New stories and convictions of abuse in musical education, and the film of the Institute of Ideas debate

In the last few weeks a series of new stories have come out relating to abuse in musical education. One of those was about the pianist and composer Ian Lake, who taught at Watford School of Music and the Royal College of Music (RCM), had received a little-reported conviction of a sexual offence (of which details remain hazy) in 1995, but was revealed to be a serial abuser; I wrote about the Lake story here. One of the victims spoke of how she went to the then-principal of the RCM, Michael Gough Matthews (who was Principal from 1985 to 1993, and who died last year), and whilst she was given a change of teacher, nothing else happened, so Lake was free to do the same to others. This type of process has been described by multiple victims at different institutions (including, for example, victims of Ryszard Bakst at the Royal Northern College of Music). Matthews’ successor as Principal, Dame Janet Ritterman, who was Principal at the RCM at the time when Lake was convicted (and is now Chancellor of Middlesex University), has been contacted for comment about what was known about Lake, but has declined to respond. One victim was very keen to make clear how safe and relieved she felt after speaking to the journalist Paul Gallagher, and has posted to that effect under another name as a comment under my blog post on Lake.

An article in today’s Independent names another late teacher at the RCM, Hervey Alan, as having attempted a sexual assault on a student; again, when she complained, she received a change of teacher, but no further action was taken. Furthermore, the victim (who was also a student of Lake’s on the piano) underwent a second attempted assault from a college porter, about which nothing was done after she complained. This woman has also detailed the ways in which not being prepared to respond to sexual advances in the professional world could hinder one’s career, a story which is all too familiar, and needs to be considered seriously alongside all the other dimensions to this issue. I have argued for a while that the granting of unchecked power to prominent musicians, administrators, and fixers almost invites the corruption of such power, and more, rather than less, state intervention is needed to ensure that proper employment practices are observed in a freelance world. Many musicians would hate this, for sure, and claim it represented an unwarranted intrusion by government into a field which should be driven by ‘purely musical’ concerns, but in my view the latter serve as a smokescreen for cynical and callous power games.

Several other stories have come to light recently. Robin Zebaida, pianist and examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM, responsible for the ‘grade’ exams that many young musicians take) since 1998, was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year old girl at the same time as he was seducing her mother; Zebaida received a two-year conditional discharge, was made to sign the sex offenders register for two years, and pay a £15 victim surcharge. The trial heard of romantic evenings with plentiful alcohol with Zebaida kissing the mother whilst groping the daughter; Zebaida would also claim he touched the daughter lightly on account of back problems she suffered following a car crash which had killed her father and brother. (see reports here, here and here; and also ‘Pianist guilty of sex assault on teenager’, The Daily Telegraph, 3/12/13 – not available online). I am not aware of the ABRSM having made any comment.

In November, Philip Evans, music teacher at the private King Edward’s School, Edgbaston, Birmingham (which dates from 1552 and was set up by Edward VI), pleaded guilty to seven sexual assaults, ten charges of making indecent photographs of children, and six counts of voyeurism; more than 400 000 indecent images were found on his computer (Press Association, ‘Teacher Admits Sexual Assault, 28/11/13). The trial found that Evans, who had also acted as an RAF ‘leader’ in the school’s Combined Cadet Force, had abused teenage boys whilst pretending to measure them for their school uniforms, and installed high tech equipment in changing rooms and showers to film pupils. Evans was sentenced in December to three years and eight months imprisonment (see reports here, here – and here).

A further case was overshadowed by the Michael Brewer trial last year; that of music teacher at various East London schools and choirmaster Michael Crombie. Crombie had first gone on trial in November 2010, then aged 73, on 28 charges of indecent assault upon nine girls aged under 16 and child pornography offences from between 1992 and 2002. The court heard that Crombie had forced young girls to strip and duck their heads in a fish tank, then he would video them. He told one girl aged between 10 and 12 that this technique, ‘bubbling’, would help improve her recorder playing. The court saw a video of a young girl with her wrists and legs bound with his tie, trying to break free and gasping for air before being pushed back into the water. Crombie would also take girls on his lap and molest them under the pretext of helping them with breathing exercises. The court heard that victims were unable to complain because of Crombie’s eminence (he was also a Rotary Club member). He was found guilty of 26 of the charges and jailed for seven years, as well as being ordered to sign the sex offenders’ register for life, and banned from unsupervised contact with children (see here, and here; also ‘Teacher ‘filmed pupils in his bath’’, Metro, 18/11/10, Fiona Hamilton, ‘Music teacher abused girls during lessons’, The Times, 27/11/10, Mike Sullivan, ‘Perv Sir’s ‘drown’ sessions’, The Sun, 27/11/10, not available online).

In December 2012, Crombie admitted 47 further counts of indecent assaults upon children between 1964 and 1993, and two counts of sexual activity with a child; these included 16 cases which took place at Beal Grammar School and Wanstead High School when Crombie was a teacher there; most of the others occurred when he worked as a private music tutor between 1991 and 2002. 30 new victims, aged between 11 and 17 at the time of the offences, had come forward, after one had been outraged by Crombie’s asking her to act as a character reference during his previous trial in 2010. She described how he would regularly kiss her, ask her to turn up to lessons naked, and imagine how she would feel if he were to rape her, leading to her running out screaming. Another said he told her whilst groping and kissing ‘if you sing the notes right this wouldn’t be happening’. Crombie had had a sexual fling with a 14-year old girl to who he was teaching bassoon at Beal Grammar School, her parents ultimately trusting him to babysit her at home. He would persuade her to perform sex acts upon him in the school’s music room cupboard and also while he was driving. In January 2013, Crombie received a seven-year jail sentence, his earlier sentence having been reduced to five on appeal, so that he had been due for release in May 2013. The judge sharply criticised the school authorities for allowing Crombie to carry on unchallenged for 30 years, noting that complaints had been made to the school on a number of occasion, but no adequate action had been taken (see here, here, and here; also Press Association, ‘Ex-Music Teacher admits Sex Attacks’, 21/12/12; Press Association, ‘Judge criticises School Authorities’, 25/1/13).

An independent inquiry was launched by the Local Safeguarding Childen’s Board at Redbridge, considering which safeguarding systems and processes were in place during the period of Crombie’s serial abuse; this does not appear to have been completed yet (‘Independent inquiry launched into Redbridge music teacher’s abuse of young girls since the 1960s’, Ilford Recorder, 31/1/13).

Following the first conviction, Norman Lebrecht wrote:

And then ask why it always has to be music teachers, and why so often in Britain. Is it because music, like sport, has tactile teaching elements that attract perverts? Or does music grant a license to perverts to act out their fantasies?
I have no statistics to hand, but it’s Don Giovanni to a string quartet that there are ten times as many music teachers who are caught molesting pupils as chemistry or geography beaks. Now why is that? Does music, in some obscure way, attract sadists and corrupters?

Now Greater Manchester Police have made clear that they are considering extradition proceedings against former Chetham’s teacher Chris Ling, about whom multiple accusations of child abuse were made public in February 2013 (see the reports in The Guardian here,here, here, and here. An earlier investigation in 1990, after Ling had left the UK for the US, was dropped, then reopened in 2013, as part of Operation Kiso. Ling had indicated that he might return to the UK for questioning, but never came back. Three other current or former Chetham’s teachers – violin teachers Wen Zhou Li and Malcolm Layfield and conducting teacher Nicholas Smith – and one from the RNCM – double bassist Duncan McTier (now a professor at the Royal Academy of Music) – have all been arrested and the Crown Prosecution Service are currently considering whether to bring charges or rape and/or sexual assault against them
(here, here, and here. Also, The Independent named leading early music director Philip Pickett as the former Guildhall School tutor who has been arrested on multiple counts of rape and sexual assault.

Lucy Powell, Labour MP for Manchester Central, whose constituency includes both Chetham’s and the RNCM, and also Shadow Spokesperson for Childcare, has made clear her support either for a special inquiry into abuse in musical education as part of Operation Yewtree, or a separate public inquiry. Various other MPs have expressed their support, not least former Children’s Minister, Conservative MP Tim Loughton, who tweeted on January 6th ‘Calls for single overarching enquiry into historic child abuse post Savile louder than ever-I’ve asked the PM twice now, will try again’ (@timloughton).

There are so many more cases past and present of which I have been made aware, and cannot share for reasons of confidentiality; and only a small minority take the related issues of widespread bullying, psychological and emotional abuse in both music education and the music profession seriously (see my previous post inviting people to come forward and talk about this subject). If more people knew the extent of this, they would see the necessity of pushing, and not stopping pushing, for action. Hopefully some of the recent revelations may impress on more the seriousness. I have very good reason to believe that these issues are far from merely historic, and that in various institutions abuse may be continuing to this day, and even that some abusers may be using distant foreign trips connected to musical education for this purpose.

One place where a majority of the participants certainly thought otherwise was the Institute of Ideas debate at the Barbican Centre in October 2013, about which I earlier blogged here. The full debate can now be viewed online here – I invite people to watch it and see the rather contemptuous way in which the issues is treated in particular by panellists Heather Piper, Frank Furedi and chair Clare Fox. With the exception primarily of the important contribution by Professor of Education and Music Psychology Susan Hallam, most of the contributions from the panel and indeed from the floor (with the exception of rather angry responses by myself and another former Chetham’s pupil) seem most concerned about any disruption or change to the situation for music teachers, how it would be so terrible for there to be limits on physical contact, how the important thing is about how music ‘touches the soul’, and so on. I felt quite sick after this debate, and the way it was cynically engineered so as to trivialise the whole issue. The rot at the heart of the classical music world needs to be addressed properly as a matter of urgency, however much some will sneer, minimise or dismiss the issue, shy away from things or protect others in the interests of furthering their own career.

Call to speak out on bullying and psychological/emotional abuse in music

In the last few weeks, more stories of sexual abuse in musical education, including new convictions, have come to light – I will be posting a summary of these later. But the subjects of bullying and psychological and emotional abuse, whether in musical education or the wider musical world, are easily sidelined and viewed is marginal in this context. They are not, and can be just as damaging as sexual abuse. A respected journalist in whom I have 100% faith will be preparing an article or articles looking at this wider and neglected (in part because not directly criminal) issue. I am posting this to invite anyone who would like to talk about this, either in terms of their own experiences or of things they have witnessed, or general perceptions, to contact me on . Absolutely confidentiality is guaranteed, and will be guaranteed if you seek to talk to the press on the subject.

There are too many ruined lives, wasted careers, cases of depression, self-harm and even sometimes suicide because of the callous and malicious acts of others who are protected by the aura of the classical musician. Please help to raise public awareness of these things, in the hope that in time there will be real pressure for change.

Emotional abuse is not always recognised for what it is, and there has been much less attention paid to it in an educational context. Here is an important article considering the subject, and here is an earlier scholarly article. On bullying at work, I recommend this site, this and this; and see here for bullying from teachers. The subject of bullying in the classical music world has hardly ever been addressed seriously; here is an interesting online discussion on the subject.