The line between good teaching and abuse

We must not allow the horror of recent revelations to diminish the privileged relationship of music teacher and student

Claire Fox

This year should have been one of real celebration for classical music: it is the 200th anniversary of the births of Verdi and Wagner and the founding of the Royal Philharmonic Society; Mascagni was born 150 years ago and Benjamin Britten would have been 100.

How sad, then, that headlines about classical music have tended to focus on predatory music teachers accused of sexually abusing their students. Since March, when a former music director of Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, England, was jailed for indecently assaulting a student, who tragically killed herself after giving evidence, the crisis has spread. Some 39 past and present teachers are under investigation from Manchester music schools alone, with another arrest in June. Several world-famous schools have been embroiled in their own scandals.

In February, the renaming by Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music of the Ryszard Bakst memorial prize for the best Chopin performance - after five women accused Bakst of molesting them before his death in 1999 - sent shock waves through Poland, where Bakst is revered as a great patriot. There is more almost every week.

Although we must be sensitive to the principle that an accusation is not the same as proven guilt, understandably many are horrified at these alleged offences. The issue of sexual abuse and children is highly emotive. However, we should not let it blind us to the damage that might result from overreacting. For example, there is mounting concern that escalating demands to name and shame are placing thousands of dedicated music teachers under unfair suspicion and impinging on their ability to teach music.

In April, world-renowned British viola player Rosemary Nalden issued just such a warning; she fears that the fallout from the sexual abuse scandals may end up doing "music teaching a horrible disservice". Nalden made her remarks when she was awarded honorary membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society for directing the inspirational Buskaid project, which runs a music school for disadvantaged students in Soweto, South Africa. She noted that the increasing panic about physical contact between teachers and students would make it "incredibly difficult" for her to open a similar school in Britain.

Indeed, one result of the sexual abuse allegations has been calls to further regulate hands-on one-to-one tuition, even though the ability to physically position an instrument and teach muscle memory is a crucial part of the teaching process. Such is the climate of fear that the Musicians' Union has advised teachers to offer online courses, to "avoid all physical contact (because) any physical contact with pupils can be potentially subject to misinterpretation or even malicious allegations".

'Times have changed'

One area of possible misinterpretation arises because so much of the focus is on historical allegations. Writing on TES Connect (bit.lyCultureOfAbuse), pianist Ian Pace, a former student at Chetham's who has launched a high-profile petition calling for an independent inquiry into a culture of abuse in music schools, describes how, in the light of recent events, he has been forced to "re-evaluate those times". He explains how such events have triggered "an almost frantic piecing together of memories". Is there a danger that such re-evaluation might encourage the interpretation of benign past experiences through the prism of contemporary sensitivities?

Didier Gazelle, strongly refuting accusations of abuse levelled at his deceased father, Belgian pianist Marcel Gazelle, points out that "times have changed", that "what was acceptable 50 years ago is now considered as an offence". He testifies that his father "always showed great affection for his pupils", that nobody at the time, including his mother, "was thinking this was evil". He asks, "Where is the limit between affection and sexual abuse?"

Certainly, the definition of what constitutes abuse is being broadened to such an extent that there is a danger of eliding a range of relatively trivial (if sometimes unsavoury) behaviours with serious molestation. Pace, speaking to Classical Music magazine, concedes that behaviours that arouse his concern, such as "psychological, emotional and other abuse", don't "necessarily translate into direct criminality". But what exactly does "psychological abuse" consist of? An ever-widening definition can mean demonising important if unfashionably rigorous educational practices. When cellist Michal Kaznowski condemns a "very harsh teaching environment in those days" and others talk of "sadistic teaching methods" and "cruel and humiliating criticism", it is not clear whether these are any more than subjective reactions against a type of pedagogy they personally disapprove of.

I was a ballet student for 12 years from the age of 4, and there is no denying that my teachers were unsentimentally critical, used their hands to push my body into shapes and postures it was reluctant to adopt and demanded a relentless, repetitive practice regime. Were these cruel, sadistic taskmasters or committed tutors? In fact, those teachers who instilled discipline and dedication were inspiring mentors who got the best from their students and commanded great loyalty and affection.

Ironically, the very popularity of such mentors is now being smeared with innuendo. What should be a proud boast, that many specialist schools engage world-class performers as instructors, is now ridiculed as allowing "monstrous egos" to cultivate "entourages of adoring young students". Composer Lord Berkeley of Knighton says that abuse can "flourish" because of "the extreme vulnerability of pupils... for whom the teacher may be some sort of guru".

We lose all perspective if, like Pace, we blame today's crisis on the way the "artistic temperament" of Beethoven, Liszt or Wagner has legitimised "traits of narcissistic self-obsession" and "ruthless competitiveness". To suggest, as he does, that a "culture" of sexual abuse derives from solo performances that involve "deeply intimate emotions" and "entail a seduction, captivation and bewitchment of one's audience" implies that the only anniversary 2013 might be remembered for is the date the music died.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas.

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