Hitting the Wrong Notes

A friend of mine who teaches voice technique abroad sent me a link of the first of a series of videos produced by the Musicians’ Union and the NSPCC, in collaboration with Music Leader, ABRSWM, and Educare.

The script does not mince words. It tells teachers to avoid, at all costs, touching their pupils, lest they be accused to inappropriate behaviour (including paedophilia). These instructions apply whether one teaches a class or a single pupil, in a school, in the pupil’s home or in the teacher’s own.

I was stunned. Why would the (British) Musicians’ Union think it ought to set itself apart from other bodies, the operations of which require adults to be in close contact with children? The Church, catechism groups, scouts and guides, and sundry other entities have all been splattered with accusations of abuse, sometimes deservedly.

In this series, it seems that accusations are inevitable. Anyone would think it was a pre-emptive measure. Although, to be fair, one of the clips does show a teacher who accidentally comes across signs of abuse upon a pupil, and intimates that she will have to “tell someone”. Teachers are given common-sense advice. In my opinion, however, this sometimes fails to protect the child enough, because it is intended to protect the teacher.

The clips are presented as “an online resource allowing anyone teaching music to children to gain a better understanding of their child protection responsibilities and avoid situations that could lead to accusations of misconduct”. I would say they are meant of foster an atmosphere of distrust where none existed before.

Whatever happened to the “private body” instruction we gave our young children? Most of us knew well enough to tell children that nobody could touch them in the areas covered by (full) underwear. Failure of any adult – even a relative or family friend – to observe this cardinal rule meant the children came to tell us exactly what happened, when, and why, and the rest was up to us.

These days, everything has gone over the top, on the premise that it is better to be safe than sorry – and the result is that everyone gets tarred with the same brush. Just because one postman didn’t check his work, and delivered a packet of five letters with different addresses, held together with a rubber band, to the address of the one on top, it does not mean that all postmen are careless. Just because one teacher gave students two projects to do over the Christmas holidays, it does not mean that all teachers are “cruel”.

There are children who learn music online. Here, the danger of abuse does not come up, especially if the lessons are pre-recorded and the teacher is not even online during the lesson.

My friend calls this campaign “outrageous”. Sometimes, it is imperative that the teacher touches the pupil to indicate certain areas that need to be used when singing; “I sometimes have to ‘push’ someone’s diaphragm to make students understand how it really feels when breathing and using support properly. Do the people who have come up with this campaign actually teach music?” she asks.

Enzo Gusman, never one to pull his punches, asks whether doctors, dentists and other professionals are going to face the same ordeal. He also asks whether a Mohel (the professionally-trained man who performs circumcision on boys in Judaism) would be similarly liable – but since this is a religious issue, I should think not. Many other people involved in the music scene in Malta said more or less the same thing.

One piano teacher said that nothing like an unexpected poke in the small of the back reminded a student to sit up straight. Another suggested that all doors and windows doors be kept open during music lessons – and never mind what the neighbours say about caterwauling violins. One mother told me that she is ashamed to say that, on n the way home from the music lesson, she keeps glancing at her daughter’s face, trying to catch micro-expressions, although the teacher is a childhood friend.

Having worked in a school with tiny children as well as others who have learning difficulties, I cannot but say that there are times a teacher must hold a child’s hand to indicate the correct way to do things –including how to hold a pencil to form letters. And what if a child falls and comes to you for a hug? What do you do when two children are fighting in the schoolyard? Do you turn the water-hose on them so as to avoid touching them, and risk being arrested for child abuse anyway?

The world is indeed a sad place when each action, even the most innocent, could be deliberately misinterpreted by someone. There are cases when teachers and other people in authority have been maliciously accused of inappropriate behaviour. Even when they are proven innocent, they usually find that their reputation has been tarnished forever.

However, a person who is going to lie about you will lie anyway, if he thinks he can get away with it, simply because he has been alone in a room with you… whether you have touched him or not.

Why are we making children – and ourselves – paranoid?

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