The impact of Brexit on musicians

21st February 2020 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Travel | 5 comments

Everyone sees Brexit through their own lens. This is mine.

When I was small, playing the piano was my favourite thing. I had heard that Mozart and Schubert came from Austria. Bach and Beethoven and Schumann came from Germany. Debussy and Ravel came from France. And so on. Those countries were just pretty pictures in books to me. At that stage I didn’t even know what ‘speaking another language’ was or what it might involve.

Eventually my family started making small forays to European countries. By then I had started learning French at school. Gingerly I tried it out in the boulangeries of Paris. The bakers smiled and handed me what I’d asked for. What magic!

My impression of those new countries was ‘What fun! They do things differently here. I like it!’ I was always intrigued and almost never disappointed (well, only about things like loos which were just holes in the floor, and even that soon changed).

We joined the EU when I was a student. I was just starting to get opportunities to play in other European countries. When I turned professional, the ease of travel to France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain and Austria was an enormous plus. I started to meet musicians from ‘over there’. They came to the UK to study or perform. I and my British colleagues went over there to study or perform. Some of my new friends from Europe settled in London. Some of my British friends settled in Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam or Vienna. Couples formed, people moved from one country to another, got married.

We formed chamber music groups with members from a variety of European countries. We took part in seminars and played in festivals across Europe. Orchestral players got jobs in other EU countries, including the UK. I can honestly say I never encountered any feeling that they shouldn’t be here or that we shouldn’t be there. We all enjoyed the feeling that we were part of a big family of European musicians. We influenced one another. And that was how things went on for 40 years. We took it for granted.

Now Brexit has changed that feeling. There’s talk of visas, carnets, immigration points, minimum salaries, exchange schemes closing. We don’t yet know exactly how things will pan out, but we do know it won’t be so easy for UK musicians to travel and play in other European countries. We’ll still do it, of course, but there will be barriers. And the same for European musicians coming here. Already people are saying it might be simpler not to try to do cross-European projects for a while. Too much is unknown about the paperwork and the costs.

I found myself saying to some students the other day that for hundreds of years, long before the UK joined or left ‘the EU’, musicians have always managed to travel to other countries, and no doubt they will continue to do so. But psychologically, something has changed profoundly. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.


  1. James Dixon

    I e-mailed this piece to my father, a distinguished microbiologist and great music lover, and I thought you might be interested to see what he said:

    ‘Ta, nice piece. Have I ever told you about Gavin de Beer’s book The Sciences Were Never at War? It made a deep impression on me when
    I first read it as a teenager. The title refers to those many decades during which France and Germany were at war with each other. Throughout that time, scientists simply ignored what was going on. They continued to collaborate, visiting each others’ countries, electing colleagues from the other country to their academies etc etc.’

    Inspiring stuff, I’m sure you will agree!


    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you, James, an inspiring story to know about! I’m sure musicians will continue to behave ‘non-politically’ like those scientists, but it is still a great shame that we in the UK have lost the automatic right to work and live in other EU countries.

  2. Mary Cohen

    Absolutely…I feel exactly the same. I share news on social media with colleagues, knowing I may never meet up with them again. It’s deeply affecting.

  3. Jane Ginsborg

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Not just as a musician, with experiences similar to yours, but also as an academic, a researcher, and as someone whose family originally came to the UK from countries that are now in Europe, who now identifies more strongly as Scottish (having grown up in a Edinburgh) than English. In the months after the referendum I spent a lot of time campaigning and canvassing, saying, “I respect your opinions if they differ from mine, but for me it’s a no-brainer – I teach students from every European country, and they have all grown up expecting to be able to play and sing across the whole of the continent, as it were, without borders; for us, as musicians, it was easy to travel and to work; now I am involved in research projects with European colleagues; for three years I was president of a European learned society, and now I am editor-in-chief of a European academic journal.” I heard only the other day that if I and another UK colleague are included as applicants on an Erasmus+ grant bid, it will reduce the chances of the bid being successful. We are being included as consultants, since we have expertise and experience to offer, but we are now being directly affected by Brexit: an appalling situation particularly as the bid is for research designed to enhance musicians’ physical and psychological health and wellbeing, wherever they live and work. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that a growing threat to musicians’ (and researchers’ – and indeed many others’j health and wellbeing – for those in Europe and the UK – is Brexit itself.

    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you, Jane. I sympathise! I had a somewhat similar experience recently when invited to be on a competition jury in an EU country. As it happened, I was the only one from the UK. The imminence of Brexit was causing some worry about extra paperwork. At one point an administrator ‘jokingly’ said to me, ‘It might be simpler just to draw our jury members from EU countries, ha ha!’ I felt I was hearing a snippet of the conversation that many organisations must be having about the involvement of UK professionals – just as you have described.


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