On Love and Ambition at Conservatory
One evening quite some time ago, in a cramped computer lab, it struck me that maybe my professor had fallen in love with my classmate. Nick Martin was finishing the parts for a piece of his—a nagging job—and the professor was helping him. Recently, I called Martin. “Do you remember [the professor] helping you with your parts?” I asked. A pause. “Yup,” he said. “Do you know why?” “I don’t know.” “Can I tell you what I think? It was because [the professor] was attracted to you,” I said. “Well, I knew that. He said he had feelings for me.”
Martin was 18 years old, and the professor was turning 40. Martin is good looking, with blond hair and glasses; at the time he wore tight jeans and brightly colored socks. The undergraduate composition class at the Royal Academy of Music in London was always small, with around four new students per year. The professor was highly involved there, “omnipresent,” as Martin described it. He and the professor began spending their free time together. Then other people made assumptions about what was going on. “Many people in the Academy actually thought we were sleeping together. And I remember thinking that was awful. I didn’t want that,” Martin told me. One evening, after a concert, Martin went into the conservatory’s basement bar, and the professor and another professor were there, and this second professor asked them, very casually, “Are you guys fucking?”
The professor liked to hang out with his students outside of the Academy, have “lessons in the bar,” then go onto nightclubs, another of my former classmates, Chris Mcateer, said. The professor brought Mcateer along “as a third wheel” so he could be around Martin without arousing suspicion. “It was certainly very apparent to me that he was interested in him. I was there to make it legitimate whenever [the professor] wanted to take Nick out to nightclubs. And I went along with that.” (When approached via email, the professor declined to comment on this story.) Copious amounts of alcohol were consumed during nights out. After one of those nights, following drinks in a bar with cow-skin patterned seats, I took the bus home, then woke up at the final stop on the line and for the first time in my life, threw up from the alcohol.
Did Martin benefit musically from the professor’s crush on him? At reading sessions, where student musicians played through student compositions, Martin was frequently praised, while the other students’ works were met with indifference or outright hostility. In fact, it’s difficult to tell. Martin was quite far ahead of his classmates at the time. His early scores were lush, detailed, and professional. So at a conservatory that valued professionalism over experimentation, even for its first years, he stood out as someone who was writing polished music that worked, while the others were still at the very beginning of the search for a personal language. On the other hand, perhaps the professor had fallen in love with him specifically because of the quality of his music. Either way, the feeling that Martin was getting ahead was pervasive. European graduate students at the Royal Academy, in particular, often complained that the department was searching for the next great British composer, and that the first year, due to his talent and more prominently his looks, had been anointed.
This atmosphere put pressure on me and my classmates to create professional-level music right off the bat. Mcateer told me, of a piece he wrote for one reading session, “I remember working really hard on it and really struggling…I felt like I was trying to write something I hadn’t tried to do before and didn’t know how to do. I went to the workshop, and it was played through. Nick’s was played through afterwards. And I went to the bathroom, and I really felt like I was going to cry. I had been so stressed trying to write this piece, and it wasn’t very good. Then I heard Nick’s piece, and it was very good. There was a much better reception to it. I felt very upset and bad about my ability to write; I guess I was very competitive with Nick.” Mcateer studied composition with the professor, who often talked about Martin’s music and potential in Mcateer’s own lessons. “I think I wanted [the professor’s] praise and attention,” Mcateer said. “I remember feeling bad that he was always so keen to help Nick. I was definitely of lesser interest as a student.”
One night, at a concert afterparty, I drank several pints of soapy Carlsberg beer, and the professor gave me a wet kiss on the cheek, mumbling something about my potential. The feeling was complicated: gross, but somehow like I mattered. Even though none of the students in the class were sexually attracted to the professor, each felt achingly jealous of the musical flattery that only Martin received. It would have “felt good getting attention from a teacher in that kind of competitive institution,” Mcateer told me. Martin said, “Maybe it says a lot about me: I liked the fact that he took an interest in me as a young person.” But all the students would have benefited from that interest. Only one student received it, and it tore the fabric of the class apart.
As the year wore on and it became clear that the professor’s love for Martin was unrequited, his behavior became more erratic. He’d do racist impressions of the fourth student in the class, a South Korean (whom I couldn’t reach for comment on this story), when that student would show up late for seminars. (I snuck out during the break of one such seminar to watch a soccer match. Later, I was called into the guidance counselor’s office to account for my behavior and made up some excuse.) The professor made a joke about fisting during an orchestral rehearsal of student work. He had problems with alcohol and boundaries. “He couldn’t separate the professional or the work side of things and the social things,” Martin said, and some days he would call Martin several times in a row, leaving messages and “sounding very depressed” when he didn’t pick up.
Mcateer recounted a lesson with the professor close to the end of the year that was dedicated not to composition but rather to the professor’s suffering. The professor “asked me to go for a walk. I assume that he knew that I knew what was going on. But he didn’t want to say directly why he was upset. He just said that there was a person who he was having issues with, who he was in love with, who didn’t love him back. It was obvious enough it was Nick he was talking about, he just didn’t say it out loud.”
“I was just 18. I had no idea what to do with someone in a position of authority telling me [he had feelings for me],” Martin said. Despite his sense that their friendship had led him to become “compromised” and a target for jealousy among his fellow students, and that it was “self destructive, for both of us,” he added, “There’s part of me that also cares about him. He’s a fragile, vulnerable person.”
During the events described, no actual physical sexual abuse took place. All the people involved were legal adults. That already makes them more mild and less harmful than the kind of catcalling, groping, and leering women experience so often in their daily lives. Still, the professor’s behavior in falling for his student, then attempting to act on his crush within the bounds of the university, was a breach of trust. Suffering isn’t a zero sum game; though the students involved were relatively privileged men, they were also young, impressionable, and highly sensitive potential artists at a fragile point in the development of their musical voices.
A 2013 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education focusing on sexual harassment in conservatories suggested that inappropriate relationships between professors and students were more common in music schools than elsewhere. The prevalence of private lessons, the many legitimate reasons for a teacher to touch a student in instrumental or vocal instruction, the charged, intimate moments of success and failure, all lead to an environment in which the border with sexual harassment is even blurrier than elsewhere. As the author of the Chronicle report acknowledged, the evidence for this claim is purely anecdotal, since “The [U.S.] Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights doesn’t track reports of sexual misconduct by ‘type’ of alleged perpetrator.” However, the contours of the report broadly match the events at the Royal Academy of Music. It describes two professors who allegedly used drugs and alcohol with students. Students complained about “lewd jokes that contributed to an uncomfortable environment.” The report also implicated what Robert Fitzpatrick, a former dean of the Curtis Institute, termed a “chauvinistic European conservatory culture” as a root cause of the sexual harassment allegations in the U.S. (He wrote this in a Slipped Disc article cited by the Chronicle of Higher Education that is no longer available online.) That formulation certainly applied to the Royal Academy: one female graduate student who attended the conservatory during the events described didn’t find herself in sexually charged situations with professors, but remembers the school for its virulent misogyny.
In 2002, the Royal Academy was forced to institute rules about relationships between professors and students, the Telegraph reported. According to 2016-17 Academy guidelines, “Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment.” What happened to Mcateer, Martin, our South Korean classmate, and myself, was probably just shy of violating those guidelines. It also had other far-reaching consequences. It touched all our lives, sucking the energy out of the environment like a black hole, leaving only a strange brand of emptiness behind.
The ways in which the professor’s crush on Martin affected the others in the class continued to manifest themselves for years. The South Korean student ended up leaving the Royal Academy to complete his military service in his home country. I departed even earlier, auditioning in Europe with the professor’s crushing evaluation of my work in hand. I recovered, but each setback afterward felt like a sweeping indictment of my ability. I don’t doubt that the year at the Academy had something to do with this. When I later worked at an airline call center, I felt free, being in a place where no one knew me as a composer. I haven’t written any music for the last three years.
In his third year at the conservatory, Martin took advantage of the European student exchange program Erasmus to spend a year in Scandinavia. He was shocked by the variety of what he found, and the acceptance of different aesthetic points of view. One of the first pieces he heard there was a performance for three chainsaws, a world away from what might be described as the lush, atonal aesthetic of the Royal Academy, which he had mastered. Martin wrote nothing during his time abroad. “It was a really bleak year in many ways, but positive in the sense that when I came back to the Academy for my fourth and final year, nothing was the same,” he said. He even considered writing an email to the head of the department complaining of its narrow-mindedness; he felt he’d been forced into the prevailing aesthetic in part because of the professor’s obsession with him. He never sent it.
Now, Martin makes his home in Scandinavia, and his compositions have changed significantly. He writes more “pop-flavored” music, and earns his living with freelance arranging and orchestrating gigs. It’s a relief from what he also felt was a search for the Next Great British Composer at the Academy. His work is as professional and beautiful as ever, but has become more textural, rather than gestural. It’s music with a certain hardness of sound quality, like glass or stone.
For Mcateer, too, the events of that year had a lasting effect on his ability to write music and believe in his art. “It was always very present for me that [the professor] valued Nick’s music,” he said. Eventually, the professor told Mcateer that they didn’t need to have regular lessons anymore and that he should just call him when he felt like taking one. That happened rarely. He stayed at the conservatory, but finally switched to another teacher. Despite being depressed and “beat[ing] himself up a lot,” he managed to write an orchestral piece in his final year that was in his own voice. After that, he left conservatory and went on to study international relations. He didn’t write any music for several years. He now works at a non-profit organization. Mcateer told me that he recently started composing again, but said it was important for him to “lose the identity as a composer.” He doesn’t use that term anymore, but he writes music, including a recent opera. It’s a mental trick that allows him to disassociate from the difficulties of his conservatory education.
All artists have doubts and challenges, and it would be wrong to suggest that every moment of desperation for these composers stemmed from the professor’s attraction to Martin. I also don’t mean to argue that it is necessarily wrong for an older man to fall in love with an 18-year-old, or equate that year with the experiences of survivors of sexual abuse. And as a someone involved in the events described, it’s impossible for me to judge them with real neutrality. But when I spoke with Mcateer and Martin, after years of being out of touch, we each felt a light of recognition. Martin said, “Psychologically, there’s a ton of shit you need to sift through.” At one point, he asked me, “Would you say you’re traumatized?”
I also talked about regret with Mcateer and Martin. We were all left with a bitter aftertaste in our mouths from our inability to rise to the challenges of that year. I regret not standing up to the professor’s racist comments. Mcateer regrets the way he let competition come between himself and Martin. And as Martin said of his relationship with the professor, “I wish I’d been more adult about it then.” Of course, he wasn’t the adult in the relationship. When I told him so, he admitted, “That’s not a position a teacher should put a student in.” ¶