Violence in music academia
My experiences relate to jazz and music colleges, but they play out in similar ways across the music industry and higher education sector.
My perspective is white, queer, afab, neurodivergent, ablebodied, with a German passport.
Trigger warning for people with PTSD: Please take good care of yourself, take a break, or read on with friends. You don't have to go through this alone.
Mentioned here are psychological violence, emotional abuse, sexual violence, and racism.
I was 24 years old when I was accepted for my second music degree at the renowned Jazz Institute Berlin. My time as a student was marked by the university's internal political conflicts, as well as violence, discrimination, and abuse of power targeted at students, which was encouraged, normalized, and tolerated by the poisoned atmosphere and by structural protection gaps.
The school's reputation stands above everything. Hence, incidents of any kind are supposed to be solved internally. However, few individuals have too much power and too many functions at the same time, but rarely expertise.
The departmental management, as well as the university management of the JIB, unfortunately proved to be neither capable nor trustworthy, and often unwilling to act in the interest of the students or to protect them. Neither in having a say in new apprenticeships to be filled, nor in dealing with violence and discrimination. Little has changed in this regard to date.
My colleague Natalie Greffel, who also studied at the JIB, elaborated on her own experience at the school and in the Berlin jazz scene, in her acceptance speech at this year's German Jazz Award:
"Jazz [to me] means white, mostly cis-hetero-male jazz communities and institutes that do not have the knowledge or awareness of how to deeply engage with the politics and histories embedded in Black consciousness." It means no loving or critical culture of reflecting on jazz while taking race, gender, nationality, class and sexuality into account. This ignorance and inadequacy are alive and well from the student body who remains uneducated by their teachers, to the class in jazz history I left due to white fragility and dismissiveness from both the "highly acclaimed" teacher and some of the white male students in the class.
This is also felt in the silence from the highest executive directors who knew what was going on, to a previous winner of this award in a different category, who repeatedly perpetrated racism towards me throughout my studies at the Jazz Institute and refuses to see a problem with it. This disconnect has led me and other Black and People of Colour musicians to experience social exclusion and daily aggressions and microaggressions. I have truly isolated myself for a years now since I first have to convince you of my experience as a queer Afropean woman before we even get to play."
The Jazz Institute is not an isolated case. Just this month, the Evening Standard reported on psychological violence and abuse in UK classical music education. In an academic paper on experiences of discrimination at the HfMT Leipzig by Jakob Treptow (Leipzig, 30.09.2021), students and teachers are quoted with their experiences. It states, among other things:
[...] The situations often seem harmless and like isolated cases to the outside world (or other explanations are brought up for certain behaviours) but the quantity, repetition, and ordinariness of them wears down the persons concerned and leads some to avoid the university and to consider dropping out of their studies in order to escape the social situation. Apart from that, the social exclusion (explicitly of female instrumentalists in the jazz department) also massively impairs the learning potential and thus the musical development, [...] p. 49There are laws against the violence and discrimination described here, but unfortunately, they are rarely applied in practice.
"The lecturer often crossed boundaries by getting physically too close to female students and uttering misogynistic slogans." p. 46
"Gay" as a descriptive quality of gestures" p. 46
"Asian-read people are patronized and talked down to by several people working at the reception/key desk, very frequently and extremely!!!" p. 46
In addition, in the context of conservatories, psychological violence and emotional manipulation still aren’t criminal offenses in Germany.
This is a massive protection gap in artistic study programs, where students are extremely vulnerable. Working on individual artistic expression is work deep inside. One-to-one and small group instruction are the norm. Practised abusers know the respective legal situation and manipulate within its limitations, so they can enjoy both the protection of the law and the environment. They often work not with visible boundary transgressions, but with invisible shifting of boundaries.