She is a member of the chart-topping choir Mediaeval Baebes, whose ethereal voices have enchanted audiences around the world. But Fiona Fey’s musical career was threatened by a noise abatement notice from her local council, which ordered her to stop playing any instruments in her south-east London flat.
The 35-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist, who plays the guitar, piano and a low whistle, was stunned to receive the notice in April after a neighbour complained about her practising. She was warned that she could face a fine of up to £5,000 or have her instruments confiscated if she breached the order.
Fey, who is due to start learning new parts for gigs with Mediaeval Baebes next month, said she felt “betrayed” and “attacked” by the council’s heavy-handed approach. She said she had tried to be considerate of her neighbours and had even bought soundproofing equipment to reduce the noise.
She said: “It was really upsetting. I felt so betrayed and so attacked, because I really had done everything I could. I didn’t know what they expected me to do. It’s my job. I’ve got things to learn, things to practise.”
Fey said she did not have the money to fight the notice in court, so she decided to move out of her flat and stay with friends. She has also started a petition calling for protection for the right to play musical instruments, which has been signed by more than 23,000 people.
She said: “I think there needs to be some clarity and some fairness in the way these things are handled. Musicians are already struggling because of Covid and Brexit, and now we have this extra stress of not being able to practise at home.”
Fey is not alone in facing noise complaints from neighbours. According to industry leaders, musicians across the country are facing a postcode lottery of how councils deal with such issues. They say there is no clear guidance or standard on what constitutes acceptable noise levels for playing music at home.
Naomi Pohl, the general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, said: “Different councils, different individuals, handle it in a different way, unfortunately. There’s no kind of set parameters. If you’re making music in a work environment, then there are set decibel levels for health and safety reasons. But you don’t have that in your home.”
Pohl said that musicians need to practise regularly as part of their job, and they do not always have access to external rehearsal spaces, especially if they are freelancers. She said that more people working from home during the pandemic may have led to more noise complaints.
She said: “Our members have to practise regularly – it’s an essential part of their job and they don’t always have external rehearsal space to go to, particularly if they’re freelancers. More people are working from home, so I imagine we’re going to get more of these issues cropping up.”
The Independent Society of Musicians (ISM) also helps musicians who face noise complaints from neighbours. In 2016, it helped James Carrabino, a Young Musician of the Year finalist, overturn a notice banning him from practising the piano for more than an hour a day in his family’s home in Kensington, west London.
Deborah Annetts, the chief executive of ISM, said: “Noise complaints against musicians can have a devastating impact on their livelihoods and wellbeing. We urge local authorities to take a balanced and proportionate approach when dealing with such complaints and to recognise the importance of music-making for individuals and society as a whole.”
A spokesperson for Lewisham council, which issued the notice to Fey, said: “We take all complaints about noise seriously and investigate them thoroughly. We work with residents to try and resolve any issues amicably before taking any formal action. However, where there is evidence of a statutory nuisance we have a legal duty to serve a noise abatement notice.”