Teaching: Looking at the Imbalance of Power
I’ve been thinking about the different, though parallel issues with power abuse in teaching in both music and movement, specifically yoga. We have more and more people coming forward with experiences of sexual abuse in both arenas, and it makes me wonder, how did we bestow so much authority to our teachers? How did we end up trusting them implicitly, and sometimes blindly?
Neither yoga study nor musical study is inherently cultish, but there are some interesting patterns that coincide with cult mentality and unhealthy power relationships. Here are a few consistent patterns:
Cults oppose critical thinking from their constituents
Cults isolate members from their families, jobs, lives, etc.
Cults promote an unhealthy veneration of leaders and teachers
Women are more likely than men to join a cult. (Source)
Cult leaders are masters of manipulation and mind control: their tactics may include public humiliation and fear based language. Leaders may also proclaim magical abilities and assert absolute authority.
Of course, there are many other aspects to cult, often based around spiritual practices, money, and more, and you may be wondering what this has to do with anything.
At some point in the last few years, I realized that certain teachers have aspects of these cultish behavioral traits, and inflict harm upon their students. This can take the form of older yoga teachers who made sexual passes at their students, or whose “adjustments” took the form of groping, but it can also include the private instructor at a college who mocks their students for their failures, publicly humiliates their students in group settings, and tells their students that they are the only good teacher out there. While I’ve had some amazing private instructors over the years, I’ve seen this behavior, and only experienced it a few times.
-I briefly studied with an instructor that asked for blind allegiance, that I only studied with her, and only played the repertoire, etudes, and scales she assigned, nothing else. She also told me that other string teachers weren’t as good as she was, and that she ALONE could lead me to success. She also said I had to go to the summer festivals that she taught at, or else I couldn’t study with her anymore.
Now, there are some good reasons to ask for a student to stay on track with their assignments, repertoire, and technique, but denying the validity of all other teachers was a red flag for me. I was a teenager at the time, but I decided this wasn’t a healthy relationship and I started seeking help elsewhere, and eventually switched instructors and schools. The instructor also humiliated me in front of a studio class, claiming that I shouldn't have done well in the school concerto competition, and that someone else should’ve won. (I placed third). It’s only been as an adult that I’ve realized that this same power oriented behavior shows up in so many different aspects of life: politics, teaching, work, and relationships.
In the yoga and meditation community, there have been notable “guru” figures who have fallen from grace- once venerated, now revealed to have abused their power for personal gain, or even worse, using that power to try to leverage for sexual favors, money, and more amongst their followers. A great podcast on Bikram Choudhury’s rise and fall shows some of these power dynamics- self asserted proclamations of magical healing, complete devotion from followers, denial of other yoga practices, abuse of power, and more. Yet, Bikram is not alone. Similar issues have come up in the ashtanga community with Pattabhi Jois, in the formerly Anusura community, in the Shambala Buddhist meditation space, and more. Many keen minds have looked at this pattern of pseudo spirituality and cult behavior, and written about their findings, yet what I find most compelling is the pattern that moves beyond the yoga and meditation space.
Where do these tactics show up in our daily lives?
What political leaders try to use these same approaches to gain loyalty and support?
How do music instructors use some of these tactics as well?
Let’s look at college music instruction, both at the undergrad and graduate levels. Students have most likely selected the college based on the teacher, his or her reputation, and the track record of students before them. There may be an implicit or explicit promise of “Study with me, and you’ll win a job.” There may be an implicit or explicit promise of “this is the best way because it worked for me.” There may also be a denial of other approaches, other performers’ validity, and refusal to allow for cross pollination- this was my biggest red flag as a teenager. If a teacher or performer will listen to no other musician but him or herself, there’s a problem. If a teacher denies all other teacher’s validity, that’s also a problem. When we put our private instructors on a very high pedestal, it opens the doorway to abuse of power, which could be purely professional or sexual abuse.
How do we move forward? As adults, we have the power to question the methods of our teachers and do better. We have the power to not recommend known abusers to students seeking instruction. We have the power to promote many methods and a positive learning environment for students. And as a youngish adult with many colleagues in music and music instruction, we have the potential to create a better teaching environment for decades to come.