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Don’t let abuse fears ruin music

A Savile-style inquiry into one of the UK’s top music schools could wreck the informality essential to music tuition.

Denis Joe

Topics UK

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The suicide of a talented British violinist, Frances Andrade, after she gave evidence against her former music teacher in a sexual-abuse case, has prompted calls for a review of the way complainants are treated in court. What has received less attention is the corrosive effect the case, and the wider alarm about abuse, will have on music teaching.

Andrade killed herself after giving evidence against Michael Brewer, the former choirmaster at the prestigious Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, the largest specialist music school in the UK. Brewer was convicted of carrying out sexual abuse in his office at the school between 1978 and 1982, and his wife was convicted of indecently assaulting the same victim.

Since the arrest of the Brewers, at least 10 former teachers at Chetham’s have come under investigation. Wen Zhou Li, a violin teacher, has been arrested on suspicion of rape. It would seem that the model for investigating this school is based on what happened in the Jimmy Savile case. So Greater Manchester Police have set up an investigative team to look into historical offences at Chetham’s, some of which, like those of Li’s, date back 30 years. There have been calls for former students to report any incidents they can think of, and chief superintendent Russ Jackson has warned that ‘this is an investigation that could take some time’.

The case has also prompted some very worrying proposals for the future of musical education in Britain. Linda Merrick, the new principal of the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), has suggested that one-to-one teaching, a method that she recognises as ‘a very important part of being a musician’, may have to be sacrificed, however essential it might be.

She went on to outline what this might involve at RNCM. ‘This could mean demolishing walls to turn small practice rooms into big enough suites to accommodate classes’, she said, adding that every option for improving safety is ‘on the table’. This seems like an extreme response to an investigation into events that happened years ago, and one which could have a deleterious effect on the very purpose of music teaching.

One of Britain’s leading pianists, Ian Pace, who is an organiser of a petition calling for a public inquiry into the Chetham’s scandal, was a pupil at Chetham’s from 1978 to 1986. He says he was aware of sexual relations between tutors and students and did not know whether guidelines were issued about such behaviour. If they were, then they were not enforced.

During the Brewers’ trial, it emerged that another teacher, Malcolm Layfield, who was appointed head of strings at the RNCM, had been the subject of some concern among academic staff and ex-pupils. Two tutors resigned over Layfield’s appointment, including Martin Roscoe, head of keyboards. Roscoe wrote to the then principal of the RNCM, outlining his concerns and claiming that 24 RNCM teachers were also unhappy about the arrival of Layfield. In response, he was warned by the RNCM’s director of resources ‘not to communicate with any third party, either inside or outside the college, about any of the details that have been considered, as this might bring the name of the college into disrepute’. It would appear that the problem was not one-to-one tuition, as such, but rather Chetham’s allegedly lax attitude towards those it employed.

For many musicians who use teaching to supplement their pay from playing in orchestras, the fallout from the Chetham’s affair may well give them second thoughts about private tuition.

Fears about tuition have been around for a while. In 2010, the Musicians’ Union, in partnership with the NSPCC, produced a series of videos instructing music teachers and tutors how they should behave while teaching. One video, ‘Keeping children safe in music – inappropriate demonstration’, met with a hostile response from teachers and musicians. The current education secretary, Michael Gove, condemned the video as playing to a ‘culture of fear among adults and children’. He went on to say that there were many occasions when it was ‘totally appropriate’ for teachers or tutors to be in physical contact with a pupil.

Physical contact between a teacher and a pupil will always be necessary for effective instruction, and yet today’s climate of suspicion might do away with this aspect of teaching. A level of informality will always be essential to providing good education and instruction. In order to praise or criticise a student effectively, it is essential that such instruction be provided in the least bombastic manner, in order to maintain the student’s confidence. A good tutor or teacher will know where boundaries lie and will be aware of his or her professional responsibilities towards students.

Musical education teaches a love for and an appreciation of the arts. Many musicians go on to develop very intimate relationships with their chosen instruments, aware of how important the right instrument is to their ability to communicate an artistic vision. And educating young people in how to play and indeed love a musical instrument will often involve touch – arranging a student’s fingers around guitar strings or showing him how to hold a violin bow. This often has to be done in quiet rooms, too, away from other people and their noise. Music teaching is by definition physical and often done in isolation. Such activities will become very difficult in today’s climate of panic about abuse.

Kneejerk reactions to exceptional events should not undermine what can be a very intimate and rewarding process for those students wishing to embark on a career as a musician. In the aftermath of the Brewers’ trial and the ongoing police investigation into Chetham’s, more voices are calling for tighter controls over music teaching – and that will be to the detriment of the creation of world-class musicianship in this country.

Denis Joe is a reviewer for the Manchester Salon.

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Topics UK

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