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Interview: Caroline Stephenson, musician, educator, environmentalist

07 January 2022

‘Don’t underestimate four- and five-year-olds. They’ve told me to shape up a good few times’

I started playing music when I was about eight. My mother had a mad moment and bought a grand piano at a local auction room. When I was obviously fascinated and kept trying to play, she arranged lessons. When I was at secondary school, she was able to find some funding to help buy me an oboe. If I am honest, playing the piano was an escape from some harsh and difficult things in my childhood.

for children’s music has been cut so much,
I can only think that administrators and head teachers of a younger generation haven’t grown up with music and movement. They also just do not comprehend the science. Research shows how the two things together build brain pathways.

It’s especially good for boys who find it hard to sit still and look at a page or a screen.
Did you see the fund-raiser “Drum-a-thon” for Children in Need? They were sharing very clear research about all the benefits of rhythm for people’s development.

I fell into academia by accident,
when I met a group of Cambridge undergrads at a summer music festival. Cambridge wasn’t the rewarding experience I hoped for — not enough creativity for me — nor, actually, enough intellectual freedom to challenge long-held concepts.

The best part was when I started arranging and conducting concerts of other student players.
By the time I went to take my Master’s in Conducting and Jazz Studies in the US, I felt stronger, as if I had found my right track. The course structure there enabled me to choose all kinds of stimulating, wonderful modules.

I’m proud of my ex-students, who now make major contributions as professional players and singers,
and a couple of immense performances with East Cornwall Bach Choir of the two Bach Passions, and an American composer’s work: A Litany for Courage and the Seasons by David Maslanka. But, like most parents, I’m proudest of my fantastic son, Tom Jackson Greaves. He’s a ground-breaking dancer, choreographer, and director, making a big difference in that world of theatre.

I was playing a harmonium in our local church as a teenager.
It didn’t succeed in winning me round to be a conventional Christian, but it established some sense of spirituality. It wasn’t until I came home to Cornwall at the end of my teaching for Hampshire Music Service as a peripatetic in 2017 that I was booked to be organist of two churches, a pretty demanding schedule. I really like leading an amateur group of disparate souls and bringing them into a pleasing musical order.

Music’s no longer a source of much income, for sure,
but it’s still rewarding at times.

It became clear, especially through the lockdowns, that perhaps music was not the only thing I can offer to a community.
I had some funding with which to engage people and make a tapestry of heroes of Covid times. The work’s on my second website, betterways2learn.co.uk, and with it are five films about the making process. Honestly, I do not know what came over me: I never had any skill or inspiration to sew, but I loved leading people to achieve this.

Most recently, I’ve worked on outdoor, green-energy, and awareness campaigns,
because I converted two granite barns and some sheds. It came naturally to me to seek sustainable materials and energy sources. Then, I also began to discover the green hero of 200 years ago, who created waterways and ran numerous waterwheels for power at the copper and tin mines. J. T. Austen Treffry was almost as famous as Brunel in those times. In fact, he employed Brunel to help design the Cornwall railway network. I think we can learn a great deal from Treffry.

We’re just now coming together, trying out names like “Heritage and Hydro”, “Restore”. . .
I’m not on my own with the dream to install turbines here and generate power again. It will take maybe 30 years, but, by 2050, perhaps we can reclaim all of the Treffry tramway tracks as walking and cycling trails.

Along the side will run restored historic leats, and at some points there will be wheels or turbines.
Leats are man-made waterways, smaller than a canal, that serve a different purpose. They’re built high on the hillside, building up gravitational power, which then can flow down to generate power. During the Industrial Revolution, steam pumps took over, and we’ve lost so much of this earlier technology. We’re restoring leats that are 200 years old; but this technology goes back 900 years in the UK. There were 6000 of them in Cornwall alone. We want to restore some of the other early infrastructures round here, like mineshafts to store energy or heat houses, because these resources shouldn’t be wasted.

The trickiest thing is to have so many official and statutory bodies wanting to control the land,
which is privately owned. Unfortunately, officials from these, particularly councils, have no background, no understanding, and often move on to other jobs before we can make progress. Doesn’t this sound similar to the music in education? I’m bemoaning the same lack of depth and experience in staff teams.

Working with the very young, by contrast, is very satisfying.
Four- and five-year-olds are so great. And don’t underestimate them. They’ve told me to shape up a good few times, with such sophisticated understanding of the climate emergency. These very young people, full of ideas and enthusiasm to work out solutions for the planet, are what give me hope for the future.

Home life now is lively, demanding.
Every day starts with a bit of jog or a run before breakfast. Lots of outdoor time, and, by preference, I’m not too much on the computer, though it does fill my Thursday and half of Friday, when I write and publish the Green Fridays blog.

My first experience of God was in those services when I played harmonium in my teens.
Once I reached Cambridge, I had a spell of Buddhism. It left me with a sense of how to live a good life, and that a person’s spirit does carry on when they depart this world.

That is why I so love the Maslanka piece I mentioned above,
with its beautiful words by Richard Beale. They’ve had a profound effect on me. The text is a litany of things for which to be thankful for in a year’s passing of time. The poetry reflects the cycle of life as compared to the cycle of the four seasons. The prayer is interrupted by thoughts of philosophical doubts interjected by the tenor soloist on the most poignant moment of the entire composition: “I’m not sure that by myself I would pray for all these things. But if I did not pray, not even knowing what I pray to, I would lose my reason.”

I’m angry when I’m seeing “college boys” in charge and making a mess,
wasting money as they seek to run functions in our communities. We need people with practical skills, more vocational courses. I am pretty frustrated with politicians, too.

I rarely listen to the news now,
because it’s difficult to be hopeful when you do. But I’m hoping that what I’m doing is a good-news story. The fresh air and the sea views at Meadow Barns make me happy.

I pray most for friends or groups of people facing hardships to be helped.

If I could choose to be locked in a church with any companion,
without doubt I’d choose J. T. Austen Treffry and his mother. I don’t think he was a particularly nice person, but he was such an important figure in this area of Cornwall, and his mother was an exceptional woman, too.

Caroline Stephenson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

betterways2learn.co.uk; themeadowbarns.co.uk

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