Musician praises ‘determination’ of Ukrainian teenagers he taught in Lviv

Ashley Valentine spent five days teaching the piano to teenagers.

Danielle Desouza
Sunday 27 August 2023 07:00 BST
Ashley Valentine has been teaching students at a summer school in Lviv (Make It Possible Ukraine/PA)
Ashley Valentine has been teaching students at a summer school in Lviv (Make It Possible Ukraine/PA)

A British musician who travelled to Lviv to teach displaced Ukrainian teenagers at a summer school has praised their “determination” to learn despite “living and breathing” the ongoing war.

Ashley Valentine spent five days teaching piano lessons to between 15 and 20 displaced teenagers aged 13 to 18 in the western Ukrainian city from August 14, through working with not-for-profit Make It Possible Ukraine.

“[The not-for-profit] rented a little music studio just on the outskirts of the city so I could give piano lessons,” the 40-year-old who lives in East Dulwich, south-east London, told the PA news agency.

“In the very first lesson, a load of teenagers turned up and and some of them had never ever played the piano or had never even touched a key, so I taught them simple pieces and they started laughing and smiling a bit.

“A couple of others who came played pieces from (Austrian composer) Franz Schubert – really advanced level stuff and they hadn’t played in two years, and I was helping by giving advice.”

More than five kilograms worth of music books made up the majority of Mr Valentine’s luggage for the trip, which he bought from donations made to a Crowdfunding page he set up.

He said he was “completely and utterly surprised” at smashing his £200 target, which stands at over £1,200, with most of the money being given to the not-for-profit to facilitate its projects.

“It started off with a few friends giving money and sharing my Crowdfunding link with people,” he said.

“I have a friend in America who shared it with some work colleagues, so there were some random donations from people in St Louis (in Missouri) as well.

“It was humbling to see how passionate people were also about this.”

Mr Valentine said the teenagers were “excited” to receive the books, which helped to bring to life their musical interests.

“I listened to them to see what level they were at and found out what they were interested in playing,” he said.

“One said he liked Hans Zimmer so I let him play from one of the books which had movie songs in it, like the theme from the movie Gladiator, and he loved it.

“One girl sang me a folk song, so I brought a book with me that had British, Irish and Scottish folk songs, and introduced her to some of those and she really liked that.”

The week ended with a concert Mr Valentine played as part of at the Lviv Organ Hall, which was attended by all his students and charity volunteers, who gave him a “standing ovation”, as well as a Ukrainian flag which they all signed for him.

“It was sold out and it went pretty well, but it was also so hot – I wore a suit and was absolutely drenched by the end of it”, he joked.

Mr Valentine reminisced fondly about a girl called Vitalina who attended with her grandmother Rudenko, who was previously a piano teacher in Kharkiv and despite the pair not being able to speak much English, the group connected through their love of music.

“Vitalina was playing music from (Polish composer and pianist) Frederic Chopin really beautifully, but I just gave her some tips through an interpreter that was there, but when she went I had to try my best to give advice,” he said.

“Her grandmother initially sat with a stern face but then started warming to me a bit, and then they kept coming back day after day and she played some really beautiful pieces for me.

“They both came to the concert and the girl and her grandmother gave me a little music box, and they’d gone to the trouble of getting someone to translate a little note to me, which was really nice.”

A key inspiration behind the trip was sparked from Mr Valentine teaching the piano to Ukrainian refugees at different schools in the UK who fled their homes when Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

“They’re absolutely model pupils and they practice so, so hard, and one really wanted to learn the Ukrainian national anthem and within a few weeks, he was able to do it,” he said.

“I went to Ukraine in 2015 and teaching the children got me thinking that there are so many others who, like them, have had their music studies interrupted with the war.

“I wanted to teach piano as a sort of distraction for them from the war – they’re living and breathing it every day – and they were very grateful and also so determined.”

While in Lviv, Mr Valentine also witnessed and took part in the work charity Frontline Kitchen do, in terms of making meals for soldiers on the front line in the Ukrainian military.

“Chopping the vegetables, especially the beets, were messy,” he said.

“Talking to and learning about the other volunteers and their reasons for coming was the fun bit.”

He also got to experience what it was like living in a country blighted by war as he had to download an app called Air Alert, which monitored when air raids occurred.

“One day I was there, a building was destroyed and I also heard two big bangs, but the strength and kindness of Ukrainians was always present.

“When you went out for food, they’d always offer more or dessert at the end of meals – they’ve got hearts of gold.”

More information about Make it Possible Ukraine and how to make a donation can be found here:

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