13 September 2013

Criminal Activity and Graded Music Exams


Today’s edition of The Standard in Hong Kong carries on page 12 a report on a court case involving Helen Yu, a university teaching assistant – ironically in the Law faculty – who has been remanded in custody pending sentencing after threatening a colleague.  It seems she told the colleague she was going to push her off the top of a tall building and cut off both her and her father’s sexual organs and “feed it to the dog”.  It certainly sounds as if Helen is a nasty piece of work, but it is reported that she issued these threats through dozens of voicemail messages; so it presumably required no great detective work to identify her or to establish her guilt.  To have used that particular method to commit these crimes also seems to imply that she was not, perhaps, fully in command of her mental faculties at the time, and, sure enough, psychological reports are being considered before sentence is passed.  Among the mitigating factors that the magistrate drew to the court’s attention was the fact that Helen had been severely disturbed by the 11th September attacks in New York, where she was living in 2001, and that she “achieved grade eight in piano when she was 15”.

This must, surely, be the only time that the carnage of the World Trade Center attacks and a graded musical examination have been linked in a single news story.  While I would have thought that there is an almost unbridgeable chasm of thought between the two, clearly this Hong Kong magistrate has other ideas and will, presumably, give them similar weighting when deciding on Helen’s sentence.

From the information in the news story, I realise that Helen Yu did her grade 8 piano exam in Hong Kong in 1993.  Looking at my diary, I note that I was examining for the ABRSM in Hong Kong in 1993, and although I do not retain these records, it is not impossible that I was the person responsible for passing her grade 8 piano. 

Am I, then, partially responsible for her subsequent crime?  Had I failed her, might she not have stayed in Hong Kong an extra year to attempt the exam again and, perhaps, never headed off to New York and so would not have experienced at first hand the horrors of 9/11?  By passing her when she was at such an impressionable age, might I not have unwittingly given her confidence that kind of arrogant boost which led her, in later life, to feel she could issue such appalling threats against another human being with impunity?  All these questions we humble music examiners must ask ourselves if, as here, the consequences of our actions are going to determine whether or not someone serves a prison sentence maybe decades ahead.  The implications of our actions are clearly not confined to signing off an exam report after 30 minutes of intensive listening. 

About the same time that our poor, tragic Helen was preparing for her Grade 8 (in those days she would have had to play a complete Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven Sonata, so that is another possible contributing factor to her subsequent mental decline) a survey was being carried out amongst the great and good of British society to see how many of them had sat graded music exams.  It revealed that a disproportionate number of people who subsequently became leading politicians, company CEOs, captains of industry, media figures and influential intellectuals had been through the graded exam mill.  This research has often been used to support claims that learning music enhances communication, intellectual and management skills; as it surely does. 

To my knowledge no research has ever been carried out into the correlation between criminal activity and graded music exams.  We know, of course, that music exams are used to help prepare prisoners in UK jails to rehabilitate into society.  (ABRSM examiners used to - perhaps still do - examine inmates in British prisons, and it was on one such prison visit that I encountered an examiner colleague, serving time for some unmentionable offence and hoping to rehabilitate himself through grade 3 flute.)  But has anyone ever investigated whether there is a decreased likelihood of, say, someone who has done a graded music exam committing a crime?  Has some statistician calculated whether the percentage of prison inmates who have done a graded music exam is smaller (or larger) than in the population as a whole? Perhaps, more realistically, has anyone studied the effect on judicial sentencing of an accused’s record of graded music exams?  Indeed, how widespread is the practice of taking evidence of musical ability into consideration in sentencing?

The music examination boards should be following Helen Yu’s case with interest (sentencing is due on 26th September).  If she escapes a custodial sentence because she passed Grade 8 piano 20 years ago, what a wonderful promotional tool that should make.  Not to use it to boost candidate numbers would surely be, for want of a better word, criminal.

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