‘I couldn’t touch the piano for years’: Piano students at Utah State University describe a culture of sexism, discrimination and favoritism

(Joy Wong | For The Salt Lake Tribune) Rachel Speedie at her home in Redondo Beach, Calif.

Tonya Pruhs recalls taking off her engagement ring before her piano lessons at Utah State University, fearing she’d be shunned by teachers who routinely said women weren’t serious musicians once they were married.

Rachel Speedie passed up offers at prestigious conservatories to accept a scholarship at USU — and then had to fly home to Nevada to train with her high school teacher when faculty refused to work with her.

Carrie Day Franklin slogged through nearly a decade at USU as a mom with young children — but left without a degree because she was denied a chance to play a senior recital.

USU launched an investigation into its piano department last month after a student criticized how the school handled her 2009 rape report against a teacher. But students have been complaining for years of a broad pattern of favoritism, sexism and emotional abuse by faculty.

Twenty current and former music students at USU and the Logan school’s attached Youth Conservatory spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune; at least eight said they complained to school administrators of mistreatment by the piano faculty, dating back to 2004 and as recently as 2017.

Multiple students said they faced retaliation or indifference after making reports. The Tribune has obtained emails and documents in which university officials acknowledged complaints against piano faculty, but it’s unclear what, if any, action was taken.

“If it’s gone on for this long, and it’s this bad, and we’re all willing to speak out about it, something needs to change,” said Pruhs, who studied and worked at USU from 1986 to 1997 and now teaches piano in Salt Lake City.

In February, former piano performance major Whitney McPhie Griffith said on Facebook that a USU instructor assaulted her in her off-campus apartment in 2009 and that her complaint to the school wasn’t taken seriously.

Other women then posted their own accounts of mistreatment in the piano program.

Within days, USU President Noelle Cockett announced that the university had hired Salt Lake City attorney Alan Sullivan to investigate claims of sexual assault, harassment and gender discrimination and make recommendations. USU expects his report to be completed soon and will make it public, the university said in an email to The Tribune.

“USU will not tolerate the mistreatment of students under any circumstances,” the statement said, “and we will take whatever actions are necessary once the investigation is complete and we have a clear picture of the situation.”

The school declined comment on individual claims until the report is finished. Head piano teacher Gary Amano, who is on sabbatical this year, could not be reached for comment.

Another former student told The Tribune that the same man Griffith accused had raped her when she and the man were classmates at USU. The woman said she reported her allegation to Sullivan. The Tribune generally does not identify sexual assault victims, but Griffith has agreed to the use of her name.

The Department of Justice is examining USU’s handling of sexual assault reports campuswide in a separate investigation launched more than a year ago. The DOJ’s work began after three USU students were charged or convicted in high-profile sexual assaults alleged to have occurred between 2013 and 2015.

‘Why invest our time in the women?’

Students who attended USU over three decades complained that sexist remarks in the piano department were so incessant they were difficult not to internalize.

Amano “would frequently say in classes that girls didn’t make as good of pianists, or that girls wouldn’t do as well in his classes,” said Camille Weber, a senior piano major. Students said faculty claimed women weren’t strong enough to produce a big sound and routinely derided those who got married or had children.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brittany Farnsworth, left, and Camille Weber. They had not previously met but agreed to be photographed together. Weber, a senior at Utah State University, filed a Title IX complaint against a USU professor last year. Farnsworth, who attended USU from 1998 to 2000, says she was denied lessons she had paid for and heard sexist talk within the department.

Kimberly Sant had one child and was pregnant with her second while attending USU from 2001 to 2004. She transferred there after two years at Snow College, where she had found studying music a “fun, amazing, inspiring experience.”

But at USU, she said, the faculty’s relentless insults against mothers caused her to give up hope of earning a bachelor’s degree.

“‘Why invest our time in the women? They’re just going to leave anyway,’” she said, describing what she says she repeatedly heard. “I didn’t even have a prayer. At that point I chose to just take the [two-year teaching] certificate. I didn’t have any confidence I could finish the senior recital. I was convinced I would never pass a jury.”

Current and former students interviewed said bullying and public belittling by faculty have been frequent under Amano’s leadership.

Pruhs recalled faculty members handing out pink slips in the music building, in front of other students, if they decided they didn’t want to teach a certain student anymore.

Diana Kline, who studied at USU from 1998 to 2000, said a professor “screamed” at her in front of a group of teachers and students and then stonewalled her “as a method of punishment.”

“In class, if we had to partner up or share, he would deliberately leave me out. If I raised my hand, he ignored me,” she said. “It was like I no longer existed.”

Multiple students said Amano would accuse students who asked questions in class of challenging his authority. Weber said she provoked a “tantrum” when she asked for feedback to prepare for a test.

“I had three classes with him,” she said, “and my grades just plummeted.”

Speedie was a senior in 2004, she said, when one of the piano teachers told her she wasn’t learning her pieces fast enough and insisted she play for him each morning.

“I was practicing 10 hours a day to get the stuff he wanted me to have memorized memorized,” Speedie said. “I had pain in my elbow, my neck, I was overpracticing, my hands were tired and I’d play anyway. I started getting numbness, and I just kept going.”

Music students are used to rigorous work, Griffith said, but can be “very vulnerable because feedback from their teachers is such a huge part of their learning,” as opposed to exams or written assignments that can be more objectively graded.

Students need reassurance “that they still deserve to be musicians,” she said. “The minute that’s compromised, that’s deep psychological manipulation and that really sinks in.”

Abuse has long masqueraded as discipline in classical music, which places “an extreme pressure on conformity,” said William Osborne, a composer from New Mexico who has written extensively about gender bias in classical music.

Abuse can easily turn gendered, either as misogyny or sexual misconduct, he said. The “master-apprentice” relationship between teachers and students poses an enormous power imbalance, and lessons tend to be intimate and sometimes physical, he said.

But, he said, classical music instruction has been reversing its fear-driven methods for the past 50 years.

“You want to have disciplined, hardworking students, but it’s much more effective to treat them in a way that builds their self-confidence and their self-understanding,” Osborne said.

And it’s “simply not true” that women are inferior pianists, he said.

“There’s a genuine history of women excelling and developing very important careers with piano,” he said. “Whereas with instruments like the trombone, we’re seeing the very first generation.”

Scholarships threatened, lessons withheld

Aram Arakelyan was 17 when USU offered him a full-ride piano scholarship in 2002, after he had flown from his home in Armenia to Salt Lake City for a piano competition.

But the scholarship wasn’t offered in writing, he said, and was “leveraged” frequently during his five years at USU. Piano faculty insisted for a time that he turn in receipts for personal living expenses “to show that I really didn’t have money, that I wasn’t secretly rich,” Aram Arakelyan said.

When he started dating Amy Arakelyan, now his wife, he said piano faculty initially insisted he break up with her or his scholarship would be revoked, and he would be deported. He said his immigration status was raised repeatedly: “When they thought I wasn’t working hard enough, if I had a bad lesson or ... if there was a performance and I didn’t perform so well,” he said.

One USU piano teacher said Aram Arakelyan “didn’t know the value of the dollar,” Aram said. The teacher ordered Aram to weed his garden and clean the tile grout on a floor in his home with a toothbrush, Aram said.

(Photo courtesy of Amy Arakelyan) Amy and Aram Arakelyan and their children at Indiana University, where he now teaches. Aram and Amy Arakelyan both say they were mistreated by faculty when they studied piano at Utah State University in the 2000s.

Aram Arakelyan, Speedie and other students said their scholarship sources seemed to shift; faculty appeared to control the funds and often threatened to cut them off.

Lexie Hansen, a senior piano student at USU, said Amano in 2017 questioned whether she “deserved” her financial aid — full tuition plus $1,200 compensation for her work at a campus office job. Within weeks, she said, her USU account unexpectedly showed a $1,700 deficit.

After confirming her scholarship had been cut, Hansen approached another piano professor, who she said told her the department would find funds to replace it.

“I had gotten [financial aid] cut without receiving any notification or an explanation even,” Hansen said. “It was more a power play in getting me to feel less-than.”

Aram Arakelyan has since obtained piano degrees from the University of Utah, University of Texas and University of Southern California. He now teaches at Indiana University’s large Jacobs School of Music, considered one of the country’s top music schools, and says he’s never heard of faculty there threatening student aid.

Several former piano majors said they paid for one-on-one lessons at USU that they never received because faculty would insist they be screened weekly by another student — always a man — who would decide whether they were “qualified” for time with a professor.

“I think I paid $700 to $800 in lesson fees. One year I got maybe two lessons each semester,” said Brittany Farnsworth, who was a student in 2000.

Speedie said she frequently flew to her home in Reno to take lessons with her high school teacher. For music performance majors, she said, there is no more crucial part of an education than individual lessons.

“Week after week would go by and I wouldn’t get lessons,” Speedie said. “It was bewildering. … I’m supposed to be getting better and I’m not even getting help.”

Multiple students said they completed every graduation requirement except the senior recital — only to be forbidden by faculty from performing.

Franklin had gradually worked her way through a bachelor’s degree, and by 2010 completed all of her graduation requirements except her senior recital. With faculty authorization, she studied with a teacher at Brigham Young University to prepare her preapproved recital program: Bach, Ginastera, Chopin, Faure. She played a 30-minute recital preview and was told, “We can’t have this kind of playing representing USU.”

“I passed all of my juries,” Franklin said. “I did all of the requirements: teaching students, helping out with the concerts, all of it. … All of a sudden I’m just not good enough?”

‘I’m not the first one’

Speedie turned to a campus counselor for help with anxiety during her senior year. One piano teacher was threatening her with expulsion despite her painfully rigorous practice schedule, she said. Another had harassed her about the “modesty” of her clothing and commented on her breasts, she said. Her health was failing and her senior recital was looming.

The counselor advised her to file a complaint with the school’s Office of Equal Opportunity, Speedie said. She said she has requested records of that complaint, but the university hasn’t provided them.

“I don’t know what came of it,” Speedie said.

She said she also approached Bruce Saperston, then the music department head, who told her he had previously heard complaints like hers from piano students and assured her he would help her graduate.

Speedie said retaliation from the piano faculty was swift. She had been teaching piano lessons to nonmajors as a part-time job, and she said her students were transferred to another teacher. She said she was blocked from practicing on the school’s grand pianos, even though she had paid fees for access to them.

Speedie played a short preview of her recital program for the faculty. Like Franklin, she was told she wasn’t “Utah State quality” and was denied her recital, she said.

Speedie had been described as a prodigy since she took up piano at age 4. She began competing internationally at age 7. She had won the university’s concerto competition twice and was named the school’s most outstanding music student her junior year.

She left Logan in 2004 with a permanent elbow injury and no degree.

Former student Emma Frazier said she complained to Saperston about favoritism in the piano program the following school year. The year after that, Amy Arakelyan said she complained to Saperston about mistreatment.

During the 2009-10 school year, at least three women — Griffith, Frazier and Franklin — complained about problems in the piano department to Craig Jessop, a former director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir who was then the music department head and is now dean of fine arts at USU. At least two of the women complained to other administrators — including USU’s president, according to documents obtained by The Tribune.

Griffith told investigators with USU’s Title IX office that her piano teacher had assaulted her. A school investigator and Jessop reprimanded the teacher, but he was not fired, Griffith said.

Frazier, then a graduate student, said she went to Jessop the same year to complain of sexism and favoritism in the department. In the spring, Franklin wrote to then-USU President Stan Albrecht after she was denied her senior recital, according to an email obtained by The Tribune.

“Additionally, I am writing to be a voice to the many other piano majors that have found themselves in my position and ended up leaving USU before their degree was complete,” Franklin wrote. “I’m not the first one to have trouble with the piano department, but I may be the first one to stand up for myself.”

Albrecht eventually helped her secure an “interdisciplinary” degree, she said. She never learned whether her complaints about systemic problems in the piano department were addressed.

In 2015, Amy Arakelyan wrote to Jessop to report several issues with faculty, including favoritism and sexism, according to another email exchange obtained by The Tribune. She had studied piano performance at USU from 2003 to 2007, and told Jessop that abuse in the program caused emotional distress to the point where she contemplated self-harm.

Amy Arakelyan also left USU with all her credits completed except for her senior recital. After receiving her 2015 letter, Jessop offered a general music degree, similar to what Franklin was given.

Amy Arakelyan accepted it but persisted, saying that she was concerned for other piano students’ welfare.

“I have confidentially shared the substance of your concerns with the appropriate officials at USU and will follow their advice,” Jessop replied.

Amy Arakelyan said the university did not contact her to follow up on her report.

Senior Brady Pope said she never felt attacked by Amano, having studied with him since she was 12. But in her classes, she said, she saw him single out students for insults and mockery.

“It got to a point where, even though nothing happened to me, I felt unsafe,” Pope said. She complained to Cindy Dewey, the music department chair, and said Dewey acknowledged hearing there had been a history of similar complaints against the piano faculty.

On Dewey’s recommendation, Pope, Hansen and Weber joined other witnesses and filed reports in 2017 to the university’s Title IX office, which handles complaints about sexual misconduct and gender bias.

Hansen said Title IX administrators told her in a phone call that they had substantiated students’ claims of favoritism but not of sexism. It is unclear whether prior complaints were taken into account, or how the university responded to Hansen and Pope’s report that Amano had confronted them during the investigation to learn who had made the report against him.

Hansen, Pope and Weber said they requested but were unable to obtain copies of their Title IX records. Amy Arakelyan, like Speedie, said she tried to request records of her 2015 complaint, but her calls to the Title IX office were not returned.

‘I couldn’t touch the piano for years’

Some students, like Aram Arakelyan, rebounded after distress at USU into successful piano careers in academia and performance. Others took years to recover the joy and confidence they once found in music but lost at USU. Multiple students echoed Franklin, almost verbatim: “I couldn’t touch the piano for years,” she said.

Current and former students said they have suffered from persistent anxiety. One former student said she struggled for years after she graduated to even listen to classical music.

“If I ever heard a recording of a piece I had studied, I would immediately switch it off or walk away. I could not handle the memories that came with it,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because she now teaches piano students who occasionally play in competitions judged by USU faculty.

Katrine Baker, who studied at USU from 2002 to 2005, also noted that she developed anxiety within that environment. She said it’s taken years to get to the point where she can “perform comfortably” without the memory issues that come with that anxiety.

Speedie, meanwhile, has had to limit her repertoire due to arm injuries she suffered there. After she was denied a senior recital, she said, she returned to Nevada, where an orchestra recruited her to play the Rachmaninoff concerto that was on her recital program. She spent another year and a half at the University of Nevada in Reno to obtain a bachelor’s degree and eventually developed a popular piano studio there. She now lives in Redondo Beach, Calif.

Weber and other current students have said it’s a “whole new department” in the past year. Amano remains listed as the director of the piano program in this year’s music department handbook, although he is on sabbatical.

But former students said USU should carefully review a part of the school they believe has operated for decades with little oversight over its system of favoritism in the obedient culture of classical piano.

“It wasn’t like it was one person,” said Amy Arakelyan. “… I don’t think that there’s a way forward unless it’s just completely revamped from the top down.”