Proposed Guidelines to protect both Music Teachers and Students – a starting point for discussion

Yesterday saw the horrendous news of the conviction of and 11-year jail sentence for Philip Pickett on charges of rape and sexual assault of students while he was teaching at the Guildhall School. Here is the original list of charges against Pickett from last year; I do not wish to say much more specific to this case, not least because of the possibility of further trials; suffice to say that I believe a good deal more will be made public about both actions and the complicity of others.

If anything good is to come from this case, I hope it may help to put pressure for a proper international debate about the nature of music education and the possibilities for abuse and exploitation therein. I blogged in some detail about this last December, in response to an excellent article by Damian Thompson in the Spectator. Yesterday I published an article on the film Whiplash in terms of its representation of bullying and abuse in teaching, on The Conversation , and a wider article in The Telegraph about abuse and elite music teaching, in particular raising the controversial question of whether self-regulation is ever likely, and whether that a system which places enormous powers of patronage in a few people’s hands needs a greater degree of external accountability (which would mean political/governmental intervention). Naturally, I would expect there to be and would welcome a range of different opinions on these subjects, but feel strongly that the debate needs to be had amongst music educators worldwide, and more widely in the profession.

With this in mind, I wanted to post here a set of draft guidelines for instrumental and vocal teachers and students at a tertiary level (generally 18 or over) in terms of their dealings with one another, as a starting point for discussion. I drafted these around 18 months ago (which included other guidelines on such things as when it is/is not appropriate to cancel a lesson, not so relevant here), and whilst they have not yet been taken up, I hope very much at some point they or something like them will be.

I would welcome all thoughts on the below, including new suggestions, disagreements, and so on. I accept some will disagree with my views on physical touching (I suggest this is OK so long as one asks permission) and whether student-teacher relationships or sexual encounters are ever permissible (I argue that where they happen, or one or other party demonstrates agency with the intention of inducing such a thing, then both parties should act like adults and report things, their formal teacher-student relationship brought to an end without other negative consequences, then they are free to continue like any other two adults). But I think we should be talking about these things, in order to arrive at a humane system which protects both students and teachers.

Guidelines for Teachers

• In general, treat your student with respect as a human being, independently of your reflections on the quality and extent of their achievements as a performer. This should be borne in mind at all times.

• Remember that you are there to help the student, rather than their being there in order to enhance your own reputation.

• It is your choice how you wish your student to address you, whether by first name or title and surname. It is advised to clarify this to the student at the beginning of a lesson.

• Where there are serious problems concerning a student and their progress, you should try and discuss these with the relevant member of staff as soon as possible.

• It is accepted that teachers will naturally need to voice criticisms of a student’s playing or singing, sometimes severe criticisms. This should always be framed in such a way as to make clear that the criticisms relate solely to the student’s achievements (or lack of) specifically in terms of their work as a performer, not to their wider qualities as a person. Criticisms should be balanced with encouragement in the form of positive steps forward in order to improve.

• Use language which makes the above clear: for example, instead of saying ‘You are a very poor player’, say ‘You really do need to do considerable work in order to improve’, followed by suggestions of what form that work might take, or (if necessary) ‘It will be very difficult in the time available to you here to attain the level necessary in order to gain a high mark in your recital’. Similarly, avoid other generalities such as ‘You have no technique’ or ‘You are profoundly unmusical’, in favour of the likes of ‘I have to tell you that a good deal of work is necessary if you wish to achieve a higher technical level’, or in the second case, focusing on specific things the student needs to consider in order to be able to produce a more musically satisfying performance.

• You should always avoid any type of deliberately demeaning or belittling language of a personal nature towards a student, especially that designed to undermine their confidence. This can include undue and harsh sarcasm, deliberate aloofness and coldness, ignoring a student, negative comparisons with others, insensitive jokes, setting unrealistic demands, malicious rumour-mongering, threats, sexual or racial harassment, or anything which might be construed as ‘bitchy’. It is no justification for this to argue that such talk and attitudes are commonplace in the professional musical world.

• A student’s personal life is their own business, and discussions of this should generally only be undertaken when personal issues have a direct impact upon their performing. If a singer or other musician’s lifestyle – in terms of problems to do with sleep, maintaining good health, and so on – is impinging upon their singing, then it is legitimate to raise this issue. If a student raises the issue of difficulties arising from family, health or relationship issues, and wishes to talk about it, this is fine, but you should not feel under any obligation in this respect. In general, such matters are better discussed with the appropriate member of staff, who has pastoral responsibility, and who can communicate directly with you about them.

• When teaching a student, avoid befriending them on social media. [Personally I believe this is a principle worth observing for undergraduates, but which can be more flexible with postgraduates.]

• If you wish to make physical contact with a student in order to demonstrate some matter relating to performing, you must first ask their permission to do so. This can be done at the beginning of a series of lessons in order to facilitate so doing in general (but this must then be made clear to the student), or separately on individual occasion. If the student is unhappy with such physical contact and declines, this must be respected, and physical contact must then be avoided.

• Under absolutely no circumstances should there be any touching which can be construed as being of a sexual or unduly intimate nature.

• However, it is accepted that much music – especially for singers – relates to matters of an intimate and sometimes sexual nature, and it is legitimate to discuss this in lessons. But please always respect boundaries here, and be clear that you are talking about the music or the role, not directly about the student.

• Whilst in general conservatoire students are aged 18 or over and are technically adults, remember that they are still in a very early stage of adulthood, likely to be dealing with many pressures due to being away from home for the first time, having to negotiate possible loneliness, homesickness, coping with a degree of independence likely to be unprecedented for them, and of course a demanding course. It is best to work with the assumption that they are thus likely to be at a vulnerable stage in life, and should be treated with corresponding sensitivity.

Guidelines for Students

• You should always treat your teacher with respect and courtesy, be punctual for lessons, and acknowledge the help they are able to give you.

• Your teacher can choose how they wish you to address them, whether by first name, title and surname, or otherwise, and you should respect this. It is advised that this is clarified in the first lesson.

• Whilst you are certainly encouraged to solicit your teacher’s advice concerning the extent of your progress, or on future study, avoid asking such questions as ‘Do you think I can make it as a performer?’ or other such things which might put your teacher in a difficult position.

• If asking your teacher what they imagine would be your likely mark for a recital, on the basis of how you are performing at the time of asking the question, bear in mind that their answer will be an approximation, and is in no sense binding.

• Avoid flirtatious or overly ‘forward’ behaviour towards your teacher such as might place him or her in an awkward situation.

• Teachers may wish to make physical contact in order to demonstrate some matters relating to performance. They are required to ask your permission before so doing, either at the beginning of a series of lessons in order to establish that this is generally acceptable, or on individual occasions. If you do not wish this, you are entirely within your rights to refuse. Such physical contact should never be of a sexual or unduly intimate nature, nor should you respond to it in such a fashion.

• Never use any abusive or offensive language towards your teacher.

• When there are personal matters – for example relating to family, health or relationships – which might affect your performing, you are advised first to speak to your personal tutor, who can discuss these sensitively with your teacher.

• Your teacher often has a life and career outside of their work at your institution. Avoid gossiping about them, even amongst other students, including with respect to the nature of their other activities, as this can have the potential to be hurtful and demeaning. Any form of rumour-mongering, sexual or racial harassment, aggressive behaviour or threats towards your teacher will be treated with the utmost seriousness.

• Your teacher is not your friend on social media, and you should not request that they befriend you on there. [Personally I believe this is a principle worth observing for undergraduates, but which can be more flexible with postgraduates.]

• If you wish to record lessons for other reasons (so as to have a more permanent record for your own study purposes), you must ask your teacher first, and must also respect their wishes if they decline this request. (But see also Guidelines for both Teachers and Students below)

Guidelines for both Teachers and Students

• In the event of any serious worries about the nature of the relationship between teacher and student as made manifest verbally in lessons, either the teacher or student can request that the lessons be recorded. In this situation, the appropriate individual should be informed of this.

• In the event of any type of romantic or sexual liaison between a tutor and student – which can include any form of agency on either part with the intention of inducing such a thing, whether or not this is fulfilled – it is an essential requirement that both teacher and student report this to an appropriate individual. As a general rule it will be considered that in such a situation the relationship has assumed a degree of intimacy which is no longer compatible with a normal teaching relationship, and the student will be assigned to a different teacher, but without further consequences for either party.


12 Comments on “Proposed Guidelines to protect both Music Teachers and Students – a starting point for discussion”

  1. janet shell says:

    Very good Ian. I have written a set of professional conduct guidelines for teachers with school children and vice versa which I send out to my new parents, and am currently writing about the nature of the role of the peripatetic in school including positive language approaches etc – It’s amazing that what you have here is not the norm to be honest and I believe it IS for the majority of professors and teachers of course. Professionalism and integrity need to be the trademarks of our profession. It is depressing to think that we are all set to be viewed with suspicion and will probably have to prove ourselves innocent. It will be very easy for any er strong parent to jump on an innocent remark and make something out of it in this environment.
    I see CCTV footage making its appearance in teaching rooms before long.

  2. anon says:

    Could I suggest that the “default” setting be that a student should always address a teacher by title and surname, unless explicitly invited to do otherwise by the teacher. That way, the student is under no illusion that their relationship with a teacher is a professional relationship in which the teacher holds a lot of power and influence.

  3. […] What, in music education at least, can we do to address the problem? We need to promote both a strong ethical culture but also a degree of external regulation. The latter is necessary because, as Pace has argued in a recent blog post: […]

  4. […] Proposed Guidelines to protect both Music Teachers and Students – a starting point for discussion (21/2/15) […]

  5. […] Proposed Guidelines to protect both Music Teachers and Students – a starting point for discussion (21/2/15) […]

  6. Jonathan West says:

    This is all very well, but it doesn’t achieve much. It provides guidance for the well-intentioned as to how to interact with pupils. The well-intentioned probably don’t need the guidance. The ill-intentioned will ignore it.

    Well-intentioned non-abusing staff will have to do more than merely behave well towards their own students. If this abuse is to be rooted out, they also have to be prepared to report concerns about the behaviour of their colleagues.

    The guidance offers nothing on what to do if you suspect that some other teacher may be acting wrongly. The failings of music schools (and very many other settings) arise in considerable part from the unwillingness of non-abusing staff to report those staff they think may have acted wrongly, and from the unwillingness of senior staff to take action against them, including passing on the reports to the authorities.

    Non-reporting is far too common, and arises for a whole range of reasons, for instance fear that there may be an innocent explanation for what has been witnessed, fear of damaging the reputation of a respected colleague, fear of being labelled a snitch, fear of being a whilsteblower (whistleblowers are often sacked for the sin of being right).

    Until there is a cultural change that removes these impediments to reporting, I rather expect that not a lot will improve in music schools and colleges.

    • Ian Pace says:

      Do note that these guidelines are for tertiary level education i.e. university departments and conservatoires, with students aged 18 and over, and are not meant for schools at primary and secondary level.

      As far as reporting staff who are breaching guidelines is concerned, that is for a different set of guidelines, in terms of adherence to and enforcement of rules. Those things are certainly vitally important (and are things on which I have also worked) but usually need configuring in terms of the specific structures of the institution in question.

      Finally, well-intentioned staff frequently *do* need guidance, absolutely. Many can get in a bullying, intrusive or harrassing way to pupils without necessarily realising they are doing so. Please believe me when I say I have come across this often, with remarks which were thought by a teacher to be innocuous found by a student to devastating and humiliating, in ways which are wholly unnecessary.

      • Harold says:

        I’m of the opinion that students aged 18 and over, are in the age-of-consent. If they don’t have enough self-confidence to know what they want, then something went seriously wrong in their development.
        (Then we’d need to ask: what kind of incapable people are we “supposedly nurturing to maturity”????)
        Do we need to protect grown people from themselves? No. That’s ridiculous.

        I’m against enforcing some kind of “strict professional-only” rules between teacher and student.
        Because again: that would be kindergarten!
        Get real.

  7. Jones says:

    Further recommendations:
    The piano stools used, should allow only the seating of a single person.

    • Frank says:

      This can be generalized to the single most important guideline:
      The teacher should keep an appropriate respectful distance from the student.

      The biggest problem will be, where a teacher approaches the student’s private space (ever so carefully), to then test the student’s reactions and ascertain how far he can go:
      “oh let me demonstrate how to play that…” [goes on to ever so lightly make contact with the student’s arm]…
      Or reverse psychology:
      “may I touch you to demonstrate how it can be performed?”

      All of which is quite inappropriate.
      A teacher of music should teach emotional music-making, via sound alone (!); and not by additional (arousing) means, such as lightly contacting the student’s arm.
      It should be a teaching session, not a romantic moment of barely-noticeable light touching, etc. !!

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