“Almost one year since the escalation of the war in Ukraine, a generation of children has experienced 12 months of violence, fear, loss, and tragedy,” wrote the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on February 21. According to the organization’s most recent statistics, at least 438 children have been killed by acts of war, with 842 injured. Over 2,300 education institutions and more than 1,000 healthcare centers have been damaged or destroyed. And these are just the verified cases. Within Ukraine, some 3.3 million children and youth rely on humanitarian aid. Unexploded bombs and landmines pose yet more dangers. 

As the war drags on, its psychological burden on children increases. UNICEF estimates—probably conservatively—that 1.5 million Ukrainian children are at high risk of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The music therapist Nigel Osborne has been working with children and youth in Ukraine for several months. In this essay, he describes his experiences clapping, singing, and composing with children in a war zone.

I work in Ukraine for half of every month. It has settled into a kind of rhythm: flying from Edinburgh to Kraków on Sunday, staying overnight in Przemyśl on the Polish border in a “last chance saloon” of aid workers, journalists, and war hangers-on, and taking a train across the border to Lviv on Monday mornings. 

I arrive in Lviv. In the words of Adam Zagajewski’s love poem to the city:

There was always too much of Lviv, no one could
comprehend its boroughs, hear
the murmur of each stone scorched
by the sun…

For me it is a “lived-in” city, a city of angels and astronauts hovering over domes, towers and spires. It is the city of Iryna Vilde, Bruno Schulz, Ivan Franko, Zbigniew Herbert, Shalom Aleichem, and Stanisław Lem. It is also the city of numerous composers (Oksana Lutsyshyn or Wojciech Kilar, who wrote scores for Andrzej Wajda’s films), a Ukrainian melting pot of Ruthenian, White Croatian, Jewish, and Polish culture. For me, every street corner brings a rich vista of Baroque, Classical, Mannerist, Secession, Art Deco or Functionalist style, each with long, deep resonances of rich lives once lived and still lived, of synagogue clocks, bells and organs.

I am met at the station by one of my own guardian angels: Dr. Anastasiia Shyroka, who teaches psychotherapy at Lviv’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic University (UCU). Anastasiia and I go over plans for the upcoming days.

On Tuesday I am woken by an air raid alarm. It is a day for lectures and workshops at UCU and online for the University of the Arts in Kharkiv. I am running a Masters module in Music in the Community, designed to introduce students to relevant aspects of the new biological, psychological, and social sciences of music, and to prepare them to work with children who are victims of the war. 

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are devoted to the children’s shelters themselves, where I both supervise and lead groups of students and trainees. The children have arrived in these resident shelters from places like Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia. They are a mixture of war orphans and those separated from their parents for a variety of other reasons. The shelters are well run, but the children bring with them all the problems that war brings to young minds and bodies: hyperactivity alternating with sluggishness, lack of concentration, and reluctance to engage emotionally. 

Our youngest group is comprised of nine recently orphaned children from three to six years old. In the last session we sang two children’s songs. We don’t “teach” children of this age songs, they learn by singing along—in this case two pieces, “Kotiku Bilenkiy” (“White Cat”) and “Dva Pivnyky” (“Two Roosters”). I have brought a white, tactile, toy cat. We pass it around; the children touch the fur and act out the cat running around the Chata (hut). My objectives here are sensory and sensory-motor stimulation. 

Then we move on to clapping a simple rhythm; rhythm helps mend the experience of time for children who have had it broken. We notice that some children can clap well in time, others less well and a few not at all. We note these as important things to be worked on. We also introduce emotional stimulation, using the sounds of cats to express ourselves in different ways.

The culmination of the session is telling the Ukrainian folk tale of how a cat and a rooster build a hut to live in. We construct the hut from chairs, cushions and blankets, and the children enjoy being inside. Our objectives are to stimulate imagination and to create a safe, familial atmosphere.

The latest from VAN, delivered straight to your inbox

Success! You're on the list.

With the older groups we do a lot of songwriting. The process involves finding words and choosing notes and harmonies with scrupulous care, which helps reinforce cognitive skills and concentration. In the words of the songs, we are dealing with meaning and identities; in the combination of words and music, with potentially rich emotional experiences. All of this stimulates creativity and the end result—the song—generates self-satisfaction, self-respect, self-belief and self-worth: important tokens of life and existence. One little boy (possibly self-harming and wishing to go to hospital) insists on going to find the director of the shelter to come hear his song.

Some of the songs the children write are valuable celebrations of experience. Last time a group of six- to ten-year-olds enjoyed playing percussion. They wrote, “Veliki baraban, veliki baraban. Yaki baraban? Yaki baraban? (“A big drum, a big drum. What drum? What drum?”). Unfortunately, the air raid sirens started wailing and a blackout came in the middle of our session. We walked down to the air raid shelter, a narrow corridor deep in the building, and continued to compose and sing our song in the darkness with flickering cell phone flashlights. This time the children add a “small guitar,” a “green piano,” and a “little fiddle,” and in a new action song, they tell a funny story: “Malpochka tantsuye I yit banane I spit, hulyaye I skoche po derevah…” (“The monkey dances and eats a banana, he sleeps, he walks and jumps through the trees. A panda performs kung fu and chases a butterfly, he eats bamboo and plays in the park.”)

Through the animals, the children are imagining living normal lives. 

Sometimes more personal things emerge. In a group of children ages 10 to 12, a boy writes a song: “Ne znayu chom ya zly, ya zly, ya zly……Ya ne zly. Ta spokiyni” (“I don’t know why I’m angry, I’m angry, I’m angry…now I’m not angry, I’m at peace”). He is using the song to explain his mood swings. He makes appropriate changes of emotion in the music, moving to the major when he feels at peace.

Many songs from the older children are about meetings. A black dog meets a tiny kitten in the park. A tulip, rose, poppy, and camomile meet in the garden; they see “the dawn, the sun and the beauty of the world.” These are celebrations of being together and experiencing good things with family and friends. Some of the children’s songs celebrate home and nation: “A family house, a large house, a house in Ukraine. We live in the house, we sleep in the house, we cook our food.” Or “A happy song about Ukraine—a nightingale to sing for our people, our strength and our independence.”

Ukrainian children enjoy traveling around the world in music. I teach groups simple songs from four continents, songs that can be learned immediately. I try to take the children on emotional journeys, exercising (and hopefully helping regulate) their autonomic nervous systems, limbic systems, endocrine systems, breathing and movement repertoires, and so on. When we have taught the basic songs and rhythms, I encourage the children to improvise. In the shelters this quickly turns into group co-improvisation, a psychobiological and psychodynamic exercise addressing questions such as empathy, trust, self-expression, and self-belief.

And now it is time for me to travel too: to my second week’s work, in eastern Ukraine. I head off to the station late at night with perhaps the most extraordinary of my guardian angels: Julia Nikolaevska, Dean of Music at the Kharkiv University of the Arts. Julia has traveled the 30-hour, sometimes dangerous roundtrip journey from Kharkiv many times, with several of her students, to attend my lectures and workshops in Lviv. Like Anastasiia, Julia gives me hope that higher education may someday escape the bureaucracies, commodification of knowledge and detached structures of academic leadership that have progressively paralyzed it in recent decades. These women are passionate hands-on activists for creativity, science and learning: They are the breath of the future, and I sincerely hope it comes soon.

The station is teaming with soldiers. As I try to fall asleep to the gentle rhythms of the blacked-out train, I think of Kharkiv: its pastel colors and golden domes, and broad, tree-lined thoroughfares under a big sky. Just as Lviv somehow looks Westwards—to Western Slav lands, Poland and Mitteleuropa—Kharkiv is the East. And I think about my children’s workshops: in hospitals and in recently occupied villages on the front line, brutalized by bombardments and the passage of armies. The Kharkiv children’s songs play like a jukebox in my brain. For example: a song composed by the children in hospital about a “white dream plane” (“Bili litak mriya) that will fly into the deep blue sky. It goes, We are all in the plane—Karina, Anya, Maryana, Nazar, Maxim, Irishka, Nizhana, Ulyana, Lip, Vova, and Andrey.”  Such a simple song becomes quite profound when we realize the plane is a symbol, for the children, of the Ukrainian spirit. Flying away is not running away. It is taking control of their lives: what they do and where they go. And of course they will do it together. 

Even the doctors in the hospital have written a song with me. It turned out to be in Russian, even though most Ukrainian Russian speakers are actually angry with their language. It goes, “Horosha nastroye, lublyena robota, Ditei, Rodina, druzya, tihi noch”  (“a good atmosphere, work we love, children, family, friendship….quiet night”). The rhythm of tihi noch (“quiet night”) somehow blends into the gentle rhythm of the train as we trundle through the darkness eastwards to the Kharkivshchyna. ¶


Nigel Osborne is a composer, teacher, scientific worker and aid worker. He has pioneered methods of using music and the creative arts to support children who are victims of conflict. This approach was...