After a Channel 4 News investigation uncovered allegations of historic sex abuse at five UK music schools, violinist Nigel Kennedy reveals his concerns about the culture of top level music teaching.
We’re in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, waiting for Nigel Kennedy. There’s the usual hushed anticipation. Then he walks on stage, beaming. He waves his arms and punches a fist in the air, as if he’s celebrating a goal. Laughter breaks the silence.
“I’m dedicating this half to Yehudi Menuhin,” he says.
After all these years, Kennedy’s childhood mentor remains a huge influence. He goes on to play Bach, beautifully.
Following the concert we meet in the green room and Menuhin comes up again. We discuss the specialist music school he founded in 1963. The school Kennedy and a handful of classmates attended, which put some of them on the path to musical greatness.
I tell him a Channel 4 News investigation has spoken to three women who allege the founding music director of the school, Marcel Gazelle, sexually abused them when they were as young as ten years old.
“Well, you know, one girl in particular started talking to me about it 15.. 20 years ago,” he says.
“It wasn’t my business to really out that situation because there were people involved who had been through it themselves and it was up to them to decide when to encounter and expose the situation. Like, it was more than one girl. It was only girls who were molested or abused so with the boys we were living in a strange atmosphere there.”
Kennedy is in good spirits. He’s wearing a green Aston Villa jersey. His team have just beaten Sunderland 6-1. But on this subject, he is deadly serious.
“I just know that Marcel Gazelle was a repeat offender and it wasn’t a one off thing,” he says.
“It was something that was happening regularly and I know that some of the girls concerned have had tremendous psychological problems to deal with since.”
Some of his former classmates who allege they were abused have been in touch with him recently, he reveals. Is he pleased they’ve come forward after so many years?
“If it helps them I’m really glad. You know, it’s a shame the guy’s not alive… It’s a shame that people couldn’t see these guys being held to account and taking responsibility for what they did.”
“It’s a disgrace really that people’s trust has been abused in such a way… The children themselves, their trust, the parents’ trust, people’s belief in music as being a pure form of art, [that] this whole ethos can be abused by one sick selfish person is very, very disturbing.”
Kennedy remembers Menuhin fondly. After all, his place at the school was paid for out of his mentor’s own pocket. But Kennedy has troubled memories of the school itself.
“I have to say that even though it was a great privilege to be at a school like that, I don’t have particularly happy memories, because.. the staff were ill equipped to deal with children’s problems. Emotional problems or psychological problems. They were completely ill-equipped. Musical people, great at their instrument and with specialist knowledge but no real ability to detect if there was something wrong or not.”
He is hinting at something that has gnawed at me throughout this investigation. Is there anything about the culture at specialist music schools that makes pupils there any more vulnerable? After all, Chetham’s School in Manchester is now the subject of a major police investigation following the conviction of its former music director for sexually assaulting a pupil thirty years ago. And Channel 4 News has now heard scores of allegations against teachers at other music schools. But surely abuse can occur in all walks of life?
Kennedy has clearly thought about this too.
“The deification of teachers it the biggest problem,” he says. “They’re not God. You know, they’re a human being who’s meant to be at the service of the students, teaching them how to play.”
Some teachers, he says, enjoy a guru-like status at music schools. This echoes what a teacher who taught at two other specialist music schools in the 1980s and 1990s told me. She recalled a “feverish” almost “cultish” atmosphere around certain teachers, which she felt was particularly dangerous in an environment where so many lessons were held one-to-one.
Is that unique to music though? Treating a teacher like a God, a guru?, I ask him.
“I think it’s more unique to music because sometimes these teachers can play fantastically well and they’re on recordings and they have fantastic examples of their amazing art, and so that is something to look up to and I think in music, I think, yeah, these teachers definitely take on guru status and more easily than teaching another subject,” he said.
“I think too much respect for the teacher is always dangerous in all subjects but particularly in music where the children can be subjugated and made to think that something is normal that is not at all normal… You know, there’s the spirit of music that is one thing, then there’s the teacher themselves who are just flesh and bones like the rest of us.”
Marcel Gazelle died in 1969. His family said he was a good man and they were shocked and surprised by the allegations, which they dispute entirely. They said they do not see how he would have had the opportunity to sexually abuse some of his pupils. One of his sons said he even spent time with his father at the school in the 1960s and saw nothing of concern.
The Yehudi Menuhin School said it was “shocked and saddened to learn of the allegations.”
“In accordance with our policies we have reported these serious allegations to Surrey Police,” said a spokesperson. “The school attaches the utmost importance to the safety and welfare of our students… as recent inspection reports show.”