Fuck the Maestro Mentality

Since I started studying music in college, I’ve only rarely had the opportunity to work with a female conductor or ensemble director. (In fact, I think it’s happened . . . twice? Three times? Really rarely.) Before that, though, I was a product entirely of woman-run programs, and while middle and high school band were a long time ago, that education set me up with the expectation that my accomplishments were first and foremost my own, and while my teachers could be proud of me and talk about me, they could only claim so much credit.

This idea extended from my academic classes into my creative work in large part due to the guidance of the female and nonbinary professors and TAs I’ve had lessons and influential classes with over the past six years. These folks are supportive to no end, so eternally giving of their time and resources, but their support and praise is far less performative than some of their male colleagues’. It’s genuine, frequently private, and usually keeps an eye toward the future and what else I might accomplish. A good chunk of my male teachers, mentors, and colleagues also follow this model, but we’ve always got the handful of teachers who wait in the background, either refraining from genuine praise or being quietly unsupportive unless we jump through a little-communicated, preordained set of hoops (of which they are frequently gatekeepers).

Usually, it starts at school (if the person is one of your professors). Maybe it’s a subtle slut-shaming on the podium for wearing a tank top (gasp) to conducting class on a hundred-degree day; maybe it’s an off-the-cuff #MeToo lecture (already a bold choice from a male faculty member) that spirals into a warning to your male colleagues that they should cover their tracks. Maybe it escalates, another time, to a derogatory comment about your gender and your career path. Maybe it’s not bothering to check whether the Title IX investigation you accidentally opened had ever followed up with you. Maybe it’s a fixation on one summer program in particular (that they might happen to teach at) instead of discussing a variety of festivals and courses that might be right for you.

Or maybe it’s how you realize alums are treated—how anyone that doesn’t shoot to the top of the soloist world or win the Pulitzer or audition into a prestigious job or go on to study with Another Big Name seems to fall off your teacher’s radar. Maybe it’s how certain male students are celebrated at every step of the career ladder (or, at least, the preferred steps), while women aren’t acknowledged unless they do something too ludicrously epic to ignore. Maybe it’s playing favorites to such a degree that you wonder if they respect any of their students who don’t bend over backwards praising their teaching (or maybe wondering whether or not it’s respect they’re giving out to those who do). Maybe it’s acknowledging your strengths to a faculty member or two but withholding them from you (and certainly not sharing them with the world). Maybe it’s a series of behaviors that taken individually may seem harmless but when sequenced together look a hell of a lot like grooming us to make us emotionally dependent on patronizing, paternalistic approval rather than our artmaking practices. (If you want to learn more about grooming in a general sense, here’s a great breakdown.)

These men (and in my experience, they are almost always men) piss me off because they seem to enjoy playing God with their students, either for their own benefit or just for the power trip (or both). It’s not something we talk about too much when we talk about teachers, because in so many instances, they’re tenured and well-respected by older generations (who usually don’t prioritize student safety to quite the degree we do). To tangle with one could end a career before it starts.

So what, exactly, do we do about this? Part of the answer, I think, lies in a push for anonymous reporting where appropriate. Students experiencing unethical, predatory behaviors from their teachers should have an option besides either going toe-to-toe with an abusive teacher or shutting up about it (or leaving the school/profession). Another piece of the puzzle is making records of abusive teaching freely and willingly available to any school at which that professor is a candidate for a job. Sending someone to another school without ensuring that institution understands the circumstances surrounding their departure is flat-out unethical, but if you believe the schools who have made headlines in the past few years for hiring known predators, it may still be happening. (I don’t know if we should believe these schools, but the consistency of this occurrence tells me every school needs to ensure they’re not making that mistake.)

But, (perhaps) most importantly for those of us without the power to make those decisions, we need to definitively acknowledge one truth to ourselves, our peers, our colleagues, our students, and our superiors: these teachers and authority figures often care first and foremost about how their students make them look. They lead with their names and the reputation they’ve earned among their male colleagues. They push their students toward a very narrowly-defined version of success (frequently one that’s difficult or impossible for minority students to attain). They relish in being deemed the authority figure in the room more than they care about setting their students up for any career they could dream of.

These teachers are not willing to do what is required to ensure every student has a safe, healthy experience and can target their own career goals.

These teachers are at major institutions across the US and around the world—ones I have attended and ones I have not.

These teachers are the ultimate boys’ club—the collection of men who think their students’ achievements are theirs to gatekeep. Sometimes, their studios don’t have space for more than a small handful of women amongst a cavalcade of men.

These teachers might not call what they do playing God, but if it isn’t, it’s definitely playing Maestro.

For now, my sisters and I identify you privately. Someday, we will name names—when it won’t cost us our careers to do so. ♦

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