A predatory professor at the Royal Academy of Music

A contributor to VAN magazine recalls confusing times as a student in London a few years ago:

One evening quite some time ago, in a cramped computer lab, it struck me that maybe my professor had fallen in love with my classmate. Nick Martin was finishing the parts for a piece of his—a nagging job—and the professor was helping him. Recently, I called Martin. “Do you remember [the professor] helping you with your parts?” I asked. A pause. “Yup,” he said. “Do you know why?” “I don’t know.” “Can I tell you what I think? It was because [the professor] was attracted to you,” I said. “Well, I knew that. He said he had feelings for me.” 

Martin was 18 years old, and the professor was turning 40. Martin is good looking, with blond hair and glasses; at the time he wore tight jeans and brightly colored socks. The undergraduate composition class at the Royal Academy of Music in London was always small, with around four new students per year. The professor was highly involved there, “omnipresent,” as Martin described it. He and the professor began spending their free time together. Then other people made assumptions about what was going on. “Many people in the Academy actually thought we were sleeping together. And I remember thinking that was awful. I didn’t want that,” Martin told me. One evening, after a concert, Martin went into the conservatory’s basement bar, and the professor and another professor were there, and this second professor asked them, very casually, “Are you guys fucking?” 

Read on here.

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  • What a despicable piece. Maybe “Martin” did not want this publicising. Why bring it up now? The writer wants kudos?

  • Seems Music colleges are going the way of the RCC. There have been many stories over the years, many end up in Private Eye. Anyone attending these odd places need to ensure when having meetings that they are chaperoned and have a high resolution body cam.

  • Not sure what the point of this is? Was anyone charged? Probably not given he was 18? This is very different to being at school. You are in a cosmopolitan city studying in a music college. Bit grim if you ask me but it’s they’re choice. Always favourites at universities and music colleges

  • As a fellow student from those days, I can confirm the professor in question was well known for his attraction to male students. He was reprimanded on at least one occasion by senior management for his relationships but never crossed their line for inappropriate actions. Just because someone doesn’t do a Duncan McTier and serve time for their actions, doesn’t mean they haven’t done wrong. He is a powerful man in the institution and one who can quickly pass work your way as a young orchestrator and copyist. The biggest scandal I see that he is still there.

    • I concur. Whenever I or anyone else shared our misgivings about the tutor in question, the most common response would be ‘yes, but he’s a brilliant composer/orchestrator/conductor.’ That’s not a justification or excuse for his consistently inappropriate behaviour. Hernando is also right to point out that many of the tutor’s ‘favourites’ were indeed offered copying jobs while at the Academy – fairly lucrative contracts that are hard for anyone to turn down with London rent prices to pay. In recent years, the issue of sexual harassment of female students by men in positions of power has become more openly talked about – we need to make sure male students like Nick Martin are not ignored and expected to brush off bullying creeps by themselves. The Academy also has a lot to answer for in turning a blind eye to this individual’s predatory behaviour – they should address it now and not allow him to continue with the destructive cycle of preying on students.

  • There’s a bar in the basement of the conservatory?

    Where faculty and students mingle?

    What could go wrong?

    • I suspect that there may be a difference of culture here. As somebody educated at a number of British universities I have to say that staff and students socialising together sounds perfectly normal. What’s not normal is when these kinds of relationships develop. But certainly socialising with tutors is considered to be an important part of the university experience. One of my tutors in particular would often have students round, either individually or in groups, for lunch, dinner, or just a one-to-one chat over a strong drink in his study. Many of our most enlightening discussions took places over several bottles of wine. One of my classmates thought it would be amusing to invite our tutor round to our college for a drink one evening, and to everyone’s immense delight he accepted. So there was possibly the most distinguished scholar in his field in the world sitting in my friend’s student bedroom sharing his seemingly limitless knowledge and wisdom with half a dozen of his students over a few glasses of port. A marvellous experience, and I hope that today’s students are not to be deprived of such opportunities.

      • I certainly noticed that culture when I watched the film about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. I remember thinking at the time that this practice could be dangerous because it doesn’t leave a sufficient distance between tutor and students sufficient to engender respect. As a society we need to learn that destruction of boundaries and lack of respect between figures of authority and others provides much easier avenues for abuse. I don’t say it wouldn’t be there without those boundaries, merely that no boundaries are actually facilitating abuse. I never liked or wanted my highschool students being familiar with me and intruding into my personal space or calling me by my first name. Fraught with danger!!

        • I think there’s an important difference between school and university. At school the pupils are children and therefore demand a higher level of protection. At university the students are adults, albeit young adults, and the level of protection is very different.

          There is also a crucial difference in the ways in which teacher and student are supposed to interact. At school teachers are addressed as Sir and Ma’am and pupils are addressed by their surnames. Teachers have an authority over their pupils which is backed up by a range of sanctions ranging from running laps of the playing fields to spending Saturday morning in detention. At university it’s very different. Tutors expect to be addressed either by title and surname or, not uncommonly, their first name, and students are addressed by first names or, by more old-fashioned tutors, by title and surname. It’s more of an equal relationship. There is also an expectation of mutual respect. University tutors can express displeasure, and in extreme circumstances students can be rusticated or sent down, but there is no system of sanctions.

          It’s also a very different method of learning. Teaching at school level is much more structured and requires little independence of thought. Teaching at university is much more self-directed, and more able students should already be capable of originality. It therefore makes sense that a part of the learning process is the opportunity to interact with tutors on a social, as well as academic, basis. Of course, this does not mean that tutors and students should be getting drunk together, going to nightclubs, or becoming involved in romantic relationships. The boundaries are rather nuanced, but the boundaries do still exist. At my college, for example, I think that we were rather fortunate that there was high table only once a week, meaning that tutors and students would eat together every day at breakfast and lunch and every day but one at dinner. This provided opportunities for conversations that could never have taken place in the context of a tutorial, and it afforded the chance to meet academics from a wider range of subject fields.

          As I say, I wonder whether Robert Holmén comes from a very different culture, perhaps one which is more formal and conservative. The original point, after all, was that I really think that in the UK very few people really think that it is a bad thing for staff and students to be able to see each other socially, as long as academic work is not adversely impacted and/or abuses do not take place. As long as appropriate boundaries are respected, there can be great learning opportunities to be found in continuing conversations with tutors over a meal or a drink. Very often these are the tutors who have a really lasting impact on a student’s whole life, rather than merely providing tuition for one academic topic.

  • From the article…

    “The report also implicated… a “chauvinistic European conservatory culture” as a root cause of the sexual harassment allegations in the U.S. (He wrote this in a Slipped Disc article cited by the Chronicle of Higher Education that is no longer available online.)”

    Why is the article no longer online?

  • Every music Academy in this country has stories of historic and ongoing unboundaried relationships between tutors and students, both heterosexual and homosexual. Adult and or powerful Predators know that silence and authority are key to them getting what they desire. Young students are vulnerable both emotionally and academically… couple that with sexual feelings or emotional attachments plus genuine or non genuine care by the adult /tutor for the gifts and talents of their object of affection and you’ve a recipe for exploitation. Sometimes in both directions.
    Someone in the room HAS to remain the ethically boundaried adult! And as a psychosexual psychologist specialising in abuse who worked in the music industry for many years I’d say it had to be the tutor regardless of whomever realises attraction and or sexual feelings are present. I’m sorry to read of this story – but again judgy comments by commenters here questioning why it took someone so long to write about their experience shows no understanding of the psychological responses the brain has to trauma – many abused people don’t realise they were abused. Many only recall it later in life and some have their lives ruined. A small minority live with the knowledge they were abused but don’t feel harmed by it. It’s more complicated than those rushing to judgement will ever (be willing to?) understand!!!

    • Thanks James for writing something undramatic and clarifying things. Personally I don’t see the point of bringing all this up again and then naming and shaming people on a site like this after so many years have lapsed. There are no winners in any of this, just lives ruined – not to mention families too getting victimised as a result and yet were never involved or even around at the time. Certainly the case with the two convicted paedophiles I happen to know in Yorkshire and whom I’ve visited in prisons – destruction for everyone.

      • “Certainly the case with the two convicted paedophiles I happen to know in Yorkshire and whom I’ve visited in prisons – destruction for everyone.”

        The only person to blame is the perpetrator, who richly deserves whatever destruction he suffers. Sadly, you are quite right that many innocent people suffer along the way. Often the only winner is the public further removed from the crimes. They, at least, have the satisfaction of seeing justice done. And that is, finally, what the British criminal justice system is about. Whatever politicians may say, justice is not, and should not be, about victims of crime. Justice is done in the name of the Queen on behalf of all of us and in the service of the law itself.

  • Being a former composition student at the academy myself, I can say the following. It is true what is said about the academy being creatively conservative rather than experimental, which for composers such as Nicholas Martin (he’s a good friend of mine so well call him Nick from now on!) and myself we found suffocating quite a lot of the time! I spent a lot of time with him when he was undergoing a creative transformation, and given how open and sincere the guy is, his issues were firmly rooted in creative rather than external dilemmas (the only external dilemma being an existential one from the musical crisis).

    The professor in question however has been exaggerated. To my testament, he did drink a lot which led to a few indecent moments, but nothing of a magnitude quite a lot of people in education get up to. I know this for a fact as I would drink with him regularly and whereas he would say lewd things, his behaviour was never as bad (even if a bit of leering occurred here and there).

    His “obsession” with Nick was genuinely musical even if there was a mild crush. This professor, who had certain musical tastes as we all do, reveres great orchestration, and he did establish bonds with those he felt he could relate to on that level. Any bias may have been a bit over the top (as many classical music conservatories are given the eccentric and melodramatic behaviour of staff members!) but i can guarantee, as Nick would, that it was entirely musical.

    Nick is a seriously talented composer, and everyone recognised that when he studied there – you don’t get compusers like that that often!

    Also from what I hear, this professor has now cleaned up his act and is now behaving more responsibly; hence why he still has his job!

  • I find it sad that the young composers in this story all stopped composing for varying lengths of time in the aftermath of their experience. Even admitting that Music College study does not lead automatically to a fully fledged musical career in the case of all students, surely the aim of such study must be to enhance and liberate the talent that first caught the college’s attention during the entry audition process.
    Perhaps times have changed and today’s music students at conservatoire level are more aware of the pitfalls of any Teacher / Pupil relationship before they start their course? There is education in school about appropriate behaviour between adults and young people from an early age for example – a different kind of awareness exists.
    When I studied at Music College the boundaries were still blurred. I do think that in general we were overdependent on the approval of the tutors, some of whom had very strong personalities and perhaps didn’t realise the full effect of their words and actions on young student performers who were still finding their way.
    Another point which comes through this article is the negative effect of one student being lionised about the others – both in terms of the expectations placed on that student and the gradual chipping away of self esteem of those who aren’t the chosen one. It is possible to nurture an extremely gifted student in a class context without devaluing the other students contributions and development through comparisons.
    All in all a sad article, but as I say I hope that there is greater awareness now and that all music students feel comfortable in their learning environment.

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