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.
New article on abuse and classical music by Damian Thompson in the Spectator, and some wider reflections on classical music and abusePosted: December 5, 2014
A new article went online yesterday on abuse in the classical music world – Damian Thompson, ‘Classical music’s dirty little secret’, The Spectator, December 6th, 2014. It contrasts in particular the revelations about alleged abuse within the El Sistema organisation through the work of Geoff Baker, and those about abuse at Chetham’s School of Music and elsewhere, featuring an interview with me on this and related subjects. The article goes deeper than most have done previously, and I would urge all to read it.
I have been reflecting more widely on the relationship between the callous exertion of power in music and also aestheticised outlooks, and the abuse of both children and adults, and wanted to share a few thoughts growing out of what I said for the Spectator interview. I have published previously on this in the Times Educational Supplement here and here, and will write at more length on these issues at a future date. At the heart of this lie the issues of the exploitation of power beneath an artistic veneer, and the relegating of human interests secondary to other aesthetic or more abstract concerns, an subject which has exercised me for a great many years. Here are my thoughts for now.
There are multiple ways in which sexual abuse occurs in musical education in the UK (see my earlier posts here and here for documentation of various cases since 1990). One involves abuse of pre-pubescent boys in choirs, and has been found time and time again in many leading private schools; another involves adolescents, primarily but not exclusively girls, who are sexually exploited by instrumental teachers, especially in specialist music schools and at summer music courses and the like. There is also of course much evidence of abuse of both sexes by private music teachers, who are often not subject to the same checks as those working in some institutions. The process of sexual exploitation of adolescents also continues with young adults in conservatoires, in a similar fashion. Instrumental teachers have great power and prestige which can easily be exploited when they have access to vulnerable, sometimes star-struck, girls and young women. The many stories I have heard are utterly hideous and depressing. Teachers regularly reduce their students to tears so they can then comfort and sexually touch them, or ask the students to perform sexual acts as a sign of how much they ‘trust’ them. Some are told they can only do justice to certain types of music when they have become a ‘whole woman’, as a prelude to sex. Other teachers simply attempt to force themselves on students in lessons in ways which can be terrifying and amount to attempted rape. Some have been told by directors of institutions that if they dare to go to the police, then they can give up any hope they might have had of a musical career; those with powerful connections are indeed often in a position to do this.
But there are certainly non-sexual forms of abuse which have gone on at all the music schools as well, which can be just as damaging. The issues of abuse in the classical musical world are not in my opinion simply about some people in power being sexually attracted to some musicians – I don’t think that is something surprising, unnatural or wrong, even if they act on those desires, when the musicians are above the age of consent and of course consenting. But I believe these link to a deeper culture of power and its wilful exertion, a vocabulary and mentality of sexual predation as a strategy to demean, dominate, humiliate for reasons that are far from merely sexual. In this field, in my experience, there is no reason to believe that female teachers are any less likely to be culpable than male ones (and in the case of actual sexual abuse the gender divide is not necessarily so simple; even where not actual perpetrators, some female teachers and others have been amongst the most staunch defenders of abusers, and acted in hateful and vicious ways towards those they have exploited).
In such a context sexual abuse can often be an extension of other forms of emotional and physical abuse, in order to enforce a relationship of domination and dehumanisation mystified by the aura surrounding ‘artistic’ personalities and their relationships to others. An artistic aura and its associated temperament can often mask simple cases of fragile egos and other insecurities, which can be bolstered by dominating others. Such domination works best with a willing or at least helpless victim in the form of a child, or one who acts and appears like one.
At the same time, I think we need to look hard at the way audiences and others ‘consume’ and psychologically dominate musicians, especially young ones. Is the young performer presented in a rarefied fashion for an audience’s delectation so different from a glamour model, or even one in a window in a red light district? Are they meant to have a will of their own, or merely to please others?
The world view of the nineteenth-century aesthete still has a profound impact upon classical music culture, certainly in the UK, US, France and some other places. I have spent quite some time studying this in various contexts (not least the ways in which this outlook can be linked to fascism, as diagnosed in different ways by Walter Benjamin, Roger Shattuck and Frederic Spotts). The aesthetic movement was a type of quasi-aristocratic rearguard group of aesthetes reacting against the growth of bourgeois society and mass culture. They believed moral questions and human interests to be of little importance relative to their own notions of beauty. This beauty was of course something only a small number were in a position to appreciate, an aesthetic aristocracy if you like, and they often viewed other human beings in purely aesthetic terms. I believe this is profoundly dehumanising. There is also a considerable overlap between early aesthetes, including Pater, Wilde, Huysmans, Crowley and others, and the movement of ‘Uranian’ poets and some artists, a group of pederasts who were described in the volume Betrayal of Youth as like a nineteenth-century version of the Paedophile Information Exchange.
To the aesthete, a young boy not yet faced by the doubts, moral choices and responsibility of an adult, is unthreatening and more ripe to be adored and salivated over. If you look at pederastic photographs of naked young boys in classical poses by Wilhelm von Gloeden, who was associated with the Uranians (and whose work I have earlier written about in terms of its influence upon some music of Michael Finnissy), you will see a similar thing. Certain qualities are favoured – looks suggesting arrogance but submission, petulance and self-centeredness, and sometimes exaggerated hyper-masculinity, absolutely nothing which would suggest an emerging mind or any trappings of an intellectual-to-be.
I have seen exactly the same attitudes at play regularly amongst those with power in the classical music world. Young men and women favoured to the extent they exhibit (deliberately or unwittingly) certain of these attributes. Some men because they look like a slightly thuggish rent boy, some women because they can give the right type of Shirley Temple-like sickly-sweet smile. Fundamentally, they become objects, and often the critics, administrators, radio producers and so on who favour them will abandon them as they get older, so they can move onto their next bright young things. This is all part of the same processes of domination of which sexual abuse of children is the most extreme form.
There’s a very obvious continuum, to me, between von Gloeden’s arrogant yet submissive naked boys and the picture of Gustavo Dudamel with a smug and self-satisfied expression, showing how his willingness to conform to the needs of others is rewarded with a Rolex watch. Similarly between Lewis Carroll’s pederastic pictures of young girls and some of the images routinely encountered of young female violinists. The same is true of the publicity materials and discursive constructions around numerous Wunderkind young composers and performers. The arbiters of classical music enmesh musicians into their own web in ways which bear an uncanny resemblance to the grooming strategies of paedophiles. I have even come to consider more sinister interpretations of the apparent innocence, suffused with unspoken desire, which I hear in works such as Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, possibly representing dances of naked boys (in part) at an ancient Spartan festival, at a time when the concept of ‘Greek love’ (love between men and boys) was very much in vogue in British and French artistic circles.
There were tyrannical teachers and educational practices which grew in the nineteenth century. It was seen as perfectly acceptable to beat students; teachers put them through gruelling (and generally useless) regimes of exercises so that the few who had not had a nervous breakdown or suffered irreparable muscular damage could feel themselves blessed and ‘toughened up’ for a musical career, in which they could inflict the same on their own students. Learning, practising, and music-making were made mind-numbing and conducted in an atmosphere of intense fear. In the educational culture bequeathed above all by the early Paris Conservatoire, the emphasis was no longer upon producing a rounded musician and individual, as in earlier times, but more simply a streamlined playing machine. But in many places these methods were found to be unsatisfactory in many respects and more mature and humane approaches began to take their place, which also often produced much finer musicians.
But then with the Cold War and the Soviet need above all to produce competition winners rather than rounded musicians, there was something of a backlash. Dictatorial approaches to teaching, with no concern for the wider consequences, came back into fashion. Some were aped in the West, crowding out some alternative approaches. Several of the specialist music schools in the UK – all of which were founded between 1962 and 1972 – were explicitly modelled on Russian institutions and styles of teaching, at a time when considerations of the welfare of children and the dangers of such hothouse environments hardly registered.
I have heard major allegations of abuse at all five institutions. The schools have certainly all produced some successful musicians, but if they are happy to take credit for these, they must also take responsibility for the ruined lives, sometimes racked by depression, self-harm, suicide attempts and more, which are equally their legacy. The effect of a school upon all who attended it, not just a small successful minority, matters.
Bullying and malicious exploitation of power in musical education are also rampant. Insecure teachers do this plenty. One of my own former students underwent some serious bullying at the hands of another teacher on a course, who tried everything he could to undermine this pianist by repeatedly spreading malicious talk about him to others, doing all he could to humiliate him in front of others (and before he was about to perform) and so on, because he saw him as a threat. Various people complained about the behaviour of this teacher, but of course nothing was done. This individual once proudly pronounced ‘I get students who think they are good – my job is to make them realise they suck’. This attitude is all-revealing – it is not about helping the student, but playing power games to bolster the teacher’s own self-esteem.
Other types of behaviour I have often encountered have deeply shocked me – just the callousness of it all. One privileged young composer thought nothing of fabricating false rumours about a rival, claiming he was being beaten up by his father, so as to portray this rival as unstable and thus unlikely to be up to being a composer. What has shocked me even more is how many people know this and other similar things about this person, but are completely unbothered by it – certainly it did not impede his own progression in academia. I know one instrumentalist who feigns friendship in order to gain other musicians’ confidence, so that they might reveal such things as spells of depression, which he then uses as malicious gossip to undermine them; another did the same when he found that one woman was going through a legal process in which she alleged her father had abused her. A prominent musician, upon being appointed to a prominent position, bragged to others that now he had the chance to get revenge on all those who had previously stood in his way.
Classical music and its associated culture is still shot through by some fundamentally hierarchical nineteenth-century values which are little in vogue any longer in other cultural fields. I am not saying we should throw out the baby with the bathwater, but do believe much rethinking is necessary. Sexual abuse in classical music is maybe the most extreme symptom of a wider corruption. When you have a culture which idolises a small few ‘great men/women’, sees narcissism, bullying and despicable treatment of others not simply as unavoidable evils but actually as signs of artistry, and encourages an attitude of awe and submission, rather than concrete and critical engagement, then the dangers of abuse are acute.
Whilst figures such as Beethoven or Wagner or Furtwängler or Britten continue to be idolised not just for the work they produced but for the personalities they were, then the role models for younger musicians are fatally flawed. We should reject entirely the idea that musicians are a breed apart, and discourage such thinking.