AVDIYIVKA, UKRAINE — Daryna Daryenko, a 12-year-old schoolgirl, sits down at a piano near a classroom window and begins to play, hesitantly.
She is one of 150 young students attending a music school in Avdiyivka, a city of 26,000 people some 600 kilometers east of Kyiv, practically on the frontline in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Three days a week, at the end of her school day, Daryneko goes to an old building in the center of her city to learn to play the piano. She had been given the task of practicing a jazz piece, and now it is time for her to perform her homework.
But this first part of the lesson is not going well, and the girl hits several wrong notes.
“Did you really rehearse this piece at home?” Daryna’s teacher Liudmyla Pasternak chides the girl. “Let’s work this section out again, bit by bit.”
They lean over the keyboard, singing out the notes of the jazz melody as they play them on the piano keyboard.
Even as the war grinds on in the outskirts of Avdiyivka, its music school is still open, its 17 tutors offering lessons in piano, guitar, domra (a lute- or balalaika-like instrument), saxophone, violin, flute, trumpet, and accordion. But half of the school’s students and teachers have fled the fighting.
“Before the war, we had twice as many students and teachers,” says the school’s director Svitlana Polivoda. “So many people have had to flee the city forever, regretfully interrupting their children’s music studies.”
The music school is located in the same building as the local main police department, so the constant toing and froing of heavily armed people at its front entrance is a continual reminder that this is a city at war.
Since the launch of Russia’s war on Ukraine in the spring of 2014, Avdiyivka has repeatedly found itself the victim of shelling attacks, with dozens of civilians being injured and killed, property destroyed, and its population halved.
Shock of war
Pasternak remembers the days of late May 2014, when Ukrainian aircrafts were delivering strikes on Russian-backed forces at the Donetsk airport just kilometers away, making their attack runs over Avdiyivka.
“As the jets roared in the sky during lessons, we tried to distract the children’s attention with music,” Pasternak says. “We sang and played it as loud as we can, trying to drown out the rolling thunder of fighting at the airport. Children should not hear things like that.”
The next months brought even worse fighting, often disrupting lessons.
“One summer morning in 2014, people came out of their homes and found their city almost ruined by the enemy guns overnight,” Pasternak tells. “There were days when the fighting was so intense that entire bus convoys were ready to evacuate the children to (the recently liberated) Slovyansk and other cities. Our school was empty for some time.”
Having fled, many local families found there was nowhere else to stay for too long – and they returned to Avdiyivka, hoping peace would return too. But the war continues to this day, the city behind the Ukrainian army’s defense lines still suffering from sporadic enemy shelling.
Most of the students come for lessons by 2 p.m., but by evening the sounds of war start rolling over the city again. Tutors and students have often had to stop their lessons and run to the basement shelter to wait for the fighting to die down.
“Sometimes we had to take our pupils to their homes amid shelling upon the streets,” Pasternak says. “We held them by the hand and run from one entranceway to another, listening for shells impacting nearby – while the parents were running towards us as well.”
But even as the fighting raged on, the school has never given up teaching music completely. The war has left its marks on the children, and learning music has become one of very few joys that remain to them. The school is an island inspiration and hope in the exhausted frontline city.
The children are still eager to learn, even despite the war. Sometimes the teachers gather their students in front of a laptop or tablet computer brought from home to show them ballet or orchestra performances. In this poor and war-weary city, this is the only opportunity the children have to see a better life.
And music cannot protect all children from the strain of war, the teachers say with regret. Liza Dubatovka, one of the school’s most promising young talents and the winner of numerous piano competitions, started becoming sick from continuous stress, and her parents sent her away to stay with relatives. While Liza has not stopped playing the piano completely, her talent has started to fade without lessons and practice, her tutors say.
‘We won’t give up’
Overnight on Feb. 7, 2015, the war almost brought a final end to the school.
As the city of Debaltseve, a strategic rail hub to the northeast, was targeted by Russian tank units from Buryatia and Russian-backed forces, the whole area north of Donetsk city was shaking with the firing of heavy guns. As fighting broke out in other parts of the front, a stray tank shell from enemy lines to southeast hit Avdiyivka’s music school, leaving a large part of it in ruins.
“We just came into work in the morning and saw the building almost completely destroyed,” director Sviltana Polivoda remembers. “The explosion crushed and devastated the second floor, together with all classrooms and everything inside. I thought that was the end – we had nothing left to reconstruct.”
The same day, the director asked the local authorities to move the music school to another building. However, many buildings in the city had been damaged by enemy fire, and the school simply had nowhere to go.
“The police guys helped us to clear the debris,” Polivoda says. “Among the smashed pianos and furniture, the only thing we could recover was our music books, torn and burned a bit.”
So even after the school building’s destruction, the music lessons went on – all of the tutors continued giving lessons at their pupil’s homes, then returning to their own apartments to the sounds of war nearby.
Only by the middle of spring 2015 did the local authorities manage to erect temporary supports in the school building, allowing music lessons resume on the partially damaged fourth floor.
“We covered the broken windows with transparent tape, and heated the classes with electric heaters in the cold spring,” the director recalls.
Next, the local authorities and the Avdiyivka Coke Plant, the city’s main employer, raised Hr 340,000 ($13,000) to hire a building team to do repair work and carry out a complete overhaul of the school. Soon, the sounds of reconstruction added a percussive backing to the children’s playing.
At last, on Dec. 23, 2015, the completely repaired and renovated music school, with new instruments, furniture, and windows, officially opened in Avdiyivka.
“Since then, we’ve been working here to make up for lost time,” the director says. “In 2016 alone, our school performed as many as 52 concerts – it’s a good result even for a music school in a big city. Plus, our talented children are performing at almost all of the music competitions in Donetsk Oblast and Ukraine as a whole, and rarely come back without any prizes.”
“Music is the greatest relief for the children, and gives meaning to life for us, the teachers,” Polivoda says. “Who says songs are not needed amid the miseries of war?” she adds, quoting a line from a famous Soviet war film.
“We will never give up.”