The UK vote to leave the European Union has shocked the classical music world, particularly the young European musicians who have opted to study, live or work in the UK courtesy of EU rules and funding. I’ve taught them and played with them on various courses and have always regarded their presence in the UK as highly beneficial. Bringing other cultural and musical traditions with them, they have enriched the musical life of this country and, in many cases, driven up instrumental standards. Their work ethic, cosmopolitan outlook and ambition have been educative for us. Many orchestras and many of the best young chamber groups, such as string quartets, are now heavily dependent on the skills of European players. I personally have never heard any British musician complain that ‘EU migrants’ are taking jobs away from them.
Until now, young musicians have taken it for granted that they can study and work in other EU countries. The opening up of EU travel and funding, which seemed such a luxury for us in the UK when it started in the 1970s, has come to seem to them like their birthright. There is a constant and enthusiastic flow of students to the UK’s principal music colleges and universities, and a lesser, but still significant flow of UK music students going to study in places like Berlin, Leipzig, Paris and Vienna. EU rules and EU funding have made these educational exchanges affordable and popular. Now they may suddenly come to an end. (I’m aware that on the larger scale, UK universities are aghast about the effect of Brexit on their EU-funded research programmes, but for now I’m just thinking about musicians.)
Orchestras and artist managements have issued statements expressing concern about the impact of Brexit on British artists hoping to perform in the rest of Europe. The falling £, the rising cost and bureaucratic complexity of going abroad, the likely changes to visas and reciprocal tax arrangements with EU countries – all these will make life harder and more costly for UK musicians, who depend to a greater or lesser extent on the steady appetite for classical music of European audiences. European musicians can go home and travel freely and easily between other European countries, but British musicians hoping to play abroad may be faced with all sorts of hurdles. Of course they will still go, but it won’t feel the same.
On Twitter, people have been quick to remind me that most people never study or work abroad, and that I am bleating about a tiny minority. That may be true, but my whole professional life is contained in that minority.
When I first started travelling to other European countries – first as a student and then as a performer – I had to realise that other countries felt different and did things differently to us. I smelled the air and walked the streets of the cities where my musical heroes lived and understood them better. Weather, food, transport, attitudes to life, appreciation of music and musicians – so many things opened my eyes to the realisation that ‘our way’ wasn’t the only way. I developed a broader outlook. That in itself was an education which many musicians experience and which makes them long to keep those doors open.