Dark Days in the Music School

*Content Warning: Sexual assault, abuse by an authority figure*

On December 10th, 2018, the Michigan Daily published an article about a violin professor at U-M who had been accused of sexual abuse and misconduct by many of his former violin students. Stephen Shipps had been employed by the University of Michigan since 1989, served as the dean for academic affairs from 2002-2007, and was the chair of the string department at until December 7th, 2018. I won’t go into the details of the abuse allegations– you can read everything in the Daily article here. What I want to talk about today is the effect of this situation on current students at SMTD, as well as the state of sexual abuse in the world of classical music.

As soon as I woke up on that Monday morning, I opened my phone up to Facebook and the first thing on my newsfeed was the article titled “Former students bring 40 years of misconduct allegations by SMTD professor.” I opened the article immediately, unsure of what to expect. As far as I knew, there were no rumors going around school about Shipps. I had no personal contact with him because I am a viola student, and he was a private violin teacher. I went to a summer camp two years ago and he was teaching there, so occasionally I would see him teach a master class or a quartet coaching, but we never spoke to eachother. After reading the article, I shared it on my own Facebook, and more people shared it from my post. Soon, it was all over my newsfeed, along with words of anger, sadness, and confusion from my fellow classmates at SMTD.

All day, thoughts of helplessness and anger swirled around in my head. In the past year, many famous male musicians have been fired from their jobs over sexual abuse allegations. If a person is talented, while their artistic achievements are celebrated, their personal actions are swept under the rug. There’s this idea that what they do in their personal life does not matter because what actually matters to the institutions which employ them is their musical ability. It’s their own artistic talent that allows abusers to disguise their actions with some higher artistic purpose. To some young music students or professionals, the extra “attention” they might be receiving from their private teacher makes them feel special or chosen. They might believe that by doing something inappropriate for their teacher, they could get ahead in the industry. Succeeding in music is devastatingly challenging. As a young person, you look to your private teacher for guidance on everything, from how to play the instrument to where to pursue a job. At the very least, you spend an hour alone with them once a week in a private lesson. It’s a vulnerable space where students must feel the freedom to both fail and succeed. For abusers, it is an ideal situation: alone time with an impressionable person behind a closed door.

The night after the article was published, I walked into my orchestra rehearsal and saw one of Shipps’ students sobbing into my conductor’s arms. I don’t know her story, but immediately I started to think about all of his students, my colleagues, seeing that article about their teacher on their Facebook feeds. This week at school, they will be walking into a new studio with a new violin teacher. I can’t even begin to understand the complexity of the situation for them. In the past year I have seen so many #MeToo stories online, as we all have, and my first instinct is always to support the survivor and condemn the abuser. It is still my first instinct. But when this happened in my own community, I could also see all the complicated dimensions to the story. While he deserves to be punished for his crimes, the public nature of the article and widespread sharing on social media hurts the people who cared for him. It hurts his students, my colleagues. But on the other hand, publicizing these tragic stories is necessary if we want to create a real change in the music industry. It doesn’t matter how talented someone is if they’re a creep. Abuse should not be tolerated under any circumstances. It seems that the only way to bust these men who benefit from the patriarchal, oppressive chaos of classical music is through good journalism and social media. Thank you, Michigan Daily, for telling us the truth. 

Click here if you want to read more about the #MeToo movement in classical music. 

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