With good news in short supply, the high and mighty of music education should have been celebrating this week as Michael Goves’ U-turn on the English Baccalaureate removed one of the many shadows hanging over grass roots music in schools. Instead, recent court cases and their fall-out have highlighted the intense and potentially unhealthy interaction between enthusiastic young musicians and their teachers. It is likely that the real extent of child abuse in specialist music schools has yet to be revealed but, while sensationalising hacks embark on more investigations, this is an opportunity to address some of the issues.
Sadly, few music professionals will have been shocked by the recent exposés, which were in fact heralded early in the last decade by high profile resignations and violinist Nigel Kennedy’s well publicised, if vague, recollections of the practice of grooming at school. With music education revolving around one-to-one tuition and holiday residential courses, the shock is only that it has taken so long for this to become a public concern.
Most parents are overjoyed when their children are accepted into one of the UK’s renowned specialist music schools. Entrance is competitive and often accompanied by generous scholarships that cover fees of over £30,000 a year. Unfortunately there is a general lack of awareness, for both parents and children, of the potentially damaging effects of intense musical study. At a young age (sometimes under 10) one enters an environment in which one’s sense of self is inextricably intertwined with the ability to pitch a note, play a rhythm, and articulate distinctly adult emotions. Performers are judged by how they look and move more so than how they sound, and the culture of female objectification is embedded at every level of the very industry to which these students aspire to belong, a notorious example being Matt Bendoris’s recent interview with former child prodigy Nicola Benedetti for The Scottish Sun. This is a system that has the capacity to produce incredibly vulnerable people, and puts them in situations in which that vulnerability can readily be exploited.
There is no way around the fact that instrumental tuition depends on one-to-one contact, at times literally, and no way of avoiding the possibility of a teacher’s abuse of this position. Children in these situations will always be vulnerable, but with a greater awareness of the mental implications of being put in a position where the success or failure of one’s week hinges on the word of a single charismatic gurulike figure, they can be made less so. It is essential for both students and parents to be educated in the realities of what it can mean to study an instrument to the very highest of levels, but is it so important that it remains a wonderful thing to attain a place at one of these institutions? Yes, but only if more is done to address the structures that, in the pursuit of excellence, actively induce mental and physical vulnerability, rather than waiting to pick up the pieces.