Transparency is key to protecting both pupils and teachers, says former Music Teacher editor Clare Stevens.
In April 2008 the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain (NYCGB) held a spectacular 25th anniversary concert in Symphony Hall, Birmingham. The constituent ensembles of the organisation (boys’ and girls’, training, the flagship choir of 16-22-year-olds and chamber choir Laudibus) performed singly, together and augmented by adult alumnae. The highlight of the programme was a new work by Eric Whitacre for the massed choirs plus the King’s Singers, whose baritone at the time was once a member of NYCGB. But even as the new work was in progress, audience members were scurrying out of the hall to catch vital trains, because the concert (on a Sunday evening) began at 7pm and didn’t finish until 10.45. It was musically impressive; but it was also one of the most self-indulgent events I’ve ever attended.
As such, the concert strikes me as a paradigm for the unfortunate career of NYCGB founder Mike Brewer, whose life’s work the concert celebrated. The choir was developed by Brewer and Carl Browning, former music adviser for the City of Sheffield, from the Sheffield-based British Youth Choir. It changed its name in 1983 to underline its identity as the choral equivalent of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.
Browning now lives in New Zealand and until recently NYCGB was effectively Mike Brewer’s personal fiefdom. Through his work with the choir members themselves, his strategy of developing their skills in choral leadership and his independent workshops for schoolteachers and choir directors he has nurtured a generation of choir trainers and probably contributed more than any other single individual to the rise in quality of secular youth choirs in England over the past couple of decades.
As CM has reported, Brewer was convicted on 8 February of the sexual abuse of one of his teenage pupils at Chetham’s School of Music in the late 70s and early 80s, and it has emerged that his victim, professional violinist Frances Andrade, took her own life after giving evidence.
Last year should have been Brewer’s swansong season before retirement, and a new governance team had already begun the search for his successor when he was arrested on suspicion of rape and immediately suspended. Ben Parry has now taken over as director of the choirs and the organisation is already distancing itself from Brewer and his legacy.
It is difficult to be objective about this horrendous case and the revelations that have since emerged in the Guardian, both as a result of statements made in court and those made by other Chetham’s pupils who have come forward, emboldened by the trial.
Both Frances Andrade and the other former Chetham’s pupil whose affair with Brewer was revealed to have led to his departure from the school said that, at the time, his behavior did not seem to them like abuse. It is consistent with Brewer’s narcissistic character that he convinced himself as well as these vulnerable young women that he was doing nothing wrong. He was an attractive, charismatic figure.
At this stage there is no evidence of inappropriate relationships with other young women later in his career, and many ex-members of NYCGB continue to express their gratitude for his inspirational musical leadership. But Brewer’s dismissal from Chetham’s in 1994 should never have been disguised as a resignation ‘on health grounds’ and the headmaster of the time, Rev Dr Peter Hullah, has much to answer for in letting him off the hook.
Moved to tell their stories by the death of Frances Andrade, former pupils of Chetham’s are now alleging abuse by an ever-increasing handful of teachers at the school when Brewer was its head of music. These suggest a culture of manipulation and normalised abuse in which pupils were trapped with nowhere to turn, not one adult in authority who would not sweep their abuse under the carpet. Did Brewer encourage his colleagues to see their students as fair game?
At the RNCM the story continues with Malcolm Layfield’s appointment as head of strings and the principled resignation in protest of his colleagues from the keyboard school, Martin Roscoe and Kathryn Stott ‒ successfully downplayed by the college at the time but now opening it up to serious criticism. The former RNCM principal who appointed Layfield, Edward Gregson, insisted that trusting him not to offend was justifiable. Many other commentators feel that it was not.
The scandal over Manchester’s specialist music colleges inevitably raises questions about institutions elsewhere in Britain. Musicians who survived their childhood education without suffering abuse, but who acknowledge they were aware of others who were not so lucky, are supporting calls for an independent inquiry into specialist training.
Jessica Duchen has suggested that the root of the problem is our culture of boarding; yet many of the alleged offences took place during daytime hours in teaching rooms, or in tutors’ homes or cars.
Debates are reigniting about the legitimacy of any kind of physical contact between teacher and pupil, balanced against the difficulty of teaching an instrumental skill or singing without contact. It is now the norm for teaching rooms to be built with glass panels in the doors. Every school and college has its child protection policy, which extends to all students regardless of whether or not they are above the age of consent, and includes a pledge that disclosures will be taken seriously. Amid all this, the need to support victims of abuse must be balanced against the terrible damage that can be done to teachers who are falsely accused.
But the story here is not just one of abuse, but of abuse of power. Further offences will only be prevented by ensuring that teacher-pupil relationships are never as horrifically unbalanced as they were at Chet’s when Mike Brewer was its head of music.
Practice room windows exist for a reason: transparency is the key. An independent inquiry is required to bring forward all those who have been affected by abuse in the past, and to shed light on the murky waters of rumoured abuse which have run behind the scenes in the classical music industry for decades.
Pupils need to be protected at school by staff, policy and parents; and teachers have as much to gain from a system which prevents abuse and which, if false allegations are ever made, allows them to be supported in clear conscience by fellow staff and pupils.
Many, if not all, music teachers are terrified of the spectre of a false allegation and work in constant awareness of the possibility. A step-change in transparency would give them the confidence to continue what the vast majority have been doing for centuries: facilitating a musical, artistic and personal development which is enriching for teacher and pupil alike.
Clare Stevens is a former editor of Music Teacher magazine. She now works as a freelance journalist, specialising in classical music and music education.