The losers who hold power in music schools

The cellist and teacher Alison Moncrieff-Kelly, a musician with long experience of music schools, has written a powerful reflection on the flaws and dangers of the music education system.

Among other observations, she highlights how easy it is for untalented individuals to rise within the system and exercise an uncontrolled influence. Alison writes:

Unfortunately, it would seem that many of those to whom we have entrusted talented young musicians, are people of proven flaws; and not just small frailties – no, appalling, huge, catastrophic personality disorders that are a long way beyond Miss Jean Brodie and her somewhat homo-erotic fantasy.

miss jean brodie

No, this is a vast panoply of contenders, some very skilled musicians (of which much was made of that in both the Layfield trial, and that of former Guildhall School teacher Philip Pickett earlier this year) some unknown for any professional playing, but who have carved out work lives as ‘career teachers’. Those people often have their own universe of issues to address, because within their ‘vocational’ teaching world may well exist a whole raft of elements like disappointment, bitterness, jealousy…and yes, some of those people may be capable of subjugating those issues to the back-burner and be the best possible teacher; but some won’t, and will work a terribly odyssey of vicarious pressure on the students who come their way.

These are possible scenarios, and I would argue, all extant in the UK. What is only now coming to light is how ruthlessly and systematically some of the least capable, the least emotionally suitable, and above all the least self-aware people achieved positions of power within the specialist music world. In these positions, they were enabled and facilitated to wreck young lives and pervert the healthy growth of vulnerable young people.

Read Alison’s full argument here.

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  • I made comparable observations in my student days. And I know from some professional performers who led themselves be seduced into teaching (on conservatory level), that often a real performer, who enjoys professional success in concert practice but also teaches parttime at a conservatory, is treated badly by other teachers who don’t have performance careers, which shows especially at exams where such jealousies are fought-out over the backs of the sudents. The best teaching situation for students seems to be private lessons by professionals outside institutions, but for financial reasons this is impractical.

  • “how ruthlessly and systematically some of the least capable, the least emotionally suitable, and above all the least self-aware people achieved positions of power within the specialist music world.”

    She could have left off “within the specialist music world.” This is universal.

    • Yes, but since (serious) music is such a subjective art form, it is especially vulnerable to bad behavior and fakes. Probably that has always been the case.

  • Very well said. This was certainly my experience in conservatory, and the situation has only worsened, based upon on my own observations as pianist and teacher (see latest post at my blog Con Spirito).

  • It’s part of the whole WE ARE BEHIND THE MOST POWERFUL CREATIVE FORCE IN THE UNIVERSE attitude that leads people to think that there is something much more to music than simply blowing into a pipe for a living — as one example. Squeaking horsehair over a bit of string is another, or pressing many levers very rapidly and accurately, or whistling into a piece of grass.

    I’m reading those capital letters again and thinking of how another group of people who think that of themselves can’t seem to keep their hands off little kids — priests, of course — and the similarities become even more obvious. When you think you are personally in touch with God, you can get away with an awful lot.

    At bottom, classical music (and music in general) needs to get over itself. I can’t stop thinking of what two of my favorite musicians have said about music:

    Michael Morgan: “It’s not brain surgery. No one will die if we stopped in the middle.”

    Doc Severinson: “We’re troubadours. We’re the clowns.”

    We really need to stop thinking so many high-flown thoughts about music being some fundamental universal creative force that is the single most worthy thing in the entire known universe … and that we’re all just so terribly special and important for devoting our lives to it in monastic and self-abnegating fashion. It’s not, and we’re not.

    I just see too many disturbing parallels between two different forms of priesthood here, both of whom think that their Divine Inspiration means they are apart from mere mortals and hence can do what they want, when they want, to whomever they want. That attitude breeds sociopathy.

    We’re musicians, not firefighters or surgeons. We all need to get over ourselves.

  • An excellent article. Also feel very similarly to both John and Janis. Sadly this trend extends to the dance teaching community as well.

  • So well said. Being on the receiving end of someone’s power trip is never much fun. Too often these types get away with it – they are often very clever and convincing liars.

  • This rings so true. Whether a bigger or smaller issue, being on the receiving end of someone’s power trip is no fun. These types are often highly manipulative and clever and convincing liars. Even when incidents are reported – who is more likely to be believed? The self-assured well-spoken “professional” (often a white, middle-class male) or the shy, awkward young person, often too embarrassed to speak up until later?
    Things definitely need to change.

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