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Talented, vulnerable children: How the Curtis Institute of Music may have been ripe for abuse | Analysis

The power dynamic between music instructors and extremely talented young musicians is similar to the one between Olympic coaches and elite gymnasts. And then there's this: Curtis is free.

The steps into the main building of the Curtis Institute of Music on Rittenhouse Square
The steps into the main building of the Curtis Institute of Music on Rittenhouse SquareRead moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

To begin to understand the unusual power equation at play between teacher and student at the Curtis Institute of Music, consider something one former student said: When she was studying there, her music professor told her that if she didn’t follow his philosophy of teaching and playing, he would have her sent back to her home country.

It’s not tough to see how this lopsided power dynamic might lead to the kinds of abuses now being investigated at the famed music conservatory on Rittenhouse Square. In the wake of an Inquirer report in July detailing allegations of rape and other forms of sexual misconduct, the school said last week it has hired Cozen O’Connor to investigate any claims of sexual misconduct past or present.

Presumably, the firm will also take a hard look at the overall culture that made conditions ripe for any abuse that may have occurred over the years. What they’ll find is that Curtis isn’t just any music school.

For one thing, getting in is an achievement in itself.

“One of the most selective schools in the United States, Curtis accepts four percent of applicants each year on average,” the school says on its website. The figure moves slightly from year to year, but that makes it choosier than Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Penn.

This translates into a student body at Curtis of only about 175, which in turn means just a small handful of musicians on some instruments are let in each year. Once admitted, any student might think twice about making waves.

If Curtis didn’t know it before, the school now “has a knowledge of a power relationship between its music instructors and its students," says Marci A. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA, the Philadelphia-based child protection and advocacy group.

That power imbalance “opens the door to abuse," she says. "And this is when children are most vulnerable, when our talented children are in situations like this, that they often get sacrificed — to the coach, to the music instructor, to the priest.”

In response to Inquirer questions about the overall culture at Curtis, the school responded with a statement: "We agree that it is critically important to examine these cultural issues, although it is also true that Curtis shares these attributes with many institutions around the nation, including several in Philadelphia.

“We fully expect that the comprehensive review now underway will take into account both the broader context of higher education as well as the more specific context of a music conservatory, and it will include careful consideration of Curtis’ culture and its impact on questions of student safety.”

A name that opens doors

Getting into Curtis, founded in 1924, isn’t a guarantee of a successful career, but there’s no doubt that the name opens doors and puts graduates in prestigious company. Pianist Lang Lang and violinist Hilary Hahn studied at Curtis. West Side Story composer Leonard Bernstein went there, as did Godfather composer Nino Rota. Samuel Barber, whose Adagio for Strings has become a national soundtrack to sorrow, was one of its big early success stories.

Curtis isn't a typical school in several other significant ways.

Most Curtis students are a long way from home, leaving many without parental support locally, although some international students’ parents move here while their children are in school. Current policy requires that students under 18 years old who are still pursuing high school diplomas live with a parent or guardian off-campus.

Incoming students are sometimes well below the age of 18 and too young to navigate tricky or inappropriate interactions on their own. Curtis does offer students confidential counseling resources.

And Curtis is free. This further tips the power scale. Someone leaving Curtis before successful completion of a degree or diploma may or may not be able to successfully audition for and transfer to, say, the Juilliard School. But if Curtis is offering four or more years of free tuition, it is easy to imagine that a student might hesitate before giving that up.

Classical music tends to traffic in a sense of awe. Students come up through a system that continually telegraphs the idea that teachers at the best conservatories are as gods, and one of the things that puts Curtis at the very top of an elite group is its musical lineage. Curtis piano professor Gary Graffman studied with Isabelle Vengerova; she studied with Theodor Leschetizky; Leschetizky studied with Carl Czerny; Czerny was Beethoven’s pupil.

The privilege of being a pianist in a direct line from Beethoven may be a distinctly musical one, but the student-teacher relationship is a familiar one from sports.

“The parallels with the elite athletes are just so strong,” says Hamilton. “How does Simone Biles, this incredible star, how does she get victimized? It’s the same dynamic, right? They are in the situation of the elite athlete who needs that infrastructure for success.”

Students at conservatories like Curtis continue to depend on teachers after graduation for making introductions to powerful music agents, for passing along opportunities to appear as a soloist or guest artist, or for continuing to listen and critique musical interpretations as students enter competitions and audition for orchestras.

“The stakes are so high to land some kind of a career, and the stature of a teacher is incredibly intimidating even if your teacher is respectful and kind,” says Elizabeth Ostling, a Curtis alumna and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s associate principal flutist. "You are going to feel vulnerable because you want to play music after you graduate so badly, and most of the teachers at Curtis are celebrities.”

Moreover, artistic tradition in classical music gets handed down not just through books, critical-edition scores, and recordings, but through relationships and intimate human contact. Sometimes, this contact is physical. “To illustrate a point about breath control, a woodwind professor may press on a student’s diaphragm,” says the Juilliard School’s policy on working with minors, which states where, when, and how touching is advisable — and not.

In May, Curtis began training its summer faculty on touching students, and will extend that training to regular faculty in coming weeks, said Curtis spokesperson Patricia K. Johnson.

The challenge going forward

The question now is how to preserve the best elements of a Curtis education while putting in such controls — measures that recognize that, above all, Curtis is a school, with children and young adults who may feel an acute power imbalance that makes them vulnerable to abuse.

This was the case with Lara St. John, the violinist whose allegation of abuse and rape at the school set off the current investigation. She was a student at Curtis in the 1980s when she says her teacher threatened to have her brother thrown out of Curtis if she didn’t go along with abuse.

» READ MORE: Celebrated violinist Lara St. John says she was sexually assaulted at Curtis Institute

Some have questioned whether decades-old incidents are still relevant. But there are good reasons for taking the long view, says Michael Dolce, who heads the sexual abuse, sex trafficking, and domestic abuse team at the Cohen Milstein law firm in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

“The only way to assess the attitude that permeates the institution today is to look at the entirety of what’s happened over the last 20 or 30 years — not just whether the same people are involved, but how the sensibilities have been handed down and may apply to the leadership today,” he says.

No doubt some practices cry out for scrutiny. Why not, for instance, put video cameras in practice rooms and teaching studios?

Curtis is considering that, Johnson says, as well as the question of whether Curtis will continue to allow students to study in the homes of faculty members, which happens sometimes, rather than requiring all lessons to be on campus. Juilliard requires that lessons happen at the school, a Juilliard spokesperson said.

But Curtis and other music schools will also have to confront a more philosophical question.

Sexual misconduct claims against top-tier conductor Charles Dutoit and superstar tenor Placido Domingo show that conveyance of the highest of human ideals can come in some deeply flawed packages. How do music schools preserve the idea of emulating highly accomplished artists while not idealizing them to the point that students have a hard time questioning authority when circumstances warrant it?

How can we justify hero-worship in classical music when so many heroes have let us down?

We’re still processing such reckonings. But in music theory there’s a device called a suspension. It’s that point when a chord is unresolved except for a single note, a hold-out. It creates a moment of tension that begs to be resolved.

Sometimes it takes a while, but resolution always comes, and when it does, the music lets us know that it’s finally possible to move on.