Thoughts on a Movement

A while back, I was a young whippersnapper beginning my post-collegiate life as a cello player and teacher. I was excited to finally have finished with my degree program, and even more excited to - after 10 years of post-secondary education - get this whole “life” thing moving. I was happily in a relationship and while not as successful as I wanted to be, I was hanging on with the rest of my millennial generation. I was trying to build a cello teaching studio and was relying on good ol’ fashioned meet-n-greet recruiting to do so.

Recruiting students for private lessons is hard. First, you have to get yourself in front of students, which means introducing yourself to school orchestra teachers. Next, if the teachers let you in the door, you then have convince the students that they need and want private lessons. Once they’re convinced, you must show a high level of expertise to get the parents on board. If you manage to do all of these things, you still have to prove that the fees being charged, the investment in your time and expertise, are worth it.

This is quite a tightrope to walk, one that I’m still struggling to balance my way across.

It’s the first step - introducing oneself to school orchestra teachers - on which this post focuses.

When starting out, I researched the area I was living in and made an effort to get to know teachers. Some I already knew, while others were new to me. I offered free clinics, presentations, and performances. Anything to get myself and my cello into the orchestra room. I learned which teachers had influence over their students, which were largely ignored by the kids, and which were well known across many schools and age groups.

One teacher in particular was very popular and well known, both amongst students but also amongst his teaching peers. He taught in a wealthy school and maintained extracurricular positions that earned him musical and pedagogical respect. I knew (perhaps cynically) that building a professional relationship with him could help me to grow my studio and my own professional reputation. He seemed to agree that this could be a mutually beneficial partnership.

Unfortunately, I learned quickly that his idea of “mutually beneficial” was different than what I imagined. While he invited me into his classroom to work with and play for his students, he also began texting me about his more illicit desires. It was innocent at first: he asked me about my partner and how long we had been together. My answering these questions emboldened him, and he began to make more pointed, personal inquiries. He admitted that, while he and his wife were happily married, he had a lot of fantasies, many of which he detailed to me, with me (or my partner) as his mental placeholder.

For a while, I played along with this charade, believing that doing so would keep him happy, keep me in good graces, and get the opportunities flowing. I tried to express my lack of interest in him and this type of communication without unequivocally rejecting it. I don’t think I ever told him to stop. I don’t think I ever said no. I tried to change the subject, to answer his explicit questions ambiguously. I’m not sure if he ever figured out that I wasn’t interested, or that he could tell that I was uncomfortable.

Again, my reasoning for going along with this game was to avoid pissing off a person whom I felt held power over my young career. I was afraid that rejecting his advances would lead to negative gossip about my professionalism - from a trusted and well-known member of the community - and that my reputation would be tarnished in the area, something that would almost certainly mean death to my professional opportunities. Short of moving, I’d be relegated to work at Target or Starbucks to make ends meet. So I played along. Even in person.

The text messages were explicit, disquieting, and I wished that they would stop. What was worse were our personal encounters. When he invited me to his school, he’d talk about things he wanted to do, but couldn’t because there were kids around. He’d touch me inappropriately and ignored my physical reaction when I moved away from him. In one particularly awful experience, he hired me to be the single judge of a local concerto competition. I sat next to him in an empty auditorium as students played their concertos. While he touched my legs a few times, and made some sexual comments, he was largely well-behaved. At the conclusion of the competition, with my paycheck in hand and on my way to my car, he rode down in the elevator with me. Alone, he made an attempt to kiss me and go even further. In short, he assaulted me. I didn’t reciprocate, nor did I give him any indication that I wanted him to continue, but he was still excited, and (uninvited) he sat himself down in the passenger seat of my car, and made an attempt to continue his efforts. This all lasted less than 5 minutes, and while I felt disgusting and violated, I didn’t say anything to him.

We mostly stopped interacting after this. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen him, with just a random clinic or coaching here and there. He’s responded to my professional emails and text messages (asking about a student in his orchestra, sending a press kit for concerto performances, etc.) with a mix of professional and explicit responses.

While I’d imagine that I’m not the only person he’s talked to in this way, I don’t think he’s a danger to society, and certainly not to his high school students. I think that his fantastical comments were mostly fantasy. I also don’t think that I did the right thing - nor the wrong thing - when all of this happened. I didn’t tell this person to stop, that I felt he was harassing me, nor did I urge him to keep going. Most of all, this hasn’t impacted my life in a negative way. I didn't lose employment opportunities, my reputation is good or bad on its own - my own - merits. I also didn’t gain anything from this man, but saying so sounds bitter, and I'm not.

After reading about the horrible treatment of young musicians at the hands of powerful teachers/mentors like William Preucil and James Levine, I began to think about my own experiences, both as a student, but also as the mentor, the person in charge, the person being “inspirational,” the person with all the power in the situation. I am thankful that this experience I had was not life altering, that it didn’t affect me in a tangible way. That I could continue to be in the same room as this person is probably a result of my own white, male privilege and entitlement. In a sense, I allowed myself to be a victim for my own selfish gains. I knew what I was doing; I was afraid of spurning his advances in hopes of advancing my own professional self-interest.

Nobody was right, here. Everybody was wrong. (Though one person was definitely MORE wrong.) I am more aware of how I treat others around me as a result of this experience. Little things, like maintaining a clear path to the door when I’m in a room with a student (should they want to leave for any reason, they don’t have to cross in front of me to do so), or always asking students if I can touch their arm or back (rather than just grabbing and moving) when I'm instructing a cellistic motion, make me feel like I’m creating a safer space than was offered to me in these instances described above.

I’m not entirely sure why I’ve written and published this post. I’m neither out to get anyone in trouble, nor am I looking for sympathy (I don’t need it). Perhaps I’m being selfish in announcing all of this to the world while also retaining confidentiality with the person I’ve been describing.

Mostly, I think it’s important to talk about this, to keep it from happening in the future. While the revelations about James Levine were a shock to some when they were widely published in early-2018, musicians had heard of his actions for years. I remember hearing talk of payoffs to victims, even before I was a part of the world "professional musicians." There is no reason that any person should have to start a whisper campaign about a powerful and handsy performer or teacher. I shouldn't have to tell a student to steer clear of their youth orchestra conductor, nor should a student have to warn their peers to be on guard around a particular private lesson teacher.

As teachers, we must be cognizant of how our actions affect our students. The most important part of the student-teacher relationship isn't the expertise of the teacher, nor the dedication of the student. Rather, it's basic trust. A student should feel completely comfortable discussing all aspects of their playing and their life with their teacher, just as the teacher should feel confident that the student is at peace with all instruction, no matter how physical. The only way to do this is to work to establish a connection. The teacher must respect students' personal space and emotional place, while the student should always feel empowered to voice discomfort with a particular means of instruction or communication with their teacher.

It seems to me that this #MeToo conversation isn't happening because of a latent desire to get revenge or ruin lives. It seems that it's happening to bring the conversation about these traumatic events to the fore, hoping to better our society. Only by having the conversation, revealing the experiences that people have had, will we progress, making future occurrences less and less frequent, and hopefully non-existent.