Dieser Artikel wurde am 20.01.2021 auf Deutsch als Gastbeitrag auf dem Bad Blog of Musick veröffentlicht (→ „Du spielst wie Müll“ Gastbeitrag des „Harfenduos“ zum Thema Machtmissbrauch in der musikalischen Ausbildung). Die unten aufgeführten Geschichten haben sich in deutschen Musikhochschulen ereignet. Daher sind die Schlussfolgerungen, die wir am Ende ziehen, vor allem in diesem Kontext zu sehen. Wir sind aber der Meinung, dass sich vieles auch auf andere Länder und Bildungseinrichtungen übertragen lässt. Daher haben wir den Artikel auf Englisch übersetzt. Alle Namen in diesem Beitrag wurden geändert. Außerdem wurden Begebenheiten abgewandelt, damit sie sich nicht mit den wahren Vorkommnissen in Verbindung bringen lassen. Der Kern der Geschichte wurde aber jeweils sinngemäß erhalten. Die Namen und die Details der Vorfälle sind den Autoren bekannt.

This article was first published on January 20th, 2021 in German as a guest post on the Bad Blog of Musick (→ „Du spielst wie Müll“ Gastbeitrag des „Harfenduos“ zum Thema Machtmissbrauch in der musikalischen Ausbildung). The stories mentioned below took place in German music universities. The conclusions we draw at the end of the article should be seen primarily in this context. But in our opinion a lot of it is true for other countries and institutions as well. We have therefore translated the article into English. All names in this post have been changed. In addition, events have been modified so that they cannot be linked to the real stories. However, the core of the story was preserved in each case. The names and details of the incidents are known to the authors.


“You play like trash”

At some point Anastasia couldn’t take it anymore. The pressure had become too great, everyday life was too stressful – especially studying music. Anastasia called a friend and asked her to take her to the clinic. Getting some distance, finding herself, not practicing for so many hours each day. It was pulling the emergency brake, so to speak, before something worse could happen. It could have been a final warning signal to those in charge at the university – and also to her professor. But as so often – nothing happened. Anastasia had to deal with her worries herself. At least: after a while she was reasonably healthy again; she was able to resume her studies and she also graduated. However, she continued her studies with Professor B., and the problems were still the same: until her final exam, the psychological terror continued. “You feel like trash, that’s why you play like trash”, or: “Is your father an alcoholic? That would explain how you play.” Sentences like these were often used in one-to-one lessons. A change of teacher seemed impossible, after all who would take someone who played “like trash”? So Anastasia went through with her studies. She even defended Ms. B. against criticism if some came up, and fed her cats for weeks during the holidays. During psychotherapy, she later realized that this was the result of advanced brainwashing. She is not alone: we know of at least three of her fellow students who were only able to overcome their trauma with therapeutic help. By the way, for very few of Ms. B.’s students these teaching methods resulted in a great music career. Of course, there are always those who struggle through and make a living from their art, despite the most adverse circumstances. But for many of Ms. B.’s former students, music can only earn them something on the side with just a handful of students, and quite a few have completely given up their profession as a musician. They have a badly disturbed self-image, also with regard to their art; almost all of them are still struggling with their experiences today. Anastasia told us that, coincidentally, Ms. B. often drives past her house in her car. Every time, she says, she feels the panic rise in her again. The university management is fully aware of the problems with Ms. B., including her statements mentioned above. Her dropout rate is also high. There have been no consequences for B. and she still teaches today – including young students at the age of twelve.

Kicked off his bike

Chen also dropped out – but at a different university. The fascination of studying music probably no longer appealed to him after his minor subject teacher pushed him off his bike in front of the university – with full intent and with Chen carrying a violin case on his back. The fact that he was “allowed” to change the teacher did not alter his decision. We don’t know what he’s doing today. His teacher, on the other hand, was able to continue teaching unhindered.

Quarrel precludes a better grade

Dominik had wished for a better grade in his degree, but that was prevented by Professor E., a member of the examination board: because of a quarrel several semesters ago, he demanded a point deduction in the main subject exam. This was, in fact, a clear violation of the regulations – but his wish was granted. And so the bad grade of the exam prevented further studies for Dominik. Professor E. had a certain reputation in such matters: in his function as the official person of trust for the students, he had passed on sensitive data of his protégés to their teachers on multiple occasions. Whether this was done intentionally or whether he simply hadn’t thought much about it, only he knows. The only outrage he aroused was that of the professors who were not too enthusiastic about what their students had said about them. We do not know whether these incidents are on record with the university management. At least they had no consequences for E. We can only speculate how many students dropped out or could no longer continue their studies regularly as a consequence.

Who is the black sheep?

Mr. F. also had a strange conception of his duties towards the university. When an anonymous complaint about his teaching methods was received by the university management, he simply stopped working. He refused to continue teaching until the “black sheep” had revealed itself, he told the university. It goes without saying that he received his full salary during this time. The university management played along with it: in order to be able to continue offering classes at least to the students who were about to take important exams, it was considered to temporarily hire another teacher. In the end it did not have to come to that: in one-on-one conversations between F. and the students, the criticism could be “cleared up” completely and F. resumed his teaching activity – freed from all allegations. One can imagine that the rest of their studies were not particularly pleasant for any of the students.

Underhand dealings

F. isn’t the only one who doesn’t care much about university policies as well as laws. We were told that the Bologna reform was not met with much approval at a certain university. So the teachers preferred to teach and test according to the curriculum they were used to. When the first generation of students reached their final year, it was discovered that many were missing credit points they actually needed for their bachelor’s degrees. In order to solve the problem, the university seriously suggested that all affected students should simply study an extra semester in order to catch up on the courses that had not been offered until then. But, as is so often the case at music universities, this problem was ultimately dealt with “underhand”.

Practicing through the night at the university

Professor G. also liked to ignore rules that didn’t suit her. When she felt that student Henri was not prepared for next day’s rehearsal, she directed him to let himself get locked in at the university to practice overnight. Of course, Henri obeyed and hid from the guards in the evening. Then he spent the whole night practicing by candlelight; for cost reasons and to prevent precisely such situations, the power was turned off at night at the university. Henri was lucky and didn’t get caught – otherwise there could have been serious consequences for him. But even if he had been exposed and he had dared to tell on G., G. probably would have had nothing to fear. At the time, obviously none of the participants thought about the educational value of practicing through the night.

Ms. Q. flicks her boogers on the floor

We could tell many more stories. Patterns that strike us again and again range from teachers interfering intrusively with the students’ private lives to instilling odd attitudes and behaviors in their students. With Professor I. you have to (!) eat a chocolate bar ten minutes before each performance; you are not allowed to have a relationship during your studies with Mr. J.; Ms. K. disapproves of her student attending his brother’s wedding; Professor L. practically gives up on a student because he is caring for his sick mother (keyword: “wrong priorities”); Ms. M. demands detailed daily plans from her students, which are then flyspecked in class. If the students resist, this is of course seen as disrespect and as a breach of trust. And then there are the special rights that some teachers simply claim for themselves: Professor N. rarely appears at class concerts (of his own class, mind you!); Ms. O. brings her dog, that is constantly barking, to class; Professor P. schedules an internal class concert every Sunday at 10 am; Ms. Q. flicks her boogers on the floor in one-to-one lessons; Professor R. announces at the Open House that “the Germans cannot play the bassoon” and therefore he only accepts Russian students; Mr. S. refuses schedules for the classes at all, but rather wants all students to be permanently available at the university. If you are a musician yourself and consider such stories to be normal, you should tell them to non-musician friends and observe their reaction.

Abuse of power – without any sex whatsoever

None of these stories are about sex; no one was raped, molested, or groped. As far as we know, no scars remained – at least no visible ones. Therefore, they are unlikely to be part of a major revelation story in the media about Professor XY. For many musicians, such experiences are part of everyday life during their studies and afterwards. You might now shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, the music world is a tough place. If you are too weak and can’t stand it, you should just quit.” But once you break away from this dogma, you realize the full extent and seriousness of the incidents: in many cases, there were severe violations of university rules, employment contracts, examination regulations and even laws. In private life, some things could have been dismissed as just being “in bad taste”, but in the context of a teaching relationship it is obviously abuse of power. The incidents could, or even should, have at least resulted in disciplinary proceedings, warnings or dismissals, even if we leave aside a legal review here. But that did not happen in any of the cases described above. The question is, of course, why?

This is normal in music studies?!

We asked the same question to those who told us these stories. Why didn’t you go to the university management? Why didn’t you confront the person in question? Why didn’t you insist on a written record of what happened? Why didn’t you file a complaint? We usually got two answers. First, because we were afraid. Afraid of not being believed, afraid of further attacks, afraid of social exclusion among the students themselves, afraid of the destruction of our careers. And these fears are not unfounded, as the examples above show. Second: because we and the other students considered that to be normal and we had no clues in our environment to question this assumption. Even if the Mauser and Bose cases slowly set in motion a rethinking, the music university system still does not provide for the safe expressing of criticism. In our opinion, this fact must be accepted before any change can be promoted. We no longer need excuses like “But most of the teachers do really great jobs and are very open to criticism!” That may be true, but that is the individual’s merit, not the university’s. Because almost none of the teachers have a pedagogical training that does justice to the responsibility that comes with looking after students. Too often it is left to chance whether a teacher is actually a good educator. And then every teacher defines what is “normal” in their class for themselves.

Missing educational standards

If you want to know how to do it better, you just have to take a look at school teacher training in Germany: before you can teach, you first have to complete a degree with a certain proportion of didactics, pedagogy and psychology. After that you have to spend two years as a teacher trainee with intensive supervision by other teachers. Even at “normal” universities, careers are completely different: before you get a professorship, you have already had a long academic career at the university. As a tutor, student assistant, seminar leader or lecturer, you are automatically much more familiar with the subject of teaching and also know the internal customs of a university much better. At music universities you don’t even need a pedagogical degree like the pedagogical diploma. Especially with the stars of our scene, universities are quick to grant professorships to increase their reputation. It has happened that a university offered a 20-year-old virtuoso a professorship. We do not want to deny such teachers their pedagogical aptitude, after all, we did not attend their classes personally. But how could the universities determine whether a 20-year-old without the appropriate training could guarantee students a reasonable career path? The argument that it is just one teacher among many does not apply either. Everyone who has studied music knows that the main subject teacher is basically solely responsible for the development of the students. A task that is too much for one person – no matter if it’s a professor or “just” a lecturer!

Binding rules for teachers

To improve this, we need mandatory advanced training, real pedagogical qualifications and reasonable employment criteria for teachers-to-be. A musical aptitude does not necessarily mean an educational one! It must be clear from the start what belongs in class and what does not. Binding curricula, maybe even across universities, could help. We have learned that the abuse of power, as we describe it in the examples, often arises from insecurity: we know of teachers who took up their positions with the firm intention of breaking through the existing hierarchies and not being seduced into abusing power. After a short time, however, they did just that because they did not know how to otherwise cope with the educational and bureaucratic challenges they faced. The lack of clear rules means that every teacher has to come up with their own rules – in a context where dozens of cultures from different regions of the world meet. Rules of conduct for teachers would therefore have to be included in the employment contract, checked regularly, and if necessary, violations need to be sanctioned – not as a personal punishment, but as a natural part of quality assurance, as is customary in every normal company.

Quality assurance at music universities?

Quality assurance – this term is also used by the “Netzwerk Musikhochschulen” (“network of music universities”). The network is an association of several German music universities which want to review and develop the quality of their teaching and offer advanced training for their teachers. We were told of a problem: the demand for advanced training there is high – but above all among the lecturers. The professors are clearly in the minority. The danger of abusing one’s own power in the classroom naturally affects everyone who teaches; whether in the context of a professorship, a teaching position, a master class or at a music school. But it seems that with increasing reputation and greater job security, there are fewer control measures of one’s own work and less input is desired. The more precarious the teacher’s employment relationship, the more they have to question their own teaching in order to continue to deliver good work. But who should tell a professor if they are doing something wrong? If voluntariness does not lead to improvement, stricter rules are needed.

Mechanisms to take effect automatically in the event of misconduct

It should also not always be decided in each individual case whether yelling at the student or touching the student without permission was justified. Only when the employment contracts state “Any yelling at the students is prohibited and will result in disciplinary proceedings” and “Explicit consent must be obtained for any physical contact with the students”, every teacher will realize that disrespectful and violent behavior has no educational basis. This requires mechanisms that, in the event of misconduct, do not only take effect at the request of the person harmed, but automatically. For example, student observers could be used in exams, as is customary at some universities. Or – as suggested in the Holzheid report * – class visits by the university management could take place regularly. We were told by an English university that there are compulsory courses for students in which they simply receive advice every week. This would not only make sense for students: many of the former students we spoke to requested coaching and supervision for teachers. If you need more ideas, you can simply ask the victims of abuse of power. They usually know very well what would have helped them back then.

* After the Mauser case, the Holzheid Commission was appointed to the Munich University of Music to work out suggestions for improvement. The results were published in a final report on April 5th, 2019.

Not justified by any artistic achievement in the world

Surely: that could be inconvenient for a few teachers. Some would certainly feel restricted in their artistic freedom. But there is no justification for the special treatment that some musicians claim for themselves. Anastasia, Chen, Henri and all the others were never lucky enough to enjoy this special treatment. Instead, they are faced with the ruins of their careers. What the hell does it have to do with music, knocking someone off their bike? How can someone discover the love of music when they are told that they play “like trash”? These personal tragedies leave us and many others perplexed and concerned. They cannot be justified by any artistic achievement in the world.

Laura & Daniel

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