How Private Lessons And Culture In Classical Music Have Left Pupils Vulnerable To Sexual Misconduct

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Berklee College of Music on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Berklee College of Music on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Outrage and soul-searching are surging through Boston’s music community after sexual assault allegations have come to light against professors at Berklee College of Music and former Boston Symphony Orchestra music director James Levine.

But abuse accusations are nothing new to the classical world and its music mentor/mentee relationships. What is it about the classical realm and culture that makes it pervasive, and how are people trying to change it?

Inherent Trust, And How It Can Be Broken

Twenty-nine-year-old Amanda Cook has taken a lot of flute lessons, one-on-one, behind closed doors. They can be physical, with touching to demonstrate posture, how to breathe, how to hold and engage with the instrument.

"A lot of times [professors are] showing you by physically guiding your hand or putting a hand on a muscle to encourage you to try to feel a sensation in a certain place," Cook said. "[That's] perfectly within the realm of normal instruction, but it opens a door for things to become uncomfortable."

Or worse.

Flutist Amanda Cook. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Flutist Amanda Cook. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Cook now works at a classical music school in Newton, and has led her own private lessons.

"There's a lot of trust that has to sort of inherently be put into a teacher when you're studying classical music," she explained.

The university-trained musician has heard a slew of firsthand accounts describing that trust being broken. It infuriates her, and so does what she sees as a pervasive power dynamic that's persisted throughout classical music's history.

As editor-in-chief of the online classical publication I Care If You Listen, Cook said she is trying to do her part to address longstanding inequities in the classical industry.

Cook called it an "old boys’ club" where great male composers, performers and conductors are deified with terms like "virtuoso" and "genius."

"It just places these people on some sort of weird pedestal," she said. "It puts them in a position where maybe their behavior can be overlooked."

Not just overlooked, but also unreported — at universities, conservatories and auditions. The classical field is brutally competitive, and musicians need to get gigs and get along.

"Because you have people in positions of influence and power who can determine who gets hired, what roles they get, what opportunities they get," said Steven Lipsitt, music director of the Bach, Beethoven and Brahms Society in Boston.

Over his decades in the industry, Lipsitt said he’s seen a lot of inappropriate behavior in school and on stage.

Bach, Beethoven and Brahms Society music director Steven Lipsitt.(Courtesy)
Bach, Beethoven and Brahms Society music director Steven Lipsitt. (Courtesy)

"I've had female colleagues asked not to be left alone in a room with a particularly well-known conductor or manager who is known to — to put it charitably --  take flirtation a little too far."

Lipsitt was born in the 1950s and recalled being offered backrubs by his conducting mentors, which he said, at the time, seemed like it came with the territory. But now he said he feels differently.

"All of a sudden, looking back, we realize what an unhealthy atmosphere was potential around the corner at every moment," Lipsitt said, "and often created at music schools, at summer festivals."

'Maybe This Isn't One Of Those Things'

Scott Lewis, a consultant with the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management Group (NCherm), believes a cultural shift is in the wind forcing people to think, "Wait a minute, maybe this isn’t one of those things that happens. Maybe this isn’t something we have to put up with or tolerate."

NCherm trains higher education institutions on risk prevention and management — everything from Title IX issues, to harassment on conservatory campuses.

Lewis said music schools are vulnerable for a number of reasons. Like Cook, he also cited the one-on-one teaching structure. He said rumors about any questionable behavior should be taken seriously.

"Engaging in a little more inquiry and a little more training toward these individuals, and I think you’re going to see a lot more pressure for individuals to say, 'I’m going to resign' or they’re going to be terminated," Lewis said. "Where before, there might’ve been, 'We’re going to move you to department A to department B,' or take you out of the classroom."

"If you’re a musician, and you're studying with someone, and you have this sense that they are really going to unlock your talent ... you can feel like a lot depends on this person and this relationship."

Karen Zorn, Longy School of Music president

Longy School of Music president Karen Zorn said she makes it a priority to act on rumors, and the mechanisms for reporting need to be easy and safe. Zorn added that she sympathizes with young music students who are reluctant to speak out.

"If you’re a musician, and you're studying with someone, and you have this sense that they are really going to unlock your talent — and they are the key to your future career — you can feel like a lot depends on this person and this relationship," Zorn said.

A teaching space at Longy. (Courtesy)
A teaching space at Longy. (Courtesy)

Since she assumed her position at Longy 10 years ago, Zorn has made changes to make her students feel safer, including installing large, glass windows in teaching spaces. Recently, the school has been exploring a concept used at a conservatory in the Netherlands that's making private lessons public and open, where other students can watch and learn.

Zorn has also been writing to the school community more often, encouraging people to come forward if they experience or observe sexual abuse, misconduct or harassment.

"I’ve experienced it myself," the career musician said. "So I feel more courage to really speak up. And I hope if you’re a student at Longy, and you hear the president say, ‘I actually understand,’ then maybe they’re more likely to knock on my door and come and talk to me or talk to someone else."

Zorn, a rare female leader in the classical world, said she believes more talk, transparency and accountability will hopefully create a safer, more equitable future for aspiring musicians. But, she acknowledged that reality could take quite a while.

This segment aired on December 8, 2017.


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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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