Opinion

Don't silence the music. Turn it up

Every musician needs a space to practise. We mustn't let councils remove that right

Fiona Fey playing a woodwind instrument

Fiona Fey performing at the Green Note. Image: Andy Sheard

One of the most uplifting stories to emerge from the devastation in Ukraine features refugee sisters Khrystyna and Sasha Mykhailichenko. When they and their mother were forced to flee their home near Kyiv last spring they were taken in by Sheilagh Matheson and Chris Roberts. Sheilagh and Chris live in Corbridge in Northumbria and opened their door through the Homes For Ukraine scheme.

They had an old upright piano in the house, not up to much and better suited to “a smoke-filled room with men drinking pints and singing Roll Out the Barrel”, Chris told The Observer. They knew that Khrystyna and Sasha were musical. But what happened next reads like a great film script.

When Khrystyna started playing, things happened. As she practised people gathered quietly to listen outside the window. She was beyond the old piano (Chris managed to get an upright Steinway for her to play) and it became clear she was bound for something more.

She has been accepted, on a full bursary for four years, into the Royal College of Music in London. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, the college principal said: “She came and played Chopin’s Ballade No 1 to me recently and revealed what a serious artist she is, almost as if the burdens of a hard life were being channelled through her playing.” She is 17.

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Her sister is no slouch either. Sasha, a violinist, has been accepted into Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey. She is 12. Both have said that such schools were only to be dreamed of for them in the past. Think where they could be carried in the future.

Aside from the fact that this shows that refugees are not people to be caged and feared – that such a thought must be stated is incredible and says too much of the hardening and acceptance of angry, received notions of ‘the other’ that we have allowed to settle – this also says so much of the redemptive glory of music. Imagine being one of those strangers passing by the end terrace house in Corbridge and hearing piano music float towards you that is so full of hurt and beauty that you just have to stop and listen. And maybe return. 

Last week a musician called Fiona Fey started a petition titled Protect the Right to Play Musical Instruments. It was launched after she said she received a noise abatement notice from Lewisham Council for practising. The notice, she says, forbids her from playing musical instruments at any time in her home. If she breaks it, the council could force entry, confiscate the instruments and fine her £2,000. Playing music is her job. The Change.org petition is nearing its 25,00 target as the time of writing. The petition got the notice of Norman Lebrecht and he featured it on his Slipped Disc blogsite – the imprimatur of online classical music writing.

It’s a sad slide if any council decides to use the measures introduced to stamp out anti-social noise to now crush low level music practice. It suggests we’re moving quickly to a closed, internalised ear-bud, self-concerned society. That is nothing to celebrate. 

Much was made of the music of the coronation. And it was something else. There were many moments of stunning exaltation. The Byzantine Chant Ensemble, who performed as Penny Mordaunt finally got to hand over her massive sword, were spectacular. And who doesn’t like a bit of Zadok The Priest (bears repeated listening, feels a bit Champions League theme).

All of the choirs and all of the musicians at one time had to practise. And sometimes the windows may have been open. What if each time they struck up, a bloke with a clipboard nosed in handing over his paper insisting big fines would come if they carried on? 

Those who can transport us through their gift for music should be lauded and given all the space they need. We must not allow for legislated silence. Our instinct must be to tell them to turn it up. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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