Liz Woods (Natural Sciences (Biological) 1979) did not have a favourable initial impression of Fitzwilliam, but her experience transformed her view.
What was your first experience of Fitzwilliam?
My first experience of Fitzwilliam was when I arrived for interview. It was quite a shock to come down on the train from Edinburgh and arrive in Cambridge. My jaw dropped open when I was driven through Cambridge and then we proceeded up the hill and there was Fitzwilliam on the left. I hadn’t seen an image of the College, so I didn’t know what to expect - it looked a bit like a Travelodge! My initial feeling was ‘ooh, we’ve just driven past all these beautiful old colleges and this is different’. But I was not disappointed in the time I had there, at all. I have been to the College fairly recently and I’m so impressed by what it looks like now. I’m thrilled.
Why did you apply for Fitzwilliam and Natural Sciences?
I went to St Georges, which is an independent school in Edinburgh, and the whole concept of applying to Oxford and Cambridge was not that familiar. I had a mixture of Highers and A-Levels when I applied to Fitzwilliam and I remember the admissions secretary saying to me that I’d caused her to have to reorganise the filing system! I hadn’t really had any advice on how to choose a college. I was going to apply for the first instrumental awards and that limited me, because only five colleges offered them. And, as I was going to do Natural Sciences, somebody suggested I should just count up the number of academic staff in Natural Sciences in the different colleges. I duly did, and that’s how I came to choose Fitzwilliam. I felt quite intimidated by the whole process, but I was absolutely thrilled to be offered that place.
What was your experience of the College and College life?
I was 18, no gap year - I hadn’t even heard of a gap year! People arrived at Fitzwilliam having had a gap year and having had a whole host of enlarging experiences that I hadn’t. I found that quite daunting and disarming to begin with, until the end of my first year and we’d all done the exams. Then I felt on the up.
For the girls, we were the first intake, and I was allocated a room in Staircase M. It felt to us that there was absolutely no concession made for the fact they were admitting women. The showers didn’t have locks, they just had curtains. They did put the girls on one floor – it was a mixed staircase – but it was pretty basic. My room was one of the smallest rooms and it faced the Huntingdon Road. I would have to shunt the bed backwards and forwards - the six inches it could move - to get into the cupboard and to my milk, which I kept on the outside windowsill. Having such a tiny room was a problem for me in terms of practising, so I would try to go to the music room and practise up there. I took part in the Fitzwilliam Music Society concerts. We’d go up to that little room at the top of the stairs beside the dining hall and play. I have very fond memories of doing concerts there.
What did you do after leaving Fitzwilliam?
For the Christmas holidays in third year I remember taking the train from Cambridge on around 4 December and arriving in Glasgow on 5 December and starting work with Scottish Ballet that day, doing the whole of their winter season and taking the train back down to Cambridge to start the next term. I knew music was a risky career path to choose, very uncertain, but I thought ‘if I don’t do music at this point in my life, I won’t do it’. I went to the Guildhall as a postgraduate and I did their orchestral studies course for a year. I was already working professionally around that time, and was also in things like the European Community Youth Orchestra, the future of which I’m very concerned about in these Brexit times. My first contract job was principal oboe in the Scottish Opera, for four years. Then I returned to London and I freelanced with all the orchestras - the BBC, the RPO (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), the lot. Then, for 10 years, I was the principal cor anglais player in the Royal Opera House Orchestra. My husband, a surgeon, took a job in Swindon as a consultant. I wasn’t able to continue to look after our four children with his work rota, and commute up to London for work, so I switched the focus of my career to teaching. I have always taught; when I was at Cambridge I had a student learning the oboe with me. Now, as well as teaching at Wells Cathedral Music School, I coach ensembles. I coach the National Children’s Orchestra, I adjudicate, and support young musicians awards and projects as much as possible.
Do your students ask about Cambridge and Fitzwilliam?
I talk to them about it a lot, particularly the fact that I didn’t do music at university. It is possible to stay on a broader base for longer, if they’re academically able to do that. At present two of my students are at Cambridge. The wealth of performing opportunities you get at Cambridge is really hard to get anywhere else: totally unique, exceptional and the best place you could go at that point.