Sarah Blesener

Classical Music Has a ‘God Status’ Problem

The #MeToo movement has done little to challenge power dynamics in conservatories. Young musicians want to know why.

Sarah Hubbard knew something was off about her interactions with a piano professor at the Berklee College of Music—they had a “haunting and unsettling” quality, she remembers. Hubbard, who studied violin at Berklee until she graduated in 2016, remembers that sometimes when they crossed paths, he seemed to be “deliberately trying to prolong” their interaction, and sometimes the professor, Bruce Thomas, gave her hugs that felt awkward. Sometimes he would show up near where she was, Hubbard says, lingering just at the periphery of her vision and then emailing her that he’d seen her that day but she’d seemed too busy to say hello. He sent her emails late at night, she says, and once when she didn’t respond promptly, he approached her boyfriend on campus to tell him to tell Hubbard to return his email. (Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.)

Hubbard frequently worried, as she moved around campus, about surprise encounters with Thomas, who had been teaching at the school for some three decades and occasionally composed music that her student ensemble played. When they were in the same music-department building at the same time, she’d plan escape routes: “Well, I at least can outrun this guy on stairs if I run into him; I can zoom past him. But I can’t do anything in an elevator,” she remembers thinking.

It got to the point where Hubbard had trouble focusing on her music—the reason why she’d come to Berklee in the first place. But she worried that things could “blow up in [her] face” if she reported his actions to Berklee’s leadership. “A lot of these encounters, they scream inappropriate, but they don’t scream, like, You’ve broken a rule in our handbook,” Hubbard says. So instead, she mentioned her discomfort to a faculty member she trusted, one of her student ensemble’s advisers, who she believes spoke to Thomas on her behalf—and quietly discouraged Hubbard from auditioning for any solos that, should she be assigned them, would require her to rehearse one-on-one with him.

Still, he always seemed to be close by, and Hubbard says he once cornered her in an elevator, demanding that she apologize for speaking up about his behavior.

Thomas was fired in 2016, a few months after Hubbard graduated. According to a story in The Boston Globe (for which Thomas also did not comment), another student had come to the administration with similar accounts of late-night emails and unwanted hugs, as well as complaints about inappropriate attention to female students’ attire. According to a representative for Berklee, Thomas then received a verbal warning, and after the administration received a second complaint about Thomas’s conduct, he received a final, written warning. After four other reports were filed together by a group of students, the school opened an investigation in the summer of 2016 that resulted in Thomas’s termination.

“When I connected the dots,” Hubbard says, “I was like, ‘So I’m not crazy.’” The school declined to comment, citing student privacy. But since the termination of Thomas and 10 other faculty members because of harassment, Berklee has instituted new measures aimed at preventing harassment and misconduct on campus. These include a policy prohibiting intimate relationships between students and anyone working at the school, and a policy of informing potential future employers of involuntarily terminated Berklee faculty members of the terms of their termination, should prospective employers ask for a reference. The school has also since launched the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Framework and the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, according to a representative for the school.

Sarah Hubbard’s experience is not uncommon in the world of classical-music education. Over the past year, The Atlantic talked to more than four dozen young musicians about their experiences with classical-music education and sexual misconduct. Their accounts reveal a culture built on hierarchy, critique, and reputation, and show how such a culture can facilitate abuse.

The world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma first picked up his instrument at the age of 4. Martha Argerich, considered one of the greatest concert pianists of all time, began taking private lessons at the age of 5. The violin virtuosa Hilary Hahn started playing a month before her fourth birthday.

It’s not a coincidence that some of the greatest musicians in the world started playing their instruments as children. Like other art forms, classical music—and becoming a world-class classical musician—takes great effort, discipline, sacrifice, mentorship, and talent. For those who succeed, the reward can be boundless. Professional musicians make and interpret music that transcends this world; they tour the globe and perform with the greatest musicians at the greatest concert halls; they move audiences to feel joy at times of great sadness, and sorrow in moments when sorrow can be cathartic.

That’s why, each year, thousands of young musicians compete for spots at the nation’s best music conservatories in hopes of making a career out of their passion. As many of them have since they were children, urged on by their parents or guardians, they will toil away in practice rooms for hours every day, learn and memorize the oeuvre of major works for their instrument, survive the critique of weekly lessons with their teachers, commute to and from hours-long rehearsals, prepare for auditions and competitions, and, somehow, through it all, try to salvage a normal childhood.

Few of these hopefuls gain admission to a top-ranked conservatory. The acceptance rate at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, for example, is comparable to Harvard: Just 4 percent of applicants for fall 2017 were admitted. And for those who do get in, the competition only intensifies. The students work on the same repertoire as their friends and peers, and get compared with one another during studio classes. Among a crowd of elite musicians, they are vying for the principal seats in their conservatory’s orchestras or the lead roles in their school’s opera productions.

Adam Meyer, the director of Juilliard’s music division and deputy dean of the college, says that while the school doesn’t intentionally impose a competitive environment on its students, the industry itself often operates, quite literally, through competition. “Certainly, competitions, in and of themselves, and auditions still play an important role in the music world, and so we have a responsibility to prepare our students for that reality,” Meyer says. But “musicians at this level, artists in general at this level … are very driven and very disciplined and hardworking, so they tend to impose that [competitiveness] on themselves.”

Following graduation, young musicians will still find themselves competing against one another: for orchestral or teaching jobs, slots in prestigious master’s programs, and plum solo opportunities. In a 2015 study on career outcomes among music-performance students, just under half of undergraduate music-performance degree holders reported working in music performance in the years and decades after graduation.

“Most careers in the arts are not as straightforward as simply searching and applying for employment,” Dana Jessen, the director of conservatory professional development and an associate professor of contemporary music and improvisation at Oberlin College, in Ohio, wrote in an email.

To be serious about becoming a professional classical musician is, in other words, to be completely dedicated to honing one’s craft. And in an industry where women hold just 31 percent of the seats in major orchestras and were found to have composed just 1.8 percent of the music that major American orchestras performed in the 2014–15 season, anything that throws a music student off her game, even temporarily, has the potential to derail a career.

Sexual misconduct has long been a problem in professional classical music. Last year, for example, the classical violinist Lara St. John told The Philadelphia Inquirer that she had been sexually assaulted by her teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music in the 1980s and that when she reported it at the time, her account had not been taken seriously. (The Curtis Institute opened an investigation in 2013, but recently admitted that it had been hampered by the passing of about three decades.) And according to a 2019 Daily Beast story, Jeffrey Epstein, the now-deceased financier who was charged last summer with the sex trafficking of minors, was a donor to Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan and paid for the construction of a rental cabin near a girls’ division that he could use for up to two weeks per year; one mother accused him of attempting to groom her 13-year-old daughter at Interlochen in 1994. (Representatives for Interlochen told the Daily Beast that records only showed he’d stayed in the cabin for one week in 2000.) The renowned conductor Charles Dutoit was accused of sexual misconduct, including one allegation of rape, by 10 women. The incidents allegedly took place between 1985 and 2010. (Dutoit denied the allegations.) And in October of 2018, the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, fired its concertmaster, William Preucil, and its principal trombonist, Massimo La Rosa, after an independent investigation found that the two had sexually harassed and engaged in sexual misconduct with their students and colleagues for years. (According to the orchestra’s report, Preucil admitted to having “sexual contact with three female students,” and La Rosa admitted to having “attempted to kiss” a student during a lesson. Both denied engaging in other forms of misconduct.)

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, the classical-music industry has seemed poised for a reckoning. The stories that have emerged thus far have largely documented the conduct of high-profile, powerful artists. Now, though, a new generation of young musicians preparing for careers in classical music is starting to speak out about the problems not just in the industry, but in the selective world of the elite conservatories that prepares performers to enter it.

While many of the young musicians we interviewed described sexual harassment and abuse they or their friends had experienced, only a few who’d endured such misconduct officially reported the incidents, because of the fear of professional retaliation. Soyeong Park, a 22-year-old violinist, sees many similarities between Hollywood and the professional classical-music world. Like movie directors and producers, conductors “get to decide who gets to be in what,” Park says. “You hear all these stories about directors [or producers] telling their director friends, Oh, she was a horrible actress to work with; don’t work with her if [an actress] refuses their advances. And then that actress’s career is over.”

The same thing can happen with conductors or teachers—people with significant control over a young musician’s career. Park says that many musicians worry about aggressively rebuffing a conductor who makes an advance, because they have everything to lose. “If [the conductor doesn’t] like someone, they get cut. And [the conductor] can act like it was an artistic choice.”

Soyeong Park, 22, compares the culture of classical music to the culture of Hollywood: When students rebuff the advances of powerful conductors or musicians, the students can lose career opportunities while the authority figures "can act like it was an artistic choice.” (Sarah Blesener)

A student can be particularly vulnerable during lessons, when she is typically alone with her teacher in a room with a closed door and, sometimes, no windows. One violinist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution, says she did not report inappropriate conduct from her former teacher, the violinist Stephen Shipps, because of the power dynamics of their mentor-student relationship and his senior status.

Shipps was placed on leave by the University of Michigan in December 2018 after a Michigan Daily investigation detailed allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct from multiple women; the violinist later spoke to administrators as part of their ensuing investigation. In February 2019, he retired from the university. Shipps, through his attorney, declined to comment for this story.

“This is the problem when there is a less powerful female who’s trying to make it big in her field. There’s an older teacher who happens to be male, happens to have behavioral issues,” the violinist says. “It’s very difficult for us to monitor anyone’s behavior, let alone your particular mentor, and then to even have to decide about jeopardizing any of that by bringing up something that might be uncomfortable.”

In addition, the typically small size of conservatories can mean that a student must repeatedly interact with their abuser in rehearsals or studio classes and will likely see them often, in group rehearsal spaces and in individual practice areas. The toll that harassment and abuse can take on survivors’ mental health can disadvantage them in what’s already a considerably high-stress environment: Learning new music and practicing can be difficult in the wake of a traumatic incident, and seeking treatment or counseling to cope with the feelings of anxiety or distress means more time away from their instrument or even absences from lessons or rehearsals.

Furthermore, the small size of conservatories can mean that every one of a given student’s classmates and instructors is a potential networking connection for the future—so reporting a classmate or instructor’s inappropriate behavior could result in the loss of future opportunities that classmate or instructor might have been able to offer. And a student who reports abuse could fall out of favor with the accused person’s colleagues or friends as well, resulting in a sort of snowball effect. As Sarah Hubbard, the former Berklee student who reported her harasser only to a trusted adviser and not to her school’s administration, put it, a lot of young women “feel like we’re about to get blacklisted.”

Of course, harassment happens to male students, too. Some male students who have experienced harassment, however, feel that young men still lag behind young women in learning how to recognize or report misconduct.

In January of 2019, the Indiana University Office of Student Conduct filed reports with the Indiana University Police Department about complaints it had received from students about David Jang, a graduate student at IU’s Jacobs School of Music who conducted the All-Campus String Orchestra and managed the school’s paid conductors’ orchestra. According to the reports, Jang allegedly unbuttoned a person’s shirt and touched their chest, “committed a forcible fondling,” and “threatened to report [a witness] for slander” after the witness had tried to stop Jang from harassing people. In February of 2019, Jang received a one-year suspension from the IU dean of students. According to a story published in May by the Indiana Daily Student, more than 20 people in total filed complaints with the office about Jang’s behavior. (An Indiana University representative confirmed that Jang is no longer a student or an employee of the university, but would not speak to the allegations themselves and declined to comment on whether Jang would return in February 2020. No charges were filed against him, according to the IUPD. Jang declined to comment for this story, and declined via his faculty adviser to comment for the Daily Student story.) Two men, graduates of the Jacobs School of Music, described similar experiences with Jang to The Atlantic.

“Being a guy, I really never expected this [to happen to me]. I didn’t even know how to necessarily recognize it. I didn’t realize until after it had happened what had actually occurred,” one of the men said. “Girls can look for other times that this has happened, and say, Oh, this is what’s happening to me.” (In March, before the Daily Student report made the allegations public, a representative for Indiana University said that school officials were “certainly aware” that, generally speaking, incidents of sexual misconduct had taken place on campus and stated that students who report harassment to campus officials are connected immediately to “confidential victim advocates who [offer] assistance with a variety of supportive measures and can be helpful as an advisor to students if they are pursuing a complaint through the Title IX offices.”)

At conservatories and in conversations, young musicians often quietly warn one another about faculty or other personnel with known histories of harassment. Several female musicians interviewed described the existence of “whisper networks,” where they’d hear about another conductor or teacher or artist’s questionable behavior by a friend.

“The sad truth is, I think it’s something that has been—was normalized to such an extent that … you tell your friends and roll your eyes at,” the violinist Simone Porter says. When she and her colleagues started hearing about the high-profile #MeToo cases happening in the classical-music world, the reaction tended to be, “Oh, I expected that. Oh, I knew about that,” she says, “which is absolutely awful because … if we all knew about it, in some ways, we’re all complicit.”

Reports that detail misconduct and name abusers may cause uproars within a given school, but most don’t seem to draw much attention from the outside world. “It’s so insulated. Basically, the only people that listen to classical music that are under, like, 60 are people who play it,” says Carter Mink, a former Eastman School of Music student who studied double bass. So misconduct that takes place within the nonprofessional world of classical music, especially at the conservatory level, he says, simply gets ignored.

For those entrenched in the classical-music world, much of the industry is structured around top talent—people who have reached “god status,” as the oboist Briana Tarby describes it, that can easily be wielded without consequences.

Such was the case with the conductor James Levine, who was fired from the Metropolitan Opera in early 2018. After allegations were filed with Illinois police that Levine had sexually abused a man for years, beginning in the mid-1980s, three other men came forward to accuse Levine of sexual abuse. The Met then opened an investigation of its own, and after interviewing more than 70 people, the opera house “uncovered credible evidence that Mr. Levine engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct towards vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers, over whom Mr. Levine had authority.” Later, five additional men came forward with new accusations. (Levine did not face criminal charges in Illinois, and denied the allegations.)

Though the Met had been aware of such allegations a year before The New York Times first reported on them, Met officials told the Times that the opera company had kept Levine in his position at the time because management was waiting to see what police found and because Levine had denied the claims. (The opera house has also stated that “any claims or rumors that members of the Met’s management or its Board of Directors engaged in a cover-up of information relating to these issues are completely unsubstantiated.”)

Perhaps the most telling explanation of why Levine was unscathed for so long can be found back in 2011, when the opera company was considering how to address its needs without firing its venerable, but ailing, maestro. “He is no ordinary music director,” David Gockley, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, told the Times. “He’s a god. And gods get to make their own decisions on their own time.”

Because of this “god status,” some students believe the power structures in place at music institutions are so heavily skewed in favor of star soloists, teachers, and conductors that reporting an incident is a futile endeavor from the start.

“If you’re a piano professor at [a top music school], there will be people who just call you ‘Maestro.’ You’re on an elevated status,” Carter Mink says. “A lot of older professors are probably just not going to believe these things if they hear them.” And similarly, Mink adds, summer-music-festival organizers have close relationships with—or at least deep admiration for—many of the conductors and musicians they hire to lead and mentor students. So students can get the impression, Mink says, that “they’re all friends, and they’ll let stuff slide.”

A musician, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution, says she did not report inappropriate conduct from a former mentor because of the power dynamics of their relationship. (Brittany Greeson)

In many ways, summer music festivals can mimic college party culture (alcohol, drugs, sex) for young musicians who haven’t had a traditional university experience. But at these festivals, where famous guest artists or rising stars perform and interact with students, the boundary between mentor and student can be “blurred,” according to Mink, who participated in the Round Top Festival Institute and Music Academy of the West summer programs. “There’s still a hierarchy, but there’s a lot more interaction.”

Part of accruing social and professional capital as a musician means that knowing a famous musician or rising artist on a personal level can act like a signifier of one’s talent and status in the music world. In other words, if a talented, successful artist knows you by name and wants to collaborate with or mentor or just hang out with you, passing up the opportunity could hurt your career prospects.

However, Simone Porter, who attended the Aspen Music Festival and School as a student for seven years and now has a solo career, says she noticed some artists taking advantage of their social capital in ways that were “manipulative” of young musicians. “The things that I saw time and time again [were] just women basically going into things with the best possible intentions and being confronted with … people who had a sense of entitlement about them and their bodies.”

When Erika Gray, a violist, was 18 years old, she experienced that phenomenon firsthand: A musician about twice her age pressured her to stay with him in a hotel room—all because he had driven her from the airport to a summer music festival she was attending in Europe. When she refused, Gray said he became angry and questioned why she wouldn’t “repay” him for the ride, for which he had driven several hours out of his way.

“It can be difficult to tell whether you’re basically being admitted into the social ranks above you or if you’re there for a purpose and someone wants to use you in that way,” Porter says. “Is this flattery? Do they genuinely want to know me as a person? Am I being allowed to see the interactions and mechanisms of this level, or am I just here because someone wants something from me?”

While many of the existing policies on how to adjudicate sexual misconduct at conservatories and music schools have been mandated through Title IX and other state and federal legislation, some institutions have made additional changes of their own volition in recent years to address and prevent misconduct.

At the University of Michigan, sexual-misconduct-prevention training is offered for all new students and is now mandatory for faculty and staff. Starting in 2015, Indiana University and by extension the Jacobs School of Music implemented a new online training system on sexual-harassment prevention for employees. The University of Rochester, home of the Eastman School of Music, created new guides and training programs for sexual-misconduct reporting, and also appointed advisers to work specifically with complaints made by staff members, faculty, and students.

The University of Michigan, Eastman, the Berklee College of Music, and Johns Hopkins University (the parent institution of the Peabody Institute) strengthened or expanded their restrictions on relationships between students and faculty.

Though effective teaching often requires music teachers to physically demonstrate for their students what a specific technique looks and feels like by moving their arms, touching their shoulders, or adjusting their hand positions, some students say they’ve noticed a change in behavior from their teachers in light of recent reports unearthing sexual misconduct by music faculty. April Kim, a double bassist at Peabody, says she knows of professors who have intentionally tried to stay in front of studio windows while they teach lessons so that outsiders can observe their behavior. Kathryn Stewart, a double bassist and Juilliard graduate, says that one of her former teachers would ask permission to touch his students before demonstrating a technique—something that used to “seem awkward” and elicit some giggles, but is in fact an official policy of Juilliard’s.

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, Stewart says, seemingly small things like that shouldn’t be out of the ordinary. At the same time, she worries that the heightened awareness of interactions between faculty and students could limit or compromise their education. Erika Gray agrees: While she believes that some restrictions on faculty conduct are appropriate, “I don’t want my teachers to have to censor themselves if it helps my learning or anything like that,” she says.

Like any other industry rife with power dynamics, competition, and institutional power, a true reckoning for the classical-music world and its training grounds—one that doesn’t just topple the big names, but changes a culture that perpetuates and supports abuse—will not happen quickly. Young musicians interviewed said that because more of their colleagues are starting to talk about their #MeToo experiences in classical music, they too feel empowered to speak up and confront the status quo. But that status quo, one predicated on silence, closed doors, and institutional inaction, is a powerful one.

“Everyone is speaking about it more. I guess I’m really wary about more speech being taken for actual change,” Porter says. “People talk about it, but what is actually happening? Is the inequality actually being addressed?” She pauses before answering her own question: “I don’t know.”