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01May06h Music Teaching

Paedophilia scares threaten future of music teaching

by Jenny Jarvie

Sunday Telegraph, ISSUE 2172 Sunday 6 May 2001

THE headmaster of England's most renowned classical music school has warned that the creative development of young prodigies is being undermined by a culture of suspicion that discourages teachers from touching pupils. Nicolas Chisholm, the headmaster of the Yehudi Menuhin School for young musicians in Cobham, Surrey, told The Sunday Telegraph that the quality of teaching is under threat as tutors are widely discouraged from touching children because of growing paranoia about paedophilia. Mr Chisholm is to address the issue in a lecture to the Bath [Bach?] Music Festival at the end of this month.

Close bonds between gifted pupils and their tutors were crucial, said Mr Chisholm, and necessarily involve physical contact. "Teaching gifted children is tricky because of the modern fear about relationships between adults and children," he said. "There's a constant looking over one's shoulder and a fear of litigation. "We're teaching an athletic subject - be it singing or playing an instrument - and inevitably we will touch pupils' hands, arms, elbows or backs to point out what they're doing wrong." Tasmin Little, 35, a former pupil of the Yehudi Menuhin School and one of the world's leading classical violinists, said she understood Mr Chisholm's concern. "Until I was 21, I was taught by women, so I never had any problems. At that time people didn't think about such things as much they do now. "Teaching music is not the same as teaching one plus one equals two: it's not black and white, but about creativity. It's very close and intense. The physical side is important. When I take masterclasses I touch students' arms to show them the correct level so they get it right. I can understand why some people might get concerned - musicians can be quite charismatic and emotional."

More than half the musical training at the Yehudi Menuhin School, which was founded in 1963 by Lord Menuhin, the violinist and conductor, is conducted on a one-to-one basis. "What happens here would probably put the fear of God into a lot of places," Mr Chisholm said. "Many schools, as far as I'm aware, are very wary about relationships between children and staff. Some management put constraints upon teaching, saying you can't have one-to-one relationships." Mr Chisholm said that he operated a "prudence policy", offering guidance to teachers and warning that relationships with children involve a power imbalance. "When parents sign up for one-to-one lessons to help their children cope with an instrument physically, you warn them that this involves touching. Of course, there's touching that's highly professional, and touching that's highly sackable. The context is crucial."

The school coaches more than 50 gifted children between eight and 18 on stringed instruments and piano. Each pupil is encouraged to "develop body suppleness and awaken feelings of good posture" with classes in Alexander Technique, a discipline that develops posture and breathing. Mrs Karen Ripper, whose 10-year-old son, Oscar, is a pupil, said: "Oscar has a very strong bond with his tutor and that's enormously important. Worrying about physical contact is silly. I understand why the fuss has arisen but I think it's a shame. She added: "I would expect Oscar to tell me if something was wrong, but he is totally positive. He thinks the undivided attention is brilliant. He has never felt under threat and says time with his tutor is special."

Paul Carroll, the professor of baroque and classical bassoon at the Royal College of Music in London, said: "I've never had a problem with my pupils, but I remember a friend using physical contact to explain diaphragm control to female students at a public school. He lost his job. "We have to escape over-awareness about the problem of harassment. It shouldn't get in the way of teaching. It's getting silly - a sense of normality needs to be restored."


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