When Curtis was known as the Coitus Institutemain
In today’s article about allegations of sexual abuse at the Curtis Institute, the Philadelphia Inquirer references an article that appeared on Slipped Disc six years ago at its former hosting site, a post which is now inaccessible. Happily, the text endures.
The article, by long-serving Curtis Dean Robert Fitzpatrick, was titled ‘When Curtis was known as the Coitus Institute’. The headline was mine, not the Dean’s, but the text is his and it remains as insightful and important as it was the day it was written.
Lara St John says it was the sight of this article that prompted her to take action over alleged abuse by her teacher.
The full text follows below.
A betrayal of trust: imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery…
by Robert Fitzpatrick
It is a generally accepted fact that adults guilty of abusing those in their charge were very often the victims of such abuse from their own parents, siblings, teachers or even peers during their formative years. Psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, all have the same goal: the control over another person unable or unwilling to resist the onslaught of the person in power. Where and when did this sinister trend begin in music conservatories?
In my opinion, this longstanding tradition of abuse of students goes back, at least in part, to the establishment of the important European conservatories, most of which were founded in the 19th century or very late 18th (Paris opened in 1796). Possibly the most “European” of them was the St. Petersburg Conservatory, especially toward the end of the 19th century when the likes of Leopold Auer were guiding the destiny of some of the greatest violin talents that our profession has ever seen. His list of students reads like a Who’s Who of the violin world in the 20th century with Heifetz and Elman leading the charge. Psychological torture was often the byword there, especially during Auer’s lessons which were always public master classes performed from memory with a pianist. Other teachers of this era in St. Petersburg included Isabelle Vengerova (aka “Madame”) who taught Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Samuel Barber, and scores of others after she moved to America. Not the least among her students was Gary Graffman, who reports the following in his 1981 biography “I Really Should Be Practicing” concerning his lessons with Madame starting at age 7:
…but I was never particularly bothered by the Vengerovian storms that raged during my lessons. They were just a fact of life. After violent, dramatic scenes during which she sometimes picked up a chair and slammed it down on the floor to emphasize her displeasure, she would announce to my parents that there was no hope for me in any field of endeavor whatsoever. I think that what bothered her most was my imperturbability. “He does not listen, he will not listen. Whatever I tell him, however I tell him…kak sgoosi voda! Like water off a goose’s back!” she would scream into the phone to my mother so penetratingly that her voice was as clear as if it were originating in our own apartment.
I propose the following theory: students who were terrorized and/or abused by those in authority either imitate their abuser when they become adults and begin to teach, or, like Gary Graffman, take a totally opposite approach and become nurturing pedagogues in reaction to the horrors of their early musical experiences. It was Gary Graffman’s imperturbability and his understanding of the Russian ethic which saved him in this survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere. (NB: Graffman’s father, Vladimir, was Leopold Auer’s teaching assistant.) Leonard Bernstein, already 21 and a Harvard grad when he arrived at Curtis, studied with Madame Vengerova and seems to have survived the ordeal. (Please read the speech to the Curtis 50th Anniversary convocation in 1975 in his book “Findings” which recounts Bernstein’s bittersweet memories of his student days at Harvard and Curtis).
Physical abuse was also an occasional fact-of-life with the St. Petersburg generation that eventually found its way to America in the 1920s. Striking students or throwing things at them was a real, if infrequent, occurrence. Imagine the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when it opened in October 1924 with Leopold Auer, Isabelle Vengerova, and for added exquisite terror, Carl Flesch on the faculty. Leopold Auer also served on the Juilliard School faculty in the late 1920s, exporting his brand of violinistic psychological warfare to New York City.
Female conservatory students were very rare in those days and the chauvinist male teachers, almost all products of the Euro-conservatory system, sometimes carried their aggressive educational strategies further to include sexual intimidation and worse toward their female pupils. It’s no accident that after Curtis (nicknamed “Coitus” by some in the 1930s) was open for a few years, the founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, insisted on small windows in the doors of all teaching studios, class rooms, and practice rooms. Mrs. Bok is said to have dismissed one senior faculty member and administrator (a name instantly recognizable to all) in the 1930s after his 15-year-old student became pregnant. According to a subset of my proposed theory, this tradition of the major private teacher as an omnipotent, infallible force capable of abuse was imported to the USA primarily by these St. Petersburg refugees.
Like the Catholic Church, music schools tended to sweep their dirty little secrets under the rug. Students were never willing to discuss the improper actions of their instructors because of fear of reprisal that could sink their career as a performer. In my opinion, the atmosphere began to change in the USA during World War II when a significant number of women were admitted to American conservatories to replace the young men called to battle (or at least to play in service ensembles), and then again during the Vietnam War era when there was a certain revolutionary spirit brewing in most institutions of higher education. But, as usual, music conservatories often lagged behind the changes in universities and colleges because of the “traditions” inherited from the “old school” with its roots in Europe, especially pre-revolutionary Russia.
The presumption is that sexual abuse in conservatories is instigated by dirty old men who have nubile female music students as their target. In fact, this power-play phenomenon knows no barriers of age, gender, or sexual orientation. The old stereotypes have given way to a more expanded model. What to do in the 21st Century to be sure that students, their teachers, and their supervisors understand the basic ground rules of a healthy teacher-student, student-teacher, student-student, and even teacher-teacher relationship in today’s wide-open and rapidly changing world? How did conservatories such as Curtis gradually deal with the societal changes that had engulfed them? The following elements are a possible list of suggestions for successfully avoiding and, when necessary, dealing with cases of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse based on common sense and personal experience after almost 30 years at a small conservatory of music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA).
A Board of Trustees (Governors) that is paying attention to the actual educational, cultural, and social life of the institution is an obvious requirement. This group of men and women exist primarily to support the mission of the conservatory by appointing a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who should be a musician or at least have a musical background, and who is charged with carrying out this mission. The Board also assumes total fiduciary responsibility for the school. From a U.S. Business Law and Taxes webpage: The term fiduciary refers to a relationship in which one person/group has a responsibility of care for the assets or rights of another person/group. (The term “fiduciary” is derived from the Latin term for “faith” or “trust”). This charge of faith and trust goes much further than simple financial matters. Trustees or Governors have the ultimate legal and moral responsibility for the school and can be held personally liable for transgressions. In the USA, all post-secondary institutions carry personal liability insurance for their Boards. In the case of large financial settlements resulting from lawsuits, the endowment and/or government support of the school could also be at risk. A Board of the highest ethical and moral standards is the sine qua non of educational institutions. The best music conservatories are those that have this solid and irreproachable foundation.
The Administration of a conservatory is hired by the CEO to carry out the mission and his or her personal vision for the institution in relation to the mission. There is usually a chief academic officer or dean to whom the entire educational apparatus reports. Conservatories vary in their actual administrative structure, but every leading school has a staff of professionals in the area of student services. In a conservatory, the emotional, psychological, and physical health of the students is of paramount concern. A resident or readily available psychologist, with access to psychiatric services with appropriate medical support, is absolutely required in today’s society. Musicians also need access to physical therapists and physicians who understand how to treat the injuries that often occur because of over-use and stress to the body by eager, aspiring professional musicians. Because prevention is worth a pound of cure, conservatories have the responsibility to inform students about proper practice procedures and audition preparation. Open discussions with counselors and visiting professionals regarding student health concerns including, but not limited to, drug use and abuse, sexual issues including harassment by adults and peers, and bullying with an accompanying discussion of suicide prevention.
The real lynchpin in any school is the Faculty; therefore the methodology of their selection must include complete research of the musical, educational, and legal history of each teacher. This is the responsibility of every search committee, the CEO, and ultimately the Board. The CEO and the chief academic administrator have the responsibility to monitor the progress of each new hire by working closely with department heads who should be visiting lessons, classes, and ensembles on a regular and sometimes unannounced basis. Faculty orientation and ongoing seminars for teachers should include the topics mentioned in the last sentence of the previous paragraph.
Parents of conservatory students are a topic worthy of a separate discussion but their role in support of their child or children in the school is critical. The conservatory must clearly define that role and set limits in order to allow a parent to become a partner in the musical education of their child and not and impediment to it.
Talented music students form a group at each school which is the ultimate raison d’être. The teachers have the obligation to identify the candidates with the greatest chance of success as a result of musical talent and personality suited to the difficult life of a professional performing musician. The administrators have the obligation to ensure the health and safety of the students as they pursue success in their field. The Board must be constantly vigilant for negligence or abuse on the part of the personnel from the CEO, the administration, the faculty, down to every employee who deals in any way with the young musician. I know of an example concerning a 17 year old female string player at a conservatory who complained to an administrator about the overly aggressive kisses and hugs of an elderly teacher at the end of each session, often in front of the student waiting for the next lesson. The result was that two senior administrators spoke to the teacher (one speaking, the other as a witness) and requested that the behavior cease because of possible misunderstanding by the student(s) and the danger of legal action if the parents of the student(s) took that approach to protect their child. I was told that the actions stopped from that time forward. The teacher was someone who was educated abroad in the great “Euro-Russian” tradition mentioned earlier.
A vital and active Alumni group is essential for providing professional, moral, and financial support to the conservatory. Students should have the opportunity to meet with graduates especially in their chosen field. The methods vary greatly from one school to another, but the goal is always to create a helpful, interested group of alums who are a vital resource to the future of the institution.
I write this paper to offer a checklist for others especially those who are administrators and teachers at troubled schools around the world. The school where I worked has made a lot of progress since the “coitus” (aka Curtis) days, and today has all of the above elements in place. There have been many success stories and, unfortunately, a few failures along the way. A great school learns to deal with both. Our reward is always to see and hear our former students leading happy and productive lives on the world’s stages and eventually in studios at conservatories teaching their successors. As I type these final words, a well-known tenor from Peru in his early 40s is singing a bit of Rossini on the radio. Knowing that I helped to provide a safe environment where his international career could blossom is the best reward.
[Caveat lector: every situation involving abuse is different depending on the individuals involved, the culture of the school, the laws of the city, state, or country, and the general moral climate of the moment. The basis of comparison here is a private music conservatory in the USA which functions primarily at the tertiary level but with a handful of younger students between 12 and 16 years of age. The greatest difficulties, in my opinion, occur in the secondary, residential performing arts specialist schools of which I know two in the USA: Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and Idyllwild Arts Academy in California and I do not personally know of unresolved issues involving abuse at either institution. The current cases in the UK at music specialist residential schools and at tertiary level colleges involve incidents that occurred mainly in the later part of the 20th century which are just now becoming public knowledge. I assume (and hope) that the current climate at these music schools has evolved according to the issues discussed above.]
Robert Fitzpatrick, dean, the Curtis Institute of Music (1986-2009).