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In tune with Ukraine

15 December 2023

Ashley Valentine, a church organist, is using music to connect with children displaced by war. He talks to Sarah Meyrick

Make it possible Ukraine 

The presentation of the Ukrainian flag at the Lviv Organ Hall, after the concert

The presentation of the Ukrainian flag at the Lviv Organ Hall, after the concert

ASHLEY VALENTINE’s interest in Ukraine was sparked when, as an eight-year-old, he watched the BBC travel documentary Pole to Pole.

“When I was a kid, I used to watch anything with Michael Palin in it. I remember him going to Ukraine when it was still in the USSR. He visited Chernobyl, and was interviewing people. And then, in 1991, the USSR fell; so it was an interesting time. For some reason, even as a kid, I just thought it was really interesting.”

It was many years before Mr Valentine went to see Ukraine for himself. Having been a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral, by then he was making his living as a professional musician: he is the organist at St Giles’s, Camberwell, in south London, he teaches privately in a couple of schools, and conducts several choirs. He plays in a jazz band, arranges and performs musical accompaniments to silent films, and is the founder of the fund-raising “alternative Christmas carol service”, Organoke.

His first visit to Ukraine was in 2015, just after the annexing of Crimea by Russia. Once more, the political situation was “a bit interesting”, he says. “My friends all thought I was absolutely crazy. I remember there was hardly anybody on the flight, because of Crimea. But I went, and I travelled the country by train. I went to Kyiv, and then went down to Odesa, and then went to Lviv.

“I found the people absolutely amazing: they were fantastic. There were not many people who could speak English, but, even then, people were determined to let the rest of the world know what was going on.”

Naturally, he followed the news of the Russian invasion last year very closely. The situation became more personal when he started teaching the piano to a Ukrainian refugee. “In one of my schools, there’s a boy called Nick, who had had a couple of piano lessons in Ukraine, but then he moved over here with his family, and they were living in the house of a vicar somewhere near by. He kindly set Nick up with a keyboard. Music seems to be something that he could put his passion into.”

When Nick arrived at his first lesson with Mr Valentine, it was clear that he spoke only very broken English. It turned out that he knew Lviv; so the pair discussed the Austro-Hungarian architecture that had intrigued Mr Valentine on his visit. “He said: ‘I really, really want to play the Ukrainian national anthem, if I could.’ I did a little arrangement, thinking it would take him a few weeks to learn it, and of course, he came back the next week playing it perfectly.”

Mr Valentine’s 2015 visit had taught him something about the musical tradition in the country, and the importance of singing traditional songs in Ukrainian which the Russians could not necessarily understand. “That got me thinking. So, when little Artem came to us as well, I got his class singing a Ukrainian folk song.”

THE experience of meeting these refugees in London made Mr Valentine wonder whether there was anything that he could do to help people in the country. Online, he discovered Make It Possible Ukraine: a charity run by the American-Ukrainian Kateryna Khalandach, who runs a summer camp for children in Lviv, in western Ukraine — a city that has become home to an extra one million people since the invasion.

“There are so many kids who have been displaced, who have moved all over the country,” he says. “I got in touch with Kateryna, and she was amazing. I told her I was a piano teacher, and so, amongst all the kids she works with, she fixed up a good week of piano lessons and singing and things like that. They hired out a little studio in Lviv, with a piano, and found a couple of kids who spoke absolutely brilliant English to help me.”

He arrived in soaring temperatures in mid-August, taking a flight to Krakow, and then a train across the Polish border. In contrast with his 2015 visit, he found the station heaving with soldiers moving supplies. Once in Lviv, he had no idea what to expect. In the first lesson, a group of teenagers came along, some of whom had never played the piano before. Mr Valentine taught them some simple pieces. A couple of others turned up who could play complicated pieces of Schubert.

“It was all sort of weird and wonderful,” he said. “There was one girl who came along with her grandma. She couldn’t speak any English, but we basically communicated through music.

“She was just amazing. She hadn’t played the piano in a year, but she sat down and started playing a Chopin Ballade pretty much straightaway, and there were a few tears. There was a lot going on there.

“But then she recovered, and started playing the whole thing. I remember playing that piece to go to university, but she was only 13: an amazing talent.”

It turned out that the girl’s grandmother was an accomplished piano teacher. “At the beginning, she sat at the back, sort of scowling, but we got along really, really well. We’d talk about the phrasing, and she’d nod her approval. I had lots of music on my iPad, and I showed her that.”

Mr Valentine had raised funds for sheet music before he went to Ukraine. How did he decide what to take? “I just got as much as I possibly could to share with the kids,” he says. The children were staying in a big dormitory that had been built in the days of the USSR for scientists and university students; it had been due for demolition before Covid, and then the invasion intervened. “Loads of families were staying in there; so they shared the books [of music] in the end.”

BEFORE setting out, he had exchanged messages with a Lithuanian organist and music editor, married to a Ukrainian, someone he knew only online. It emerged that the couple had recently visited Lviv, and he had played at the city’s Organ Hall. On hearing about Mr Valentine’s forthcoming trip, his friend arranged for him to play there, too.

“It’s a big church that they’ve converted in an amazing concert hall. They do have orchestras there, but it’s got this rather exciting 1933 radio organ, which is really eccentric, but a fun beast to play. It’s different. They tagged me on to their recital programme, and so I ended up doing a concert.”

Posters appeared around the town, bearing the Union flag, and the hall was filled. The audience gave him a standing ovation, and presented Mr Valentine with a Ukrainian flag. All the children who had been part of the project came along to the concert, free of charge. “The kids really liked it as well,” he said.

The concert also helped to establish a permanent relationship between the charity and the venue. Mr Valentine recently received a photo of a signed memorandum of understanding. “That is really, really nice, because they didn’t really know about each other beforehand.” The venue has donated a spare piano to the charity for the children’s use.

Ashley Valentine at the organ of St Giles’s, Camberwell, south London

How aware was he of the war during his stay? Before he arrived, it had been quiet for weeks, he says, but things livened up that very night. Mr Valentine had downloaded the recommended air-raid app, and was aware of everyone’s phones bleeping. “At four o’clock in the morning, I woke up, and the air-raid sirens were going off, too. I was debating whether to get up when I heard some big bangs; so you go downstairs in your dressing gown to the basement. That brought it home a bit.

“Thankfully, there was no one hurt that first night. I think an apartment building was targeted and started burning, and there was a big crater in the kids’ playground.” After the first night, it was quiet for the rest of his stay.

So, what were the highlights? “Working with the kids was really, really fun,” he says. He was touched by the hospitality — “They really went out of their way to make me feel welcome” — and was also struck by the number of people now speaking English, compared with his earlier visit. “They want the same freedoms we have, and they really believe it.”

While he was in Lviv, he took part in the work of another charity, Frontline Kitchen, producing meals to take to soldiers on the front line. He also enjoyed meeting other volunteers and hearing their stories.

Above all, he saw music working its magic, providing a welcome distraction. “Music is so emotive, and there were times when, you could tell, people were very moved. There was one kid who’d never, ever played the piano before. And he came along, and really quietly and patiently, just came up and started playing the piano. He played a couple of notes and then he looked at me, and I could see his tears. You could tell it was an emotional thing for him to do.”

The elderly piano-teaching grandmother came to the final concert, and presented him with a letter in English telling him about her life. “You could hear her pain, even through that.” All that said, there was a great deal of joy: thanks to the charity, the children had outings to a waterpark, to a crazy-golf course, and all sorts of games and activities, as well as the piano lessons.

Will Mr Valentine be returning? “I’d really like to,” he says. “I will try, but I’m busy all the time. I will go back, perhaps in the early summer.” He also hopes to raise money for Ukraine through his choirs in London.

“I’ll do some little bits of fund-raising, just to keep things going, and also just tell people about what the charity does, because people are definitely going to be interested.”

He believes that many people could offer their skills to Ukraine. “There was a guy over there who had just finished university, and he had been working in a coffee shop. So the charity reached out to a local coffee shop in Lviv, and said, ‘Can we we take it over for a bit, so that he can train trainee baristas?’

“They were doing cooking courses, and wanting people to have conversations with the kids so that they could learn English. It’s as simple as that.”


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