Abuse in music education: event overview September 2015

In September 2015, Lucy Delap (University of Cambridge), Ian Pace (City University) and I organised a half-day event for academic researchers to present their work to classical music education institution leaders on the theme of abuse in music education. We wanted to bring together researchers who were working on related areas, to start a conversation responding to the slew of high profile court cases around abuse in music education that had come to light since 2013 (see Ian Pace’s blog posts on recent and historic cases, as well as media discussions). We could not find any researchers working directly on abuse in music education – whether sexual, physical or emotional/psychological abuse.

The event was attended by 33 people representing twenty classical music education institutions, ranging from conservatoires and music conservatoires to specialist music schools to other independent charities and organisations providing classical music education. It was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council and hosted by Geoff Baker, director of the Institute for Musical Research at the University of London. Professor Sue Hallam from the Institute of Education chaired the afternoon.

The afternoon consisted of six ten-minute presentations, followed by small group discussions. The first presentation was from Richard Scorer from Slater and Gordon Legal Services, who represent many survivors of abuse. His book on abuse in the English Catholic church should be essential reading for anyone interested in working to prevent institutional abuse. We then heard from Dr Lucy Delap, an historian from the University of Cambridge and deputy director of History and Policy. Her paper looked at historical evidence from public records of abuse, focusing on abuse by music teachers, to understand what we can learn. A key warning was that we cannot assume that public scandals and awareness will lead to lasting change. Dr Delap noted that child sexual abuse has come onto the public agenda at different points in the 20th century, only to disappear again without meaningful change.

Ian Pace, who has campaigned extensively on institutional child sexual abuse and done much to make visible the issue of sexual abuse in music education, spoke about the founding of the five specialist music schools in the UK between 1962-72. He argued that the context of the Cold War, with which was associated a huge fascination with Soviet and other Eastern European pedagogical approaches and institutions, is of great importance in understanding the motivations behind and development of these schools, and that they imported aspects of authoritarian educational cultures which provided environments in which abusers could operate with relative impunity.

The next speaker, Dr Liz Davies, is a social work researcher from London Metropolitan University and was also a whistleblower for Islington Council in the 1990s around abuse scandals in children’s homes there. She spoke about institutional abuse and the potentially devastating effects that sexual abuse can have on survivors.

I spoke about my PhD research (Bull, 2015), looking at classical music education and class inequality through a study of young musicians aged 16-21, did not directly address questions of abuse. However, among my 37 interviews with young people, in response to general questions about their musical biographies four of them described experiences with teachers which appeared to constitute emotional abuse. They described teachers belittling them and shouting at them, which in some cases had serious effects on their career trajectories and their mental health. However, none of the young people who experienced these behaviours saw them as problematic; instead they all blamed themselves for their teachers’ behaviour, saying that they needed this treatment and were grateful for it, or that it was their own fault for example for not working hard enough. These findings point towards a culture within the tradition of classical music – rather than within any particular institution – in which emotionally abusive behaviours by teachers are deemed to be normal and acceptable, suggesting that there is a lot of work to be done on changing the cultures of classical music pedagogy in order to work against abuse.

This theme of cultural change was taken up by Professor Helena Gaunt from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama who addressed the issue of cultural change and professional development amongst specialist instrumental/vocal teachers in one-to-one teaching. A key finding from her research with one-to-one teachers and students at the Guildhall (Gaunt, 2006) was that there was a great desire amongst teachers to enable their students to develop artistic autonomy and ownership of their learning process, but considerable difficulty in doing this, due to a lack of strategies on both sides to facilitate and take such ownership; insufficient awareness of the nature of the one-to-one relationship including the power dynamics involved, and the ease with which they can invite dependency or an attitude of “lazy” learning. She argued that a key part of the problem is isolation, both physically and in terms of working with other teachers on pedagogy and in terms of useful formative feedback. At the Guildhall, she is working on two key ways to combat this: firstly, establishing and supporting a community of practice amongst teachers; and secondly, developing a transformative feedback framework for specialist performing arts teaching.

Following these talks, attendees split into small groups to discuss issues arising. I attended a group on music in higher education. The issues we discussed included sharing good practice between conservatoires and university music departments; team teaching and how to get students on board with this; professional development with staff on fractional contracts; and consensual sexual relationships between students and staff (one conservatoire has successfully implemented a zero tolerance policy for relationships between staff and students).

Following these small group discussions, there was a consensus amongst attendees that more time for discussion was needed for the issues raised, as some important issues had been raised but needed further discussion. Therefore I offered to organise on a full day event in 2016, for which an account can be found here. An account of our third event in November 2016 can be found here.


Bull, Anna. 2015. ‘The Musical Body: How Gender and Class Are Reproduced among Young People Playing Classical Music in England’. Goldsmiths, University of London.

Gaunt, Helena. 2006. ‘Student and Teacher Perceptions of One-to-One Instrumental and Vocal Tuition in a Conservatoire’. Ph.D., Institute of Education (University of London). http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?did=1&uin=uk.bl.ethos.428158.

Gaunt, Helena. 2010. ‘One-to-One Tuition in a Conservatoire: The Perceptions of Instrumental and Vocal Students’. Psychology of Music 38 (2): 178–208. doi:10.1177/0305735609339467.

Abuse in music education: event overview September 2015

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