Conservatoires need cultural change to fix their misconduct crisis | Leah Broad

Leah Broad
Thursday, October 19, 2023

Scrapping one-to-one tuition might be an easy solution, but it’s not the right solution

Photo: Adobe Stock image

Not for the first or, I suspect, the last time, one of the music conservatoires has announced the suspension of a member of staff for alleged misconduct. This time it was the Royal College of Music and their head of strings, Mark Messenger, who was suspended ‘following complaints received by the College.’ It’s yet to be made public precisely what the nature of the complaints were, but an external investigation has been launched. Following as it does on a former RCM tutor appearing in court earlier this year on a charge of sexual assault, it’s easy to believe The Times’s comment that the Messenger investigation ‘could expose wider concerns about culture at the institution.’

In the wake of these allegations, Julian Lloyd Webber has suggested that the way forward for the conservatoires is to scrap one-to-one tuition completely. Keeping teaching in groups of three or more would mean ‘much more openness and accountability’, he said, and that ‘there is no need for one-to-one tuition to continue’ because ‘often students can learn from watching each other gradually improve, as well as from teachers.’

It’s clear that there’s a problem with the way conservatoire teaching is currently set up. But scrapping one-to-one tuition is not the best solution to the problem of continued misconduct among conservatoire staff. This route effectively penalises future students for the bad behaviour of past teachers. Of course there are benefits from group teaching, but they are of a completely different kind to the advantages that can come from solo lessons. The personalised feedback and mentorship that comes from the intense focus of a one-to-one teaching setting isnt really possible (or, indeed, practical) in groups, where a teacher’s attention is necessarily divided. And Lloyd Webber’s belief that group tuition is ‘not a disadvantage for anyone’ assumes that students will feel safe and supported by their peers.

'These cultural problems don’t just negatively affect students. The conservatoires represent a wider classical music culture in microcosm'

Teaching rooms need to be a safe space for students to experiment, to try new interpretations and techniques without worrying that they will be judged or face negative consequences for ideas that don’t work out. For many, fear of 'failure' in front of other students is debilitating, and for these individuals the loss of a private teaching space would put them at a significant disadvantage by making it harder for them to make progress.

Most importantly, simply scrapping one-to-one does nothing to make the culture changes needed to protect conservatoire students. A 2018 report on misconduct in conservatoires found that 57% of respondents experienced inappropriate behaviour. Of those who didn’t report the behaviour, 45% said that this was because ‘the behaviour seems to be culturally acceptable in the higher education institution where it happened.’ For too long, conservatoires have had a culture that allows misconduct to continue as an 'open secret', that forces students to warn each other away from abusive teachers, and that enables a cult of 'genius' that excuses bad behaviour from individuals thought to be talented. This is what needs to change. Shifting from individual to majority group teaching might change the kind of misconduct that happens and the way that it occurs, but it will not eliminate it. Bullying and abuse can still happen in group settings – coming from fellow students as well as tutors.

These cultural problems don’t just negatively affect students. The conservatoires represent a wider classical music culture in microcosm. Its here that both students and tutors learn the patterns that form the basis of professional musical careers, shaping the classical music industry more broadly. Abusive behaviour and enabling cultures don’t stop at the doors of the conservatoire. When John Eliot Gardiner reportedly punched a singer earlier this year, for example, the response in many newspaper commentaries was neither shock nor condemnation, but an acknowledgement that this was part of a pattern of known behaviour, with some arguing that abuse was something that needed to be tolerated in the pursuit of high artistic standards. No wonder the Independent Society of Musicians (ISM) has found that 66% of musicians have experienced discrimination at work.

Scrapping one-to-one tuition might be an easy solution, but its not the right solution. If the only way we can think of to make people safe is to ensure that they are never alone with another individual, then this is a dire state for the classical music industry to be in. Conservatoires need broad cultural overhaul, not a superficial change that risks causing as many problems as it solves. Our attention should be on tutor training, improving safeguarding measures, implementing codes of conduct, building clear and easily accessible structures for individuals to report misconduct, acting swiftly when complaints are made, and fostering a culture in which any form of misconduct is not tolerated – in short, modernising conservatoire teaching to be fit for the 21st century.

Done right – which means being done safely – teaching can offer a safe space for students to explore, to be vulnerable, to voice their concerns and their fears and to build their confidence as they find their professional identities. We should be equipping tutors to provide these spaces and to be positive forces in students’ lives, role modelling the kind of behaviour we want to see in our industry.

This has the potential to be a real turning point for conservatoires. It is possible to make proper, substantial changes that put welfare at the heart of teaching and lay the foundations for a kinder and more compassionate industry. That, surely, is what we want the future of the conservatoire to look like – not a future where safety is only expected in numbers.

Photo: Monika Tomiczek

Leah Broad is a music writer, public speaker and journalist, as well as the author of 'Quartet: Four Women who Change the Musical World' published by Faber |

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