9 May 2013

Abuse scandals: Britain’s elite music education in crisis

As a Channel 4 News investigation implicates all five of Britain’s music schools in a sex scandal, the elite music world reels – with former pupils, teachers and professionals calling for an inquiry.

UK music school sex scandal: Britain's elite music schools are in crisis (Image: Getty)

Manchester’s prized Chetham School of Music was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year, when the school’s former director of music, Michael Brewer (also the founder of the National Youth Choir), and his wife were convicted for abusing a former pupil at the school in the 1970 and 1980s.

Victim Frances Andrade was 14 when the abuse started at the independent boarding school. She died after giving evidence at the trial – it is believed she committed suicide.

Police are now investigating claims of abuse at the school from more than 30 women.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 News has uncovered allegations of inappropriate behaviour at all five of the UK’s specialist music schools, spanning four decades.


The world of classical music has been shaken by allegations that inappropriate behaviour not only took place but was covered up, allowing top teachers to retain their reputations.

Many allegations come from former pupils who felt that teachers, often musicians at the top of their profession and highly coveted by the school, were never held to account.

“The way they deal with sexual abuse has always been to cover it up,” Michal Kaznowski, cellist of the Maggini Quartet, recently wrote in a blog post.

He claimed he was exposed to “cruelty and sexual abuse” by a visiting professor as a pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin school in the late 1960s and 1970s.

“Frances Andrade’s story is absolutely common in the specialist music school histories,” he wrote. “Nearly all cases were dealt with by the teacher quietly disappearing mid, or at the end of the term.”

Stakes are high. That gives teachers a power that I don’t think is comparable to other schools. Pianist Ian Pace

Another violinist, who did not wish to be named, told Channel 4 News there was a casual approach to inappropriate behaviour at the music school she attended in the early 1990s and that some of the teachers were known to be “pervs”.

“It was part of the culture. I was about 14 when I noticed it. It didn’t shock me. Just thinking back I realise it was wrong,” she told Channel 4 News. “You don’t really know when to draw lines or boundaries sometimes.”

Responding to details of the Channel 4 News investigation, all five music schools said the welfare of their pupils was their overriding priority and that where necessary they’ve contacted the police and the relevant authorities.

The schools said the majority of the allegations were historic, that recent allegations have been dealt with appropriately and that they have confidence in their safeguarding procedures, which they say are under constant review.

Read more: Nigel Kennedy tells Channel 4 News that accused music teacher was 'sick'

Artist vs abuser

At the end of Michael Brewer’s trial, the judge noted how many people had come to the choirmaster’s defence and spoken of him as an inspirational teacher and talented musician, despite appearing to have full knowledge of his relationship with the victim, Frances.

Some of those within the classical music world told Channel 4 News there was still a perception that exceptional musical achievements have led to “gurus” being considered beyond reproach – similarly the celebrity status of Jimmy Savile, and Stuart Hall, saw inappropriate behaviour seemingly unreported for some time.

Kathryn Kinmond, a senior lecturer in abuse studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, said there is sometimes a case of “emperor’s new clothes”, as people refuse to confront their positive impressions of someone.

“It can be very difficult for any of us to want to tarnish that image that you’ve grown up with as being wonderful,” she told Channel 4 News. “It causes us to question ourselves. If we believe it, how can we trust ourselves?”

By the time she was 14, Rachel (not her real name) already knew she wanted to be a soloist. And at the specialist music school she attended in the 1970s, so did everyone else. 

Pressure was high. Hours of daily practice were the norm. Pupils competed for the best teachers. "Your talent - it defined whether you're an important, or worthwhile person," she told Channel 4 News. "If you were not considered to be talented, you would get a less high profile teacher, and people would look down on you."

It was in this environment that Rachel was assigned the teacher considered one of the best. After six months of what she calls grooming, he sexually abused her for a further nine months during lessons or after concerts.

"He basically would crush your confidence as a first step, followed by then building it up again, but only through him, and what he believed was good," she said. "Because we were defined by our talent, that was quite a strong way into people's minds."

‘Easy to exploit’

Renowned pianist and teacher Ian Pace has been one of the most vocal critics of what he believes is a system in need of review.

He started a petition, which was closed on receiving 1,000 signatures, calling for an independent public inquiry into music education – not just abuse allegations – at Chetham’s and other specialist music schools and colleges. It was re-opened after further allegations were made at the beginning of May.

Specialist music schools are independent from the state school system and command up to £30,000 in annual fees for boarding school places. However, pupils can receive up to 100 per cent funding for their place from the Department of Education.

Two urgent reports into Chetham’s school published last month found children’s welfare was not totally safe, and criticised school leadership. The school acknowledged the claims, but said that the majority of students were well cared for.

Nearly all cases were dealt with by the teacher quietly disappearing mid, or at the end of the term. Cellist Michal Kaznowski

A former Chetham’s pupil himself, Mr Pace knows all too well about the culture of elite music schools. Even aside from allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour, he says they have the potential to lead to psychological abuse.

“You’re immersed in this incredibly competitive hothouse environment. Stakes are high. That gives teachers a power that I don’t think is comparable to other schools,” he said. “I can’t imagine a maths teacher at Eton, say, commanding the same sort of power, authority or charismatic dominance as a prestigious string teacher at a specialist music school.”

Even at conservatoires – specialist schools for the fine arts where most students are over 18 – pupils are hugely reliant on their teachers for their future careers.

This dependence on a teacher’s approval does not always lay the ground for a healthy relationship, Mr Pace added.

“The power that teachers have, not just in making careers, but also in terms of people’s confidence….It’s very easy to exploit. It’s a huge responsibility. Huge,” he added.

Yet musicians can become music teachers without high level teaching qualifications. Teachers become renowned because of their personal talent and skill, and although many invest in teacher training, this is by no means compulsory.

Pastoral care

There are growing calls – from teachers, former pupils and professional musicians – for an examination of historic abuse and a more robust system of safe-guarding at music schools in the future, where pupils’ pastoral care is given greater priority over their gruelling music schedule.

However many are just as worried about music teaching being singled out, and becoming too sanitised, with teachers and pupils becoming paranoid.

Few professional musicians want to see one-to-one teaching abolished, crediting these intense, hands-on lessons for their indisputable success.

But the investigations into specialist music schools are against a backdrop of widespread allegations and calls for a more thorough tracking of sex abuse by charities such as the NSPCC.

The sea-change is already impacting what once seen as the ivory tower of classical music. The judge in Michael Brewer’s case noted that this could be one of the positive things to emerge from the case. He concluded that the case would result in the “close scrutiny of the seemingly wider acceptance of this type of behaviour amongst those who should know better”.

For Rachel, casting the spotlight on past allegations is just as important. “I think the children who lived in the past, are still here,” she told Channel 4 News. “They’re inside the adults, who are still coping with it.”