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"No music or art form is more important than the right of children to live safe from all abuse"

By Ian Pace, concert pianist and historical musicologist

Ian Pace writes in response to a comment article by Institute of Ideas director Claire Fox, who was in turn responding to an original piece about abuse at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, England by Mr Pace himself.

Hysterical responses to any type of crime or misdemeanour, however heinous, and tabloid-stoked vigilantism are wrong.  However, Claire Fox (The line between good teaching and abuse, TES, September 6, 2013) takes this much too far in the opposite direction and opens the door to trivialisation of a serious phenomenon.

Fox cites exaggerated fears that issues concerning physical contact between teacher and student will make teaching impossible. But there are constructive ways of regulating this: I suggest (and now myself practise) that a teacher should ask a student first before making physical contact, either on each occasion or as a general principle, and respect the student’s right to say no. If it is impossible (although I doubt it) for a student who refuses such contact to progress to a high level, then that is surely an issue for the student, not the teacher, to worry about.

Fox also asks if ‘benign past experiences’ are being reinterpreted ‘through the prism of contemporary sensibilities’, citing Didier Gazelle’s comments on my blog post regarding his father Marcel, which she takes at face value. I have spoken to multiple victims of Gazelle (some of whom were aged 10 or 11 at the time) and without detailing the hideous nature of what occurred when he entered girls’ bedrooms early on many mornings, would like to assure Claire Fox that his behaviour, sexually interfering with pre-pubescent girls, was not acceptable 50 years ago any more than it is now.  What has changed is that it is now (sometimes) possible to report it and not be instantly disbelieved.

Fox is dismissive of the concept of psychological abuse and claims of ‘sadistic teaching methods’, painting them as ‘rigorous teaching practices’. But rigour and abuse are not synonymous. Many good teachers are rigorous and exacting without wilfully undermining students’ self-confidence and sense of being. Others are not.  I have been told of teachers slamming piano lids on students’ fingers, hitting 11-year olds over the head with heavy books, hurling cases across the room in an expression of the teacher’s own frustrations, questioning students relentlessly about their sexual habits or even about masturbation. Other examples involve teachers holding students up for public ridicule, maliciously reducing them to tears at the start of every lesson in order then to comfort them on their lap, mocking those whose sexual development came later on the pretext that this makes them unable to approach certain music. And at several specialist music schools, as a result of such pressures this and other pressures, there have been epidemics of eating disorders, physical self-harm (sometimes co-ordinated) and suicide attempts (at one school half the girls in one year attempted suicide; most of them were expelled as a result). All of these dreadful behaviours and equally dreadful consequences belong, in my opinion, within a spectrum of abuse which is not necessarily of a sexual nature.  I have spoken to some who have experienced both sexual and psychological abuse, and would attest that the latter was more damaging.

I do not believe one must ‘lose all perspective’ by looking at dangers which are specific to or found in intensified form in the classical music field.  Romantic conceptions of musical ‘geniuses’, to whom laws of decent human behaviour apparently do not apply, remain prevalent; from this emerges some of the ‘monstrous egos’ which many musicians well recognise. Many such people are in positions of power which enable them to make or break younger musicians’ careers, and some have little compunction about using this power of patronage for their own sexual advantage, or to engage in bullying and abusive behaviour to bolster their own sense of self. The opportunities and incentives for abuse are inherent within such a system. To combat this structural abuse requires a fundamental examination of the values and workings of the classical music world. Personally I believe we need more, rather than less, external regulation of the workings of this world; it is naïve to think that musicians, left unregulated, will act against their own self-interest any more than bankers.

Furthermore, there is no necessary merit in engaging ‘world-class performers’ as teachers.  Performing and teaching are very different skills and such performers may not have the understanding, knowledge and maturity to work with children. I have seen far too many cases where teaching serves primarily to enhance the teacher’s reputation rather than help the student.

No musical composition, performance or recording, no reputation of any music school or institution, is more important than the right of children (and, indeed, many adults) to live safe from all abuse. Human welfare is more important than music or any other art form. To maintain otherwise is to possess a distorted moral compass.

Ian Pace studied piano, composition and percussion at Chetham’s School of Music from 1978 to 1986, followed by Oxford and Cardiff universities and the Juilliard School in New York. He has a dual career as concert pianist and historical musicologist, and is lecturer in music and head of performance at City University London. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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