Controlling behaviour, emotional abuse – is classical music teaching broken?

It was everything Lily could have dreamed of. At summer school, aged 16, a prestigious flute teacher offered her a place in his university class, after just one lesson. He told her she was special, and that he was the only person that could teach her properly. It was an honour to be asked.

Calls and texts from the teacher made Lily feel cared for and important. He said she could stay in his house while auditioning, saving her a lot of money on accommodation. His care soon took the form of arranging her housing, paperwork and finances as she went to study with him – then insisting she used his bank, optician, doctor and osteopath. He devised plans for all aspects of her life from her weight and what she ate, to her complexion and clothing.

While classical music has long been mired in high profile cases of sexual abuse, the psychological and emotional abuse experienced by many young musicians is harder to pin down and often goes under the radar – especially when it happens to impressionable music students at universities and conservatoires who feel unable to speak out against their teachers.

What made Lily’s situation hard was she had no one to talk to. And it wasn’t all the time – he was sometimes incredibly complimentary about her playing. He was very senior – the forms of his misconduct were made incredibly difficult to prove, and he was behaving in similar ways to everyone in the flute class. The behaviour was surely normal? But after four years of having her life taken over by his teaching, as well as his questioning her sexuality and sometimes being “handsy” – touching her inappropriately – Lily was ready to give up the flute altogether and finally decided she had to leave.

“On reflection, I could use the word ‘groomed’ to describe how I was chosen to study with him,” Lily said. “I was very lucky to have found a way to continue past his abuse.”

Performing in the UK’s top orchestras and venues are musicians facing the impact of forms of psychological abuse suffered at the hands of their music teacher when they were studying. With higher level music courses focused around 60 hours a year of one-to-one music tuition, the intensity of this space can be a breeding ground for inappropriate behaviour and relationships. Now, former and current music students are speaking out about their experiences of psychological abuse during their studies, many for the first time.

“If the situation is one-to-one then the opportunity [for abuse] is greater, without witnesses to curb any inappropriate behaviour or words,” pianist Stephen Hough said when we talked about why situations of psychological abuse can be so common. “There are tragic stories of those who were taken advantage of by their music teachers… From UK public schools through to orphanages, there has always been a too-high number of dreadful cases.”

A joint study by the Musicians Union (MU) and Independent Society of Musicians (ISM) in 2018 found that 57% of music, dance and drama students in higher education had experienced some form of inappropriate behaviour. Of those, 42% of students said that the behaviour had been from a member of permanent teaching staff at the institution.

This, and the Dignity at Work report by the ISM, led to the creation of a Code of Practice to help eradicate bullying, harassment and discrimination in the music sector. To date, only two out of the UK’s nine music conservatoires have publicly backed the Code – the Royal Academy of Music and Leeds Conservatoire. Universities that teach music and have signed the code include: University of Huddersfield, University of Bangor, University of Manchester and University of Aberdeen.

The ISM told the Evening Standard, “The code is growing in support – we welcomed the most recent supporter in the last couple of weeks… In trying to campaign for changes, we are going to always be up against the gaps in legislative protections for freelancers first and foremost… That’s where a lot of our current efforts are being placed right now behind the scenes.”

But music students aren’t freelancers – trust is placed in educational establishments to keep musicians safe, but what protection is there?

Following allegations of harassment in December of 2019, the Royal Academy of Music launched an independent review investigating these claims. Chaired by Professor Peter Kopelman, the review found “a widespread culture among conservatoire students of the fear of ‘speaking out’ that appears to stem from the belief that powerful individuals have the potential to adversely influence opportunities for those in the music profession”.

Recommendations were made: the Academy should embrace a culture of openness and transparency. The review said, “No one should be invited into a teaching relationship without proper background scrutiny and reference checks” and asked the Academy to “strengthen its pastoral care offering”.

Almost three years later, the Royal Academy of Music says it has seen a “shift from anonymous to identified formal reporting”, demonstrating “greater trust that they will receive the support they need.”

It told the Evening Standard, “Following the review we have created a tri-part safeguarding support and monitoring structure, independent of the academic team. This comprises an independent safeguarding committee, including a designated trustee, which monitors and regulates the Academy’s safeguarding work; the appointment of a Senior Case Manager, outside the teaching faculty, to whom students can report issues directly.”

The Academy also created a new post of dean of students as designated safeguarding lead within the senior management team. It has also tripled the counselling support available to students and there are now compulsory training modules for all staff and students in bullying and sexual harassment.

This isn’t the case everywhere – reviews like this one rely on institutions taking allegations seriously and responding quickly. Many musicians are studying in institutions who aren’t bridging the gaps in safeguarding and reporting procedures – there’s no Ofsted-equivalent organisation holding them accountable. And it doesn’t fix the experiences of trauma many musicians identified when speaking about the years following their training.

I spoke to Mia, a musician completing her masters degree in music. Mia told me about her experience of finding a piano teacher for her masters following a negative experience with a male piano teacher during her undergraduate studies, “There was a lot of trauma being brought up around moving away and having to change teachers again. The biggest worry was what if I find somebody that’s like my old teacher – I didn’t want that to happen again. When I left him, he told me he thought a female teacher would suit me better.

“I hadn’t had any responses from any teachers I wanted to study with. When I emailed this certain teacher she replied to me within a couple of hours, and I remember having a feeling of release because someone had finally replied to me – she replied with a lovely e-mail too. It felt like there was finally someone that was there and supportive.”

Following six months of intense progress and pressure on her master’s programme, Mia was finding that her initial perceptions about her teacher were starting to slip. “The first sign that something was wrong was when I received my mark for an exam, and she told me that she thought I deserved a lower mark. Then I was asked to play in the semi-final of a prestigious chamber music competition. I thought it was an amazing opportunity, but when I spoke to my teacher about it, she was adamant that I shouldn’t take part. She was incredibly against it but would never explain to me why.

“I received some really, really horrible emails from her about that. It made me feel so panicked and distressed. I had gone against her so that was it from then on – there was no rectifying. And then I noticed she was very cold in the lessons, blamed me for developing a playing injury, and slowly but surely she had nothing positive to say about my playing. Then she began cutting my lessons short, saying I wasn’t bringing her enough music to work on. But you don’t walk away from a lesson like that thinking about going to practice. You walk away thinking, ‘Well, I’m never going to get anywhere, so why bother?’”

Mia also told me she had noticed a gender imbalance in her teacher’s class: “The majority of her students were female, and very ‘meek and mild’. They always said yes, and nodded, never challenging her. I just remember sitting there and thinking, ‘This isn’t me and I don’t know whether I should be putting up with this control.’”

In January of this year, Tár was released in UK cinemas. Todd Field’s film stars Cate Blanchett, who won the BAFTA for Best Actress for her performance, as the divisive and manipulative conductor, Lydia Tár. The film, mapping her fall from power, divided the music industry with its conversations around gender and abuse. People questioned why, due to the industry’s history of misconduct from male musicians in power, was its protagonist a woman? Why brand a gay, female conductor with the label of “abuser”?

“I was offended,” said conductor Marin Alsop about the film in an interview with the Times. “I was offended as a woman, I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian…There are so many actual documented men…[who have abused their power] instead ... [this film] puts a woman in the role but gives her all the attributes of those men. That feels anti-woman.”

But Tár also demonstrated behaviours of psychological abuse that transcend gender. Blanchett’s character promises the world to her assistant, getting closer to her and then dropping her suddenly. She verbally threatens a young child in her daughter’s playground. She is narcissistic and dismissive to her partner. She controls people through her reputation and esteem. It appears that power abuse issues could be more gender-neutral than we may have thought.

Anna Bull, who trained as a pianist and cellist and now works in academia as a sociologist, says, “In general, men have more power in society than women, whether that’s economic, social or cultural, and within classical music.

“You can take the power structure and put women into it, but it doesn’t necessarily change that power structure. It might be a way of inhabiting power and control that we associate with masculinity, but women can also adopt those behaviours.

Gender is only one of the forms of power at play, she says. “There’s also the prestige that teachers can accumulate within an institution. Prestige can start getting conferred at a relatively young age because the star performers will often become the star teachers.”

Bull adds, “The issue is the wider culture that normalises that behaviour. How is it possible that we keep reproducing a musical culture that values these behaviours? For example, abusive behaviour is sometimes dismissed or minimised as someone being ‘quirky’ or as a sign of genius – a sign of somebody with ‘radical’ teaching methods who gets amazing results. We risk making excuses for behaviours that are effectively an abuse of power.”

Accusations from previous students at two music boarding schools, training musicians from the ages of eight to 18 – the Yehudi Menuhin School and Chetham’s School of Music – emerged in 2013 as numerous claims appeared. The arrest and trial of ex-Chethams Head of Music Michael Brewer, who was found guilty of sexually abusing a 14-year-old, lead to the tragic suicide of victim Frances Andrade, shortly after she testified against him.

It can be difficult to understand why, as these experiences arise, leaving or reporting a teacher can feel like an unbearable feat. But situations of abuse are rarely black and white. Many of the people I spoke to explained the complexity of emotions and unpredictability of their teacher.

“They would pay for me to go on summer music courses with them,” says Andrew, who began with his teacher when he was 14 – offering lessons and coaching for young musicians every Saturday. “In the beginning I thought I could take the behaviour because I knew that they were fond of me, even though they were horrible, They would talk to my dad and say, ‘He’s doing so well, but I need to treat him like this.

“I remember once playing the Brahms E minor Cello Sonata – the first movement – and my teacher put their head in their hands for the whole of it. When I finished there was this horrible silence. That kind of silence where there’s tension in the air and you know what’s coming, but you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong. But to them, it was as if the world was crashing down.

“I was ripped apart – every little thing I did. They told me I was lazy and that I hadn’t worked hard enough. I had an intense panic attack the day before a performance that was so bad that an ambulance was called.”

The experience with his teacher left Andrew with significant trauma – diagnosed with complex PTSD and depression following a breakdown in the second year of his studies, the impact of his teacher continued, even after he’d left them.

“I began taking antidepressants which saved my life,” Andrew says. “The trauma was living in my body and seeping out, particularly in the scenario of one-to-one lessons. I just felt like I couldn’t play – physically. I was completely disconnected from myself. I didn’t trust anyone.”

Andrew says his story isn’t unique, and explains why often reporting bullying behaviours is so difficult: “When I was at college, the person you go to report that kind of stuff is also equally as corrupt. Psychologically doing damaging things, and sexually inappropriate. Making comments, making passes – where do people turn? Who do they talk to when the person you’re meant to talk to is potentially trying to date you?”

Advocating for musicians as creative agents in their own right disrupts the whole genre of classical music. Classical music’s power structures are underpinned by what Anna Bull calls a “weighted tradition” in which students are chastised for “disrupting the legacy” if they speak out against an abusive teaching practice.

It’s a reality that sustains abusive practices in classical music, with the impact being, as Andrew says, one that can tarnish an entire career: “To this day, I don’t think I’d trust a teacher. I couldn’t, because I don’t believe, and my body doesn’t believe, that they would keep me safe.”


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