Michael Brewer – a powerful Director of Music, not just a provincial choirmaster or music teacherPosted: March 28, 2013
In the flood of articles and television reports on the sentencing of Michael Brewer, it has become most common for him to be referred to as a ‘choirmaster’, at least in the headlines (this is the case in reports in the Daily Telegraph, Times, Independent, Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Mirror and ITV, whilst the BBC and Daily Express refer to him as an ‘ex-choirmaster’), or occasionally simply as a ‘music teacher’ (as in a headline in the Guardian). It is certainly true that Michael Brewer’s most long-term work has been with the National Youth Choir, which he founded in 1983 (a fact now conveniently omitted from the choir’s section about themselves). This is itself no ordinary choir; it is much the largest youth choir in the country and one of the most important in the world. The term ‘choirmaster’ on its own implies some minor provincial figure, and as such the story seems to have no wider significance than a comparable one about a minor local priest or occasional schoolteacher found guilty of similar offences.
But when the offences in question took place, Michael Brewer was no less than Director of Music of Chetham’s, the largest specialist music school in the country, from 1975 until 1994 (when he left the school after his affair with a 17-year old pupil was discovered, though without this fact being disclosed, enabling him to continue working with young musicians right up until 2012). In this capacity, he personally carried out the majority of auditions, monitored each pupil’s musical progress, took advanced aural classes, regularly conducted the chamber and symphony orchestras, and also directed the elite chamber choir there. Even those (like myself) with no particular aptitude for singing would be in regular contact with him; Brewer was a major presence in the life of every pupil who attended the school. In terms of seniority, his position was almost on a par with the headmaster (who for all of Brewer’s time at the school except the last two years was John Vallins, a non-musician). For someone this senior to have used his position to abuse and exploit female pupils raises very serious questions about what type of institution could enable him to act with impunity for almost two decades, not to mention how his own actions may have served to facilitate similar things from other members of staff, about which there are multiple allegations currently being investigated by Greater Manchester Police. It is an issue not merely of one errant teacher, but of the whole structural workings of an institution.
Sadly, wider allegations, some of them not yet made public, suggest similar actions on the part of comparably senior figures in other musical institutions. Abusive behaviour on the part of very junior figures at music schools (for example practice supervisors or very occasional instrumental teachers who only deal with second-study pupils), whilst devastating for the victims, could be dealt with in a relatively straightforward manner when discovered without raising any wider questions about the institution itself. This is not the case here; when the most senior staff are carrying out abuse, and this goes unreported and uninvestigated over an extended period, the very functioning of the institution, the hierarchical chain of command, protection for whistleblowers, the enactment of procedures for child safety and protection, and above all the need to prioritise the welfare of pupils over institutional reputation, need severe investigation.
Already there are plenty of rumblings from those who would like to portray this conviction and other allegations as representing nothing more than the actions of a few isolated individuals, with no wider implications for musical education. Some voicing such views seem more concerned to protect the existing state of the latter than anything – this very attitude is part of the process which allows abuse to continue unchecked. It is important for this reason to insist on Brewer’s title as former Director of Music at Chetham’s, as the manager and begetter of a whole musical and teaching culture at the school.
[In the aftermath of the sentencing, I would especially recommend blog entries by Jessica Duchen, who looks at the neglected subject of psychological abuse, and also rightly draws attention to the judge’s alarmed remarks at the extent to which numerous prominent musicians and others were prepared to think that Brewer’s musicial achievements somehow mitigated his other actions – ‘the seemingly wider acceptance of this type of behaviour amongst those who should know better’, and also the latest of a whole series of important blog posts on this and related subjects by Norman Lebrecht , exploring a similar angle. This distorted moral thinking amongst musicians needs to be properly challenged, as both Duchen and Lebrecht rightly imply.]
Greater Manchester Police are conducting an investigation into a variety of complaints of sexual abuse related to Chetham’s School of Music and a dedicated Operation called “Kiso” has been established to support this. As an organisation, we recognise that reporting sexual abuse, which occurred some time ago is an incredibly difficult thing to do and we will afford anyone who comes forward, all the appropriate support to discuss events in their own time. We would urge anyone who wishes to report abuse or with information, to contact Greater Manchester Police on 0161 856 6777 or via email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, persons who wish to remain anonymous may contact Crime Stoppers on 0800 555 111 .