Recovery from Abuse: Interview with Fiona Whelpton

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

The relationship between music teachers and their students is a particularly important one. At best it can nurture young people’s development both as a person and bring out the best of their talents as a musician. But what happens when boundaries are crossed and rules get broken?

Author Fiona Whelpton has very kindly allowed me to share this interview in which she talks about her own ordeal and the road to recovery …

Thank you for agreeing to share your story with others, Fiona.
To start with, can you tell us about how you discovered your love of music as a child?

Through my Mother. She had studied piano with the composer Michael Head at the Royal Academy of music. She started teaching me the piano when I was very young. She bought me downstairs to watch Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” on TV. I then apparently came downstairs and started playing the “When at night I go to sleep” melody note perfect by ear, aged about three.

We used to play singing games a lot at mealtimes and car journeys. I listened to “Peter and the wolf” and could name all he instruments by the time I started piano lessons. Also the “Carnival of the Animals” and “Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra”; I still have the original vinyl of the Britten and Prokofiev. Britten was important as we lived in Lowestoft and some family friends had bought and lived in his house in Aldeburgh.

They waited until we moved to Nottingham from Lowestoft to find me a really good teacher, Elizabeth Kemp, so I didn’t start until nine. My dad had been invited to meet Richard Hauser and Hephzibah Menuhin to work with Richard teaching French. Hephzibah was very interested that I had just started the piano and she really encouraged me. As I was badly bullied all through school, I was home educated which helped me concentrate on piano. I practised in the music department at the college where dad taught, alongside music students, and had theory and keyboard harmony lessons until I was around sixteen.

Was it your dream to become a professional musician at that point?

The dream didn’t occur until later. But I had already heard all about the Yehudi Menuhin School. I was desperate to try for a place there but it never happened. And that’s something I am thankful for now in hindsight. Hephzibah wanted me to train as a music therapist. She was developing Nordoff Robbins (a music therapy charity dedicated to transforming the lives of vulnerable children and adults) for autistic children. I think she was probably aware I had been having difficulties. My confidence came from music. I felt validated through it, and able to contribute something for other people. I was pretty useless at anything else!

This brings us to a key part of your personal story. I realise this is difficult, but when and how did things go wrong with your music education?

I went on a preliminary music course to get into Music College. By then I had developed Asperger’s as a teenager. Trying to mix with my sister’s string-playing friends who were outstanding (some were in NYO), I wanted to play piano for them but didn’t feel that I fitted in. That’s when I just couldn’t cope. I would go to parties and sit in a corner all night, and then beat myself up. I hadn’t realised I had borderline personality symptoms also. The incessant being devalued because of being different compounded the struggles with low self worth. I was continually rejected in relationships with the opposite sex. Then on top of it my parents were going through a very messy divorce and I had nobody to talk to.

My drumming lessons started off, and from the first lesson the guy was acting strangely and inappropriately. I knew I should get out and report him … but I was frozen. It was like being frozen solid in a dreamlike state. It wasn’t real, couldn’t be me it was happening to. Not until after counselling with a rape crisis centre many years later did I learn about the “freezing” being a common side effect of assault.

He arranged my lessons away from campus. At 17 I was too naive to understand the implications. I bottled it all up and when I tried to go to the Head of Music, I wasn’t listened to. After two years I decided to give up drumming to get out of the situation. I moved to London. Repeatedly unhappy patterns in relationships led to three overdoses and a massive breakdown.

I understand that for around ten years you were paralysed. Was this a psychological result of the abuse or did something physical cause it?

It took a long time, and tests over a period of ten years to work out the cause of my paralysis. There seemed no physical cause for it although I had had spinal anaesthetic for C-Section delivery, which seemed to initially bring it on.

Holding onto all that fear had severely damaged my body. I think the hardest thing was realising the extent of the manipulation, leading to me isolating myself further, and mistrusting everyone. I started experiencing episodes of hyperventilation and feelings of terror that I was dying. And I was too scared to go out. I started sleeping downstairs and I would wake up screaming in the night.

What were the main steps towards your recovery?

After mum died 2011 there were police enquires being carried out at the Menuhin School and Chethams. Hephzibah and Yehudi Menuhin were unfairly targeted in the press for the actions of cello teacher (at the School) Maurice Gudron, and there was a picture of them in the paper. I felt deeply upset and betrayed and started developing panic attacks.

I felt I needed to go to the police about my drum teacher. They were amazing with me, followed up everything I told them, and helped me make a video recording.

As I answered the questions I wanted to scream. I screamed the place down and shook and shook. All the pain in my legs and arm stiffness left overnight. I regained much of my mobility.

The main steps to recovery have been telling someone for the first time in 30 years what had happened. And then being able to confront him, as they drove halfway across the country to interview an 86 year old man who denied even knowing who I was. At least I’d had the guts to face him, even if not in court. It is very difficult to find enough evidence to go to court. But the biggest way to help yourself is to be open, honest, and tell someone, and then get help.

Are you back playing the piano and enjoying music?

Yes is the simple answer.

After speaking out for the first time in 30 years, I regained my mobility almost overnight. I had been unable to play the piano for years, but I had been taught technique to concert pianist standard as a youngster, and the technique returned overnight.

I thought I would never play again. I am now playing every day and loving it. I had not been able to cope emotionally without playing music. I am recovering, and will recover. I am a survivor. With the love of my son, my cat, and my piano!

Also you returned to the Music Therapy route – can you tell us about that involvement?

I started samba drumming in “Creative Routes” with Mags from London School of Samba. Andrew Motion started “Creative Routes” to teach people with mental health issues to perform. We ran our own arts festival “Bonkersfest” in Camberwell. I went on an open top bus tour around Camberwell drumming upstairs, with art activities downstairs for people to try. It made me much more outgoing. I carried on samba drumming and performing samba in all the London venues, and Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham.

We visited a children’s hospital, and the staff and patients came out to try the drums; some of those children could hardly move. To see the big smiles when they could bang the drums together was so heart-warming.

Samba started helping me recover from depression. I am hoping to get more involved in going round playing music in hospitals at some point in the not too far off future.

Can you tell us about the books you have written?

While paralysed I went back to University and got my BA Media Studies in Film and English. I did creative writing and started a novel for my dissertation called “The Cycle Path”. It has subsequently been published. It’s about the paralysis. I was amazed to win the Snowdon Award for outstanding postgraduates, which enabled me to study journalism. I also won an award from Jon Snow the ITN newsreader for overcoming my disabilities and outstanding performance in the media.

My second book is The Musical Paintbox, which is semi autobiographical, about my pianist friend who took her own life, and my time with my ex partner. I was given an award from Unlimited (a funding body for social entrepreneurs) to fund a 3,000 copy print run to be distributed round the NHS.

In closing, what advice would you like to give to other victims of abuse?

I would say to others, don’t listen to the media too much. It doesn’t matter what others think or say about you. You are loveable and worthwhile, and deserve to be loved and valued exactly the same way as anyone else. If you talk negatively to yourself, others will reflect that back to you. You wouldn’t talk to your friends the way you talk to yourself.

Victims can take power back that’s been stolen from them by phoning a helpline (see below) if they can’t talk to anyone else.

Love yourself. I’m 58. and still learning…

Fiona, thanks so much for your brave honesty in sharing your story, and for all you are now doing to help others.

Information, Advice and Help

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, the following organisations exist to help and support you.

Similar services operate around the world – for readers outside the UK please search online for the help that is available where you live.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.