Dealing with (institutionalized) forms of power abuse

In addition to the high profile case of James Levine, recent cases at German conservatories have put the spotlight on sexual abuse of students and employees (Knobbe, Möller 2018; Bartsch et al. 2019). Similar cases are also known throughout the conservatories in Europe as well as world-wide (e.g. Gluckman 2017; Lazar 2017). A survey conducted among British music, drama and dance students by three British performing artists associations (Equity, Incorporated Society of Musicians, Musicians Union) in 2018 showed that ‘57% of these respondents reported experiencing inappropriate behaviour (behaviour that is considered socially unacceptable), 42% experienced bullying, 36% experienced gender discrimination and 27% experienced sexual harassment.’ (Payne et al. 2018, p. 2) What makes this survey so shocking is that 57% of the students did not report the incidents since 54% of them felt that they would not be believed or be taken seriously (Payne et al. 2018, p. 2). While this is not a new problem, the current focus has in part come through the heightened awareness and publicised cases brought about by the #metoo movement.

While sexual harassment is a particularly heinous form of abuse it resides within the broader category of power abuse as the mentioned survey also shows. This includes belittling the students and pointing out that they are worthless (see Josefson 2016 for examples within a Swedish context). While sexual (and other abuse) can have many reasons it almost always also reflects a power imbalance with a superior person who yields power and a subordinate person who is dependent on the person in power. Within conservatories teachers and superiors are in a position of power while students and subordinate employers are dependent of their superiors and teachers and thus in the weaker positions. This also means that they are often afraid of the consequences if they report the abuse and their claim is not taken seriously. But these forms of abuse also occur among students – in the mentioned survey 58% of the perpetrators were fellow students while the number of permanent teaching staff was at 42% (Payne et al. 2018, p. 3).

Re-thinking the one-on-one model: from teacher to coach

One issue aiding sexual abuse of students by faculty within conservatories is the close relationship between the students and their (main instrument) teachers. Besides the fact that physical contact is at times also part of the lessons (correcting the student’s posture while holding/playing the instrument, showing correct technique, playing together in proximity e.g. duets at the piano) the teachers at the same time are also influential since they decide who gets to play where and when during in-house and external recitals and concerts and they provide their graduates with jobs or awards since they are often also on the jury of grant awarding bodies. This makes the students malleable to blackmail from their teachers since they know that the teachers can damage or even destroy their career. Since many students also spend a lot of time practicing and not necessarily interacting with other students (depending on genre), their opportunities to share their experiences can be somewhat limited. While these roles shift after a student has graduated, the power relations remain since the teachers remain gatekeepers for jobs, grants and awards.

One option is to rethink the model of the main instrument teacher to main instrument coach. In this model, the student has a main instrument coach over his/her study period which follows the student´s artistic development over time. At the same time, the student has regular main instrument lessons with other teachers. This model loosens the student-teacher relationship and gives the student different teaching as well as artistic perspectives. Another option is to completely break the master-pupil model by changing main instrument teacher every year and/or by moving away from one-on-one lessons exclusively to a mix of group and one-on-one lessons. These models do not, however, eliminate the problem, since the one-on-one lessons remain anonymous to outsiders and the teachers still have the possibility to influence their students’ careers.

Creating a Code of Conduct

Here strict institutional policies are needed in which a Code of conduct clearly outlines what is acceptable and what is not (the case of “Berklee College of Music’s Equity policy and adapting such policy to the European environment” gives one example of how to deal with these issues). This document has to be easily accessible to students and faculty. The policy should include not only a staff member the students (and faculty) can go to to confide themselves, but also an anonymous instance where students and faculty can go to report cases of abuse without having to fear repercussions from their teachers. While anonymous reporting might be problematic in some countries since there is no official name behind the accusation it does provide a tool with which faculty then can investigate occurrences. It can also provide material which then can lead to general instructions to the faculty and students as well as specific action within the department or institution – not necessarily individual sanctions. This is thus also a tool to raise the awareness within the institution. In addition, there should be clear disciplinary measures and consequences for repeat offenders. The AEC provides a guide for a code of conduct: AEC Guidelines on Establishing Institutional Codes of Good Practice for Professional Teaching Conduct in Conservatoires (accessed 17.07.2018).

At the same time it is equally important to create an institutional culture which is open to feedback, creates a space for complaints from students and staff and which does not tolerate power abuse. An important step here is to raise an awareness among the teachers and students to what amounts to abuse. This starts with the simple question if it is ok for a teacher or other student to make physical contact with a student (e.g. to correct a student’s posture) and for the teacher or other students to accept “no” as an answer. Especially in the multicultural environments the conservatories operate in today both students as well as teachers are not always aware of actions that are offensive to others or actions which are normal within a specific cultural setting that can be seen as offensive in another one. This starts with every day commonalities like shaking hands or hugging male and female students and/or staff. In other words, sensibility training should be part of professional development at the conservatories. This not only includes training focusing on sensibilising faculty to issues of power abuse, but also provide faculty with pedagogical training and thus provide them with current teaching tools.

Other steps

While a code of conduct is important, it is even more important that the code is also enforced by the head of the conservatory. If the perpetrator is the head of the conservatory (or was like in the German case mentioned) then this is somewhat difficult. Another important step is to empower the students to speak up and to establish and encourage a neutral and critical student representation.

One step is to give the students a neutral and open platform to discuss these issues. In the aftermath of the #metoo campaign conservatories in Northern Europe had discussion and reflection groups with the students within the conservatory to discuss different forms of discrimination (in this case gender based).

Another way of combating sexual harassment is in the conservatory buildings’ architecture. By literally making the rehearsal and class rooms as well as the office walls transparent and thus the inside accessible to views of the public the possibility of abuse can be diminished. This also has to include a policy of not being allowed to teach outside the conservatory walls (or at least to limit this as much as possible).

Combating abuse of power is not easy and a multi-pronged approach as outlined is necessary. The central issue is to raise an awareness among faculty and students and to start talking about sexual and power abuse. While this will not eliminate the abuse, however an open discourse about the issue makes it much more difficult to continue the abuse.


Bartsch, Matthias, Martin Knobbe, and Jan-Philipp Möller. 2019. #MeToo-Vorwürfe gegen Professoren in Hamburg und Düsseldorf – Seine Erwartungen – ‘reden, trinken, vögeln’. Spiegel Online, 26.04., (accessed 20.05.2019).

Gluckman, Nell. 2017. How One College Has Set Out to Fix ‘a Culture of Blatant Sexual Harassment’. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29.11., (accessed 24.05.2019).

Josefson, Cecilia. 2016. Svart Pedagogik. Fokus, 27.05.–02.06.2016, 31-33.

Knobbe, Martin, and Jan-Philipp Möller. 2018. Sex Im Präsidentenbüro – Skandal an Der Musikhochschule München. Spiegel Online, 11.05., (accessed 11.07.2018).

Lazar, Kay. 2017. Berklee let teachers quietly leave after alleged sex abuse, and pushed students for silence. The Boston Globe, 08.11., (accessed 24.05.2019).

Payne, Christine, Deborah Annetts, and Naomi  Pohl. 2018. Dignity in Study: A Survey of Higher Education Institutions. Incorporated Society of Musicians. (accessed 25.07.2018).

This article is a part of the publication titled How are diverse cultures integrated in the education of musicians across Europe? Other chapters can be found here.

Translate webpage

Powered by Google Translate