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It doesn’t have to be the end of one-to-one teaching

We are a little surprised there has been so little adverse comment to Linda Merrick’s assertion in the Guardian on Friday that individual teaching may have to end at the Royal Northern College of Music in the wake of the various sexual abuse claims and investigations. This may be, in part, because the Guardian appears to have shut down its comment section on the article. The drastic remedy, however, requires broader consideration.

Professor Merrick talked of knocking down walls in the college and making everything open plan. That’s an extreme approach, hugely disruptive and by no means the best solution available in 2013. Video cameras in every teaching room will deter abusers from trying it on and provide evidence in the event of any claims being made against a teacher, true or false.

Videos, Professor Merrick, are the way to go. They use them in kindergartens as standard. Why not in conservatoires?


N. B. On related matters, Ian Pace has created a Facebook page urging people to write to their MPs to demand a public inquiry into music schools and conservatories in England. We support a public inquiry. It may be the only way to save the sector from the legacy of abuse.

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  1. julian gregory says:

    I would imagine that the seasoned sexual predator would be sophisticated enough to ply their business outside the teaching room, especially in the light of recent events. Open plan college would only result in the cacophony I experienced in the early days of Chetham’s as a music school: we all practiced simultaneously in the refectory. The noise was not condusive to productive study.

    I think that heavy handed reactions like those proposed to any errant (and, importantly, minority) behaviour results in a net loss for everyone. Instead I believe that the answer lies in exactly what is happening now; a visible and powerful social disapproval of bad behaviour, coupled with the knowledge that the world is watching closely. Video cameras will do no harm, but the determined predator will bypass them easily. Universal awareness and disapproval is a thousand times more effective. The bad guys will still be looking for opportunities, but, boy, if the awareness has changed, they will find it very hard. The video cameras in the room and the open plan colleges will be an expensive and backwards step. We need to train the beast, not reinforce the cage.

    • Quite right Julian. It may not be intended as a throwing toys out of pram gesture but could and probably will be seized upon by those with that mentality.

  2. Les Handy says:

    The opposite of one to one teaching is class teaching where each student in turn has a lesson in front of his/her piers. This will cause a considerable stress on many students although it will suit some of the more extrovert ones (not always the best ones) and on balance I would not be in favour of it. It’s also very tiring for the teacher who ends up doing a couple of three hour master classes every day. I think some German colleges do this. Does anybody know? Does it work well?

    • Malcolm James says:

      There are things which can be gained by watching and listening to someone else’s lesson, but I presume that a student might spend 3-4 hours in a masterclass type of lesson to gain as much as they gain in 1 hour of one-to-one – time they could have spent practising or earning money.

      Also there was a side article in the Guardian in which Michael (or Lord) Berkeley suggested that ALL relationships between staff and students be banned and that if colleges could not enforce a rule, legislation might have to be introduced. I would foresee considerable problems (not least the HRA) of trying to ban relationships between consenting adults, even if there is a power relationship between them. I spoke to a well-known teacher at a London college some years ago and his reaction to such relationships was ‘it’s been the start of many happy marriages’. I suspect that this reaction was symptomatic of the culture of denial, both of the prevalence of inappropriate sexual behaviour and of the danger of false allegations. Any policy which tries to stop people falling in love is doomed to failure and a distinction must be drawn between this and the predatory behaviour where some teachers chase anything in a skirt.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Leon Fleisher has taught piano this way at Peabody for many years. All his students attend all of the lessons, score in hand. His Curtis students used to take the train to Baltimore once a week to participate (a full day out of their schedule). At the post-secondary level, this appears to work well but I’m not sure that every secondary level student is all ready for this kind of scrutiny by their peers. Each school needs to create its own policies in line with the needs of its community. A national public inquiry instigated by politicians? No, thank you.

    • Naughty Nigel says:

      Our eldest will be starting at the RNCM later this year, so this matter is of personal interest to us.

      To answer your question, in our experience master classes seem to work very well, and are a good use of students’ and teachers’ time.

      I don’t see why a master class should be unduly stressful for students playing at this level, as surely they are expecting to perform to an audience of some kind at some point?

      Master classes work because the students learn from one another, and often learn techniques (taught or practiced by others) that they might not have learnt themselves in a one-to-one teaching environment.


    • Many teachers in UK conservatoires already adopt this method of teaching, in addition to one-to-one lessons. Generally, it would seem to be highly beneficial for the students.

  3. Steve Hawker says:

    One-to-one and group teaching have different methodologies, and a different function. Both have their place. Having experienced both (as a student and teacher) I believe it’s important not to set the pedagogical benefits of one against the other because of the completely separate issue of child protection.

    In the one-to-one setting, the student can lower the barriers and allow an openness and experimentation that helps the development of that very personal musical voice. In a group lesson or masterclass a more public exploration of technique and communication is also useful, both as a prelude to public performance, and in the creation of a group of students that can learn from each other by going through a shared experience.

    The child protection issue is completely separate, and as suggested, there are ways of addressing this (whether looking at organisations’ procedures, or using video cameras). But the choice of solution should also bear in mind the unintended consequences. For example, if “big brother” is always watching lessons, might teachers feel more inhibited, and less able to improvise and teach creatively? Teaching is as creative an act as performing, and as risky. Isn’t there always a change, however subtle, when a teacher is being observed by their institution/OFSTED/etc. that alters the creative process between a teacher and their class/student? Being observed is a positive experience if the institution has a creative and constructive approach. But one might imagine that if Martin Roscoe was observed at the RNCM a decade ago, institutional politics might have played a part. Video cameras could be a two-edged sword….

  4. One on one teaching is important. It sounds like she wants to punt on the issue. Why can’t she vet her teachers? Is she afraid the culture is so imbedded and prevalent that it is hopeless? That doesn’t sound right. In an economy and market like this she should be able to find good teachers.

  5. Peter Klatzow says:

    Well Liszt did it. Very successfully at Weimer and elsewhere. I’ve always thought small group teaching was a practical solution particularly if the students are studying the same repertoire.

  6. ‘The Guardian appears to have shut down its comment section on the article’. Yes, this would explain the lack of comments.

  7. Luciano says:

    Of course this is a ridiculous overreaction. What RNCM needs to do, is not knowingly hire teachers who are sexual predators, which is what they did. When will here from the management who made the Layfield appointment? They should be hung out to dry.

  8. Ian Pace says:

    I think a lot of assumptions are being made on the basis of what the sub-editor made as a simplistic headline to this article, rather than the substance of what is being said. I do not read it as saying anything more than entertaining the possibility of re-examining the central role of 1-1 teaching.

  9. Jonathan Grieves-Smith says:

    Surely we don’t want to stop one-on-one teaching but ensure students feel able to speak up.. We don’t stop independence but reinforce and support it? Not more nanny state but more self reliance to trust judgement and independence.

  10. I, like many others, experienced 1-1 teaching with no problems. OK, I may have been one of the “fortunate few” but I think not. My feeling is that we should not let these undenyable bad apples spoil music (or any other) teaching for the vast majority.

    1-1 teaching is better as there is no peer pressure. When I was a kid I would have hated havign lessons in a group situation and probably would not have advanced as far as i did.

    So lets not go off half cocked here. yes things need to improve but I do feel that CCTV may be a better option. OK, there may be the odd person who finds a way to circumvent the cameras but I would say that the majority of people would not know where to start and to be honest, if some pervert wants to get at a child he will find a way of doing so even if the most stringent controls are in place.


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