‘From my own music education, I know four suicides’

The anti-abuse campaigner Ian Pace has written a powerful, personal article in the current issue of Music Teacher magazine on the need to safeguard students of all ages at music institutions. Here’s a sample:

piano lesson

From those I encountered during my own

musical education, I know of at least
four suicides – not to mention other
lives plagued by alcohol and drug abuse,
chronic depression and more. Clearly,
responsibility for such problems does
not lie entirely with the institutions,
but it is vital that colleges take the
emotional wellbeing of their students
more seriously.
Those who enter specialist music
education are made immediately aware
of the privileged world they are entering,
and of their limited chances of achieving
career success. Such a situation creates
an aura around those who teach them
and who, to some extent, hold some of
the keys to that success.

I will be forever
haunted by the stories of the violin
teacher who would tell his 14-year old
female students how he was the one
person who realised their true potential,
but could only help them realise this if
they demonstrated their total trust and
faith in him, which would be followed
by a suggestion that they strip naked to
play in front of him. On other occasions,
fully aware of their vulnerability and
insecurity at that age, he would devise
means of reducing them to tears at the
beginning of a lesson, in order to take
them on his lap seemingly to comfort,
but in reality to abuse, them.


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  • During Sergiu Celibidache’s 17 year tenure at the Munich Philharmonic, three of the musicians committed suicide. As Ian notes, these events cannot be attributed entirely to the institutions in which they take place, but there was an atmosphere of abuse, fear, intimidation, and ambition in the Munich Philharmonic that seem to contribute to the problems.

    I think there might be correlations between the abuse of children in classical music and the stress in orchestras created by classical music’s patriarchal ethos of authoritarianism, conformity, regimentation, and hierarchy. What is this art form where the conductor more-or-less owns the body and emotions of the musicians as his instrument? There is no other form of music-making like this. These odd perspectives can also carry over to student/teacher relationships.

    Hans von Buelow went so far as to describe the conductor-orchestra relationship with the term “orchestral coitus.” In a commentary about music critics during an interview in Munich´s Abendzeitung in 1984, Celibidache spoke in a similar vein: “These people who daily poison everything, should take a pause or write about gynecology. In that area everyone has a little experience. But in music they are virgins. So they will remain, and so they will go into the other world, never fertilized by a single truly experienced tone.”

    Fortunately, there are no conductors left who hold to these old, extremely authoritarian views. Celibidache was the last, but something of the ethos remains and still seems to create problems. I think these questions need to be studied more closely.

    • Do we know how many orchestral musicians committed suicide during 17-year spans at other orchestras? Without even this minimal context we have no way of knowing how terrible this fact is, or how commonplace.

      Likewise, I wonder how you could possibly have determined that no conductors are left who hold old, extremely authoritarian views. Sadly, there are some. Just as there is at least one person who still actually believes the orchestral art form is one “where the conductor more or less owns the body and emotions of the musicians.”

      But more important: as easy as it is to castigate a long-dead conductor who everyone knows was a mean, asinine person at times, I think the OP gets to something a lot more serious and pernicious … that behind closed doors in the studios of private teachers there is untold abuse of a much worse kind. Unlike the verbal drubbings of an orchestra conductor, these incidents are harder to detect and combat because they have no witnesses. At least the person chewed out by Celibidache could retort to his stand-mate, “there he goes again.” Unfortunately, the kid attacked by a teacher in the studio has a much more damaging, frightening experience and little social support to help deal with it.

      • Those familiar with orchestras know that three suicides in an orchestra in 17 years is very unusual, though it would be helpful to have concrete statistics.

        • Thanks for enlightening us. The possible cultural manifestations of authoritarianism and human objectification are nothing that need concern a person from your country…………………

          • Interestingly your own country is hardly what one could call a shining example of virtues with the refusal to acknowledge its own murky history , let alone its illegal wars , torture camps, death penalty and virulent racism.
            So clean up your own backyard before you lecture others.

          • Germany is my backyard, and for the last 35 years. I regularly address problems in both countries, even though you feel that’s not allowed for an “Auslander.”

    • “I think there might be correlations between the abuse of children in classical music and the stress in orchestras created by classical music’s patriarchal ethos of authoritarianism, conformity, regimentation, and hierarchy. What is this art form where the conductor more-or-less owns the body and emotions of the musicians as his instrument?” Yes, conductors are bossy and the sooner we do away with them, the better. Orchestras don’t need conductors anyway, the Berlin and Vienna Phil can play without, as other top orchestras – just a matter of sufficient rehearsels. Like playing music by dead white males, all products of authoritarian and elitist times… away with them! Classical music is a very authoritarian art form, anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, anti-populist, and thus is no longer suited to our enlightened times. We all know that Beethoven sexually abused his nephew, so classical music is fostering perversity in people, and is thoroughly immoral. It should be prohibited by law.

      • Put your mouth where your money is. Give a case for the authoritarian way. Open it up to discourse. Whatsamatter…scared?

  • Alexander Goehr, head of the music faculty at Cambridge University, once calmly explained to me that foreign students submitting to the postgraduate course he offered, first had to endure his breaking-down of their personality so that he could build it up again according to his own insights. Some students indeed broke-down and wept before they were reconstructed like a Frankenstein exhibit, and sent into the world promoting Goehr’s music, for instance at the BBC, if possible.

  • The “tell” is that no one, musician, educator or critic, who speaks up for the authoritarian tradition in music can justify it satisfactorily, or even explain it fully. The interrogation and questioning are much more thorough and unsparing on the other side. It’s as if this is simply not a topic up for serious debate: those against can say little or nothing good for it; those in favor disdain discourse and just quietly persist.

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