Behind Closed Doors

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking with members of the Title IX steering committee at Yale University. For a musician, preparing to speak on an Ivy League stage was an intimidating task. In my four years at Juilliard I had taken only two academic classes: English and The History of Western Culture. (Actually I also took a third class as an elective but since all these offerings were in the humanities I should be excused for my execrable math skills.)

I did, however, have a perspective to offer this august group: my opinion, based on my experience, as to why sexual harassment in music conservatories is so uniquely difficult to address. Here was a question I’d been trying to answer for over 30 years—what factors set the stage for me so that when I was confronted with sexual harassment at Juilliard I didn’t know what to do about it?

Two of those factors were products of the time—the long-ago 1980s. I entered Juilliard in 1983. To put that into perspective, 1983 was the first year that our uptown neighbor, Columbia, accepted women. Yes, men and women had been intermingling in schools and in the workplace but in certain areas, that exposure was just beginning. For me specifically, men who were one and two generations older than I were just beginning to teach large numbers of women who played brass or percussion instruments.

Another factor in the 80s, was the lack of information. In preparing for my trip to Yale, I downloaded Juilliard’s 36 page policy on sexual misconduct. Number of policy pages in 1983—zero. (Full disclosure for those not alive then: we didn’t have computers or websites, as Al Gore had not yet invented the internet.) The trial of Anita Hill did not take place until 1991. Clarence Thomas’s congressional hearing started the dialogue that provided guidelines for students and teachers.

There are two factors, however, which are still relevant today. The first—for those of us who choose to attend a music conservatory, music means everything. For some pianists or violinists it was number four in the line up of acquired skills, preceded only by walking, talking, and potty training. I started percussion when I was 10 and soon thereafter told my parents I was going to play in an orchestra. None of us enters music conservatory with any lack of clarity as to why we are there. Music conservatories are trade schools so “switching your major” isn’t an idea that floats through your head when confronted with a bad situation.

The second factor is the outsize power of the teacher. Week after week, year after year, the student is alone in a room with his or her teacher, laboring over the glacial process of improvement. They are our mentors. Nothing can compare to that relationship. Conductors come close—there is certainly a heavy power dynamic with someone who stands on a box and waves a stick—but conductors lead a roomful of students in rehearsals, then perform a concert and leave. We choose a school because of a teacher and stay with that teacher for four years. Here’s a story that sums up that relationship: a contemporary of mine attended The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Curtis has a lower acceptance rate than Juilliard, fewer students, and is tuition-free. It’s a huge accomplishment to gain admittance. So my friend, Ben, attended Curtis for two years until his teacher decided to retire from his orchestra job and move to Indiana to teach full-time in Bloomington. Despite the prestige of Curtis, Ben followed him to the University of Indiana. (I like to imagine that conversation with his parents: “Yeah, I am aware it will cost you and P.S., none of my credits transferred so multiply that times four.”)

So the stage was set with these four factors: no exposure, no information, one passion, one teacher. Once I began experiencing harassment, I felt I had two bad options: stay or leave. I ended up doing both, staying for a year and a half, discussing the situation with no one, and finally, leaving when the stress became too overwhelming. Succeeding in music requires endless practicing and the ability to delay gratification and tolerate performance anxiety; those factors are hard enough but they are factors over which we have control. For me, the most extreme stress came from a situation over which I felt I had no control.

In the weeks before I spoke to the Yale committee, I sweated over the one question I imagined they might ask me: with the benefit of hindsight, what would I have done differently? I felt I didn’t have a good answer; even now I look back and only see two bad options, each of which had consequences. Stay and endure the anxiety or leave and give up a school and a teacher and, most likely, incur his wrath. But in talking to them I realized they had solutions and suggestions I couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago: role play scenarios, training the “whole department” (when actually targeting a particular teacher so as not to reveal the complainant), buddies trained to intervene when they see situations that don’t look right. And if it happened to me now instead of then, I would’ve been able to look through those pages and pages of rules and find a person designated to take my call and do the one thing which might’ve helped: listen to my story.