Lessons to be learned from the Philip Pickett case

It would be tragic if high-profile criminals like Philip Pickett undermined the tradition of one-to-one instrumental tuition, argues Helen Wallace

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I can still smell the alcohol on my driving instructor’s breath as he leant over to me, then 17, squeezed my knee and suggested a bit of ‘slap and tickle’ would lighten up driving lessons no end, so how about it? I scrambled out of the car, ran home and told my mum. She agreed I needed a new driving instructor. We never reported him. This was the mid-1980s, any teenager was fair game and casual sexism was so much part of life, you put up and shut up.

However trivial the incident, we were irresponsible not to report it. For it was this culture of impunity that allowed Philip Pickett to wreak life-changing harm on young students at the Guildhall School of Music. He’s not alone, but his case has been particularly shocking because his offences were long known – allegations even known to the institution 30 years ago, but never properly pursued. It follows the Michael Brewer case at Chetham’s, which led to the suicide of Frances Andrade after giving evidence, Malcolm Layfield at the Royal Northern College of Music, and (posthumously) Maurice Gendron at the Yehudi Menuhin School. There are more pending, the list of victims growing ever longer. This is not a music world problem, per se: wherever there are young people, there are individuals capable of exploiting and abusing them.

One-to-one tuition, in music as in any other walk of life, gives an adult privileged access. These revelations have provoked profound soul-searching in music colleges, specialist schools, teaching associations and music hubs. Safe-guarding policies are far more robust today, but what further measures are needed? Should ‘monitors’ be in attendance at lessons, or should there be group-only lessons (certainly cheaper)? CCTV cameras in all teaching and practice rooms, security staff, random checks?  While some of these may be useful, the fear is that they will be impractical, intrusive and introduce an atmosphere of paranoia and distrust.

It is the system of reporting, pastoral support of students and the ensuing legal procedures that need the biggest overhaul. Many of Pickett’s students were far too afraid to report him when they depended on him not only for teaching, but for their future careers in the relatively small, highly competitive early music world. A letter from the principal to Pickett asking for a response to allegations was no help at all to a vulnerable young girl facing her final diploma. Today he would have been suspended immediately.

If schools and colleges can guarantee a safe space for reporting and its aftermath, they will be preserving the future of one of the most precious relationships a young musician will ever have. An instrumental or singing teacher might be the one adult in a child’s life, outside the immediate family circle, who gives them their undivided attention. The vast majority of these teachers are a positive influence, dedicating their lives to the passing on of skills and ideas, building confidence, opening new doors, responding to a young person’s enthusiasms, strengths and weaknesses. I had the privilege of an exceptional teacher who, I later realised, taught me as much about life as music. Now I watch my children’s instrumental teachers with rising admiration: they radiate energy and enthusiasm, they are all about giving.

The headlines are, naturally, reserved for these few depraved individuals, and the professionals who protected them. Most teachers do an extraordinary job, and are too rarely acknowledged.  It would be tragic if these few were allowed to destroy or undermine the essential, and very special, role of the one-to-one music teacher.

 

 

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