largely because they love coming to Camp). But almost all students come to Camp seriously seeking a challenge and seeking to push themselves. Over time, overall standards are always rising. For the tenth Camp, in 1984, the Camp commissioned the distinguished composer Brenton Broadstock to write a work for Alexander. Scylla proved to be so challenging that in the end it had to be performed by a selected group of the top Alexander students, with a lot of staff, rather than by Alexander proper. In 2009, however, Scylla was discovered in the Camp library, and Alexander performed it - and this time handled the piece without any especial difficulty at all.
This leads on to another aspect of Border Music Camp, which is its composer-in-residence program. From almost the beginning of the Camp, there had always been a tutor or conductor who happened also to be a composer, including Steven Leek, Rob Smith (USA) and Paul Stanhope. In 1998 we decided to formalise the arrangement, and our first 'official' composer-in-residence was Matthew Hindson. His successors have included Katy Abbott, Andrew Aronowicz, Damian Barbeler, Robert Cossom, Stuart Greenbaum, Graham Howard and Benjamin McDonald. In 2005, Border Music Camp was awarded the Australian Music Centre / APRA Award for outstanding contribution to Australian music in a regional area, in recognition of Paul Witney's work at the 2004 Camp.
Other features of Camp worth mentioning are the beginner program. Cran and Pringle were unique when the Camp was founded and they remain relatively rare among similar camps. There are also few camps which welcome both schoolchildren and adults. It is not unusual to see a twelve-year-old in Cran sharing a music stand with someone their grandparents' age. Or, occasionally, with one of their actual grandparents.
The Virtual Camp
In early 2020, we were happily planning our 46th Camp. And then, within a fortnight, we went from wondering if this new coronavirus thing might affect the Camp, to realising that we would almost certainly have to cancel. (During the week the Camp would have been held, the Victorian border was closed, which would have made the Camp more complicated than usual.) Even as those very dramatic days of mid-March 2020 unfolded, though, it was obvious to us that we would need to do something to keep alive the connection with the Camp community. Hence the Virtual Border Music Camp, which went online over what would have been Camp week, and gave everybody a much-longed-for taste of a real Camp.
Recalled to life
Sometimes we don't realise quite how important is something lost, until it is restored to us. And one of the most special Border Music Camps in our history was the 2022 Camp, the first in person for more than two years. Everybody who'd been to Camp before – kids, staff, parents, Committee – knew the return to Camp would be special; but when, after waiting so long, we finally turned off the highway, and arrived at the gates of this very familiar place, and sat down in familiar rooms to make music with friends – that is when we realised what we had missed.
Throughout this website you'll find quotations, which have been taken from surveys of Camp students from 1998 to 2011. Campers invariably use this survey to insist that 'The Camp should be longer', or 'Camp should be held twice a year', or similar. Some things haven't changed. Derek Evans' report from the first Camp says that 'On the final day staff began thinking ahead to 1976. Other students taxed the patience of the Secretary by asking for another Camp later in August!'
Border Music Camp, then, is a very special experience. The Camp engenders great loyalty from students and staff alike, and many come back for years at a time. This is partly because the Camp is a lot of fun, and the social side is pretty unforgettable. But everybody insists on the highest possible artistic standards: the camaraderie is a glorious byproduct of what evolves over the week, a community whose goal is making music at the highest possible level.
Again, it was ever thus. One final quote from the archives. Cate Davis, writing in 1986: 'At Border Music Camp we provide the skilled conductors and tutors, the physical space, equipment and sustenance and the musical scores but ultimately it is the enthusiasm of the students that makes the real music come alive'.