Revisiting Whiplash (2014) as a Musician and Former Teacher

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Whiplash (2014) Damien Chazelle (2x)
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Although I watched Whiplash back in February , I wanted to see the film again with my wife, who is a professional musician. For those of you who may not know, my wife and I met at a music school, but not a conservatory like the one depicted in the film. When we met, my wife was finishing her master’s degree in clarinet performance and I was starting my Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting. My wife earned her DMA a couple of years later and has been a professional musician for the past 15 years. I received my DMA, but am no longer involved in music, other than playing my guitar and singing for kids at library storytime programs. All this to tell you that we both have extensive music backgrounds, which means that we may look at Whiplash with a slightly different perspective than your average moviegoer.

I won’t really call this a “review” as such, but an examination of the worldview(s) of the film and how two musicians reacted to it. As such, it will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film please read no further.

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One of the main questions I get from people who know my music background is, “Are there really guys out there like Fletcher?” The answer is yes. I was taught by them and at times as a band director for 15 years, I taught alongside them. (And yes, at times, some of Fletcher came out in me. I am not proud of that.) I could tell you lots of stories about band directors and other music teachers just like Fletcher and I can honestly say that I have seen everything depicted in the film happen in real life (with the exception of the slapping scene) to one degree or another. Thankfully, there aren’t many music teachers who practice physical abuse and get away with it, not in this day and age. But there are plenty who use intimidation and verbal abuse to get what they want. Verbal abuse is verbal abuse and while most people know it when they see it, intimidation can come in many forms.

I had a band director (who will go nameless) who frequently would look you in the eye after handing you a piece of music and say, “I’ll bet you can’t play that.” Depending on the context of the situation, the tone of voice, and many other factors, that tactic can be effective. It’s more effective if done with subtlety, grace and encouragement, which you don’t often see.

Another way to motivate is through what several musicians call “inner game” tactics, or “inner gaming” someone. This method, based on the famous book The Inner Game of Tennis (and various related Inner Game books) by Timothy Gallwey, promotes motivation and critique without being judgmental. An example of being “inner gamed” might be telling a musician, “You know, most musicians would take this piece too fast,” expecting the musician to consciously take the piece a little slower.

The underlying factors that people should look for in music teachers, coaches, bosses, etc. are what motivates that person and what they’re after. We know that Fletcher is looking to motivate Andrew to become a better drummer than Andrew thinks he can be. It’s clear after an initial good word from Fletcher and a couple of small victories, that Andrew thinks he’s doing pretty good, but he’s wrong. (And this, I’m afraid, is one of the problems I have with the end of the film, which I’ll get to in a moment.) Andrew is content, in those situations, with the level of excellence he’s achieved. Fletcher isn’t. But the issue is what does Fletcher want to get out of Andrew?

Many critics have noted that Fletcher displays no real love for music and they have a point. Many band directors I know display no love for music either. You could say the same thing about many coaches, doctors, or heck, even librarians. How many of them really care about the field they’re in and really want to help others in those fields? Or maybe they do, but at the expense of something else, like a championship or a trophy or a promotion. Although it’s clear he wants Andrew to excel, I doubt Fletcher cares about him as a person. Even when Fletcher talks to the band about one of his former students who died in an accident, it’s not about the person. “He was a beautiful player,” Fletcher says, not “He was a beautiful person.” Fletcher thinks of that student as a medal on his own chest and looks to make Andrew another medal.

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Yes, Fletcher is a tyrant, but being a tyrant is easy. Motivating by fear is simple and simply requires a strong voice, intimidating looks, and manipulative thinking. Caring about people is hard because you’re investing something of yourself as you’re motivating them, establishing a connecting relationship with them that says “I care about you as a musician and a person.” It’s comparable to the way Christians think of God before we really believed in him. He cared about us before we cared about him and didn’t give up on us. (Which is one of the most powerful aspects of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross; another topic for another time.) Of course that type of caring in teaching walks a fine line between appropriate distance and familiarity and it’s difficult to do. Let me make this clear so that no one misunderstands: I’m not saying you have to be the student’s (or employee’s) friend – you probably shouldn’t, not while they’re under your instruction – but they should know, whether it’s verbalized or not, that you care about them as a person as well as a musician.

This was something I learned the hard way. I came from a successful high school band program that “won” all the time: festivals, competitions, trophies, you name it. We enjoyed enormous respect from parents, teachers, even athletes. And I’ll admit it – when I became a band director, I wanted to win and a lot of that wanting to win was for me. I learned some hard, hard lessons about why I was in teaching and what I was – or wasn’t – doing for kids. In time, I began to care more about my students than I had previously and it became more about them and less about me. And although my focus grew into something different, I still wanted to motivate them to be their best.

So even if Fletcher’s intentions are admirable, his potential for harm is enormous. We don’t know what happened to the trombone player he kicks out early in the film. That kid may hate Fletcher for the rest of his life and transfer that hate to music, blaming the music itself instead of (or in addition to) the conduit of that music. My wife and I know of a university applied music professor who frequently “ran off” several of her students. Many of them were no doubt very talented and I’m sure some of them never played again. But the ones who stayed with that professor almost always landed big-time jobs. I’ve talked to a couple of people who studied with this professor and both of them said that while this teacher was verbally abusive, she tapped into abilities they never knew they had.

I am convinced that most people – perhaps all – who reach a level of professionalism in any field would never have reached that level without having someone telling them what they were doing wrong. Most of that comes during that person’s developmental years and may start early. That was a difficult thing for me to do as a middle school band director. Most kids sign up for band because it’s fun and I certainly tried to make it fun, but I also tried to continually raise the bar for excellence. That’s easier to do the younger the kids are because you can turn everything into a game and what kid doesn’t love a game? Yet when they’re older, it becomes tougher and you have to adapt your methods. Again, tyrannical methods are easy; caring is harder.

The thing is, in most cases, the music teacher/mentor rarely witnesses the success of the student while he/she is a student. That usually comes later, and even after the student lands a music job, the hard work is far from over. In fact, it’s never over. Andrew’s victory at the end isn’t the end: it’s just the beginning. He hasn’t arrived; he’s just started.

Piano virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein once said, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice the difference. If I miss two days of practice, the critics notice the difference. If I miss three days of practice, the audience knows the difference.”

Practice isn’t just playing through exercises and pieces. It’s work. Hard work. You have to have the ability and honesty with your self to know your weaknesses and focus on correcting them and maintaining what you’re already doing well. And on top of that, you have to expand your musical knowledge with new music, ideas, etc.

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The intent of Chazelle’s footage of Andrew practicing is dramatic, but flawed. Although it can happen, most drummers will know how to avoid the injuries depicted in the film. What Chazelle can’t really show as well is the often mind-numbing repetition that can come from long sessions of practice, the tricks the mind plays with itself, the constant doubt and indecision, the wondering whether you’re making any progress at all. Practice is a long, slow process that’s neither glamorous nor sexy. Real practice is damn hard work.

One of the most famous lines in the film come from a quiet, reserved conversation between Fletcher and Andrew. Fletcher tells him that the two most harmful words in the English language are “good job.” In a way, he’s right. Those words are overused and usually overused in situations where a job really wasn’t good, turning the phrase into a platitude. The danger of overusing it is that people – especially people who want to do something better – are robbed of the truth. Talent should be developed with truth, not suppressed with platitudes. In Matthew 25, the parable of the talents concerns two individuals who developed their “talents” (In the Bible, a talent was an actual weight or measurement of money) and one who buried his. The two who developed their talents (and earned even more) were rewarded; the one who did nothing with his received punishment.

Yet, as my friend D. pointed out to me, that every same passage gives us the correct use of the equivalent of “good job” taken to a much higher level: “Well done, good and faithful servant,” a phrase every Christian longs to hear from God. In the film and in life, compliments should mean something. If everything a person does gets a “good job,” where’s the incentive to do better?

I tried to give my students a graduated level of verbal evaluation. You don’t want to say, “That was terrible,” but you can say “I’ve heard you play that better” or “I believe you can do better than that.” They also knew that “pretty good” wasn’t as positive as “very good” and that “excellent” was hard to come by. Even rarer was a term I seldom used because it seldom fit: “world class.” I only used it a handful of times in my teaching career to point out the way someone played, but when I did, the room always grew dead silent with the students experiencing a moment of awe. They knew that “world class” was something to shoot for and not just in band.

So while I can’t approve of Fletcher’s methods, I applaud his intent. Fear is not the only motivator, and while it’s probably the quickest, it’s perhaps not the longest-lasting. A film about a real motivator who can lead without verbal or physical abuse isn’t going to get made very often. It’s just not that exciting to the rest of us, but to the person being motivated, it’s pure gold.

Now let’s get to the ending of Whiplash. First of all, it’s totally unrealistic. No music director is going to sabotage the entire performance of a group to punish or intimidate one student. It’s just not going to happen and if it did, that director should be yanked off the stage and fired on the spot. At that moment, his actions are totally vengeful; the ensemble might as well not even be there. They’re only tools under Fletcher’s control to bring about what he wants.

Second, what has Andrew achieved? As mentioned before, he hasn’t “arrived,” even if you want to call this performance a victory of sorts. Okay, he’s gotten the upper hand against Fletcher. For now. He’s also proven to the other members of the ensemble that he’s not a team player, which is what an ensemble is all about.

So what has Fletcher produced at the end of the film? A success? A monster? Another medal for his chest? A young man who loves music more than he did before all this? Or a diva?

Now put yourself in the shoes of one of the members of the ensemble. How do you look at Andrew? Do you admire his determination or do you blame him for sabotaging the ensemble? Do his actions alienate him from you? And what’s he going to do on the next piece? (They’ve only played two at this point.) At the next performance?

In the real world, Andrew (with a lot of practice and focused healthy determination) is going to work and prove that nothing Fletcher can do will break him, but he won’t do it by becoming like Fletcher and disrespecting the people (especially the ensemble members) around him. He’s going to quietly do it, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, pushing himself to become a better player, not to exact revenge (although he might think about revenge a lot). The thing about music schools and conservatories is once the diploma has been received, you (usually) have no one in your life to push you further. You have to do it yourself. (See the Rubinstein quote above.) Regardless of our career or pursuits, that drive has to come from somewhere, either from within or without. That talent must be developed. It can be developed through abusive instruction (which doesn’t necessarily have to come from someone else; it can just as easily come from within) or through more positive motivation techniques. Fletcher shows us both the best and worst methods of attaining success. But after everything is said and done, you’ve got a human being with a soul that’s either been edified or slowly destroyed bit by bit. I know which one I’d rather have.

(Photos: SubitoloveSerious Film)

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6 thoughts on “Revisiting Whiplash (2014) as a Musician and Former Teacher

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