Lessons from “Whiplash”

whiplashIs there a takeaway for music teachers from the movie Whiplash?

**Spoiler alert!   If you haven’t seen the film yet, check it out on DVD, and then come back and join the discussion. **

First things first.  There’s no doubt that the character of Fletcher is nothing short of mentally ill, but more of that later.  Let’s look at what the movie can tell us about music and teaching.

One plus is that, for those moviegoers who might think about music the way most of Andrew’s family did in the dinner table scene (hello, politicians and school administrators!), they will get a sense of the hard work, dedication, discipline, precision and the navigation of turbulent waters that goes into becoming a serious musician.

However, we don’t get much joy of music in the film, though some of the music is joyous.  Andrew doesn’t seem to feel camaraderie with anyone.  This may be due to his personality, but we can see too that the teacher does not set the stage for sociability, camaraderie, or supportiveness.  It’s all about testing, obedience, and competition, which certainly rings a bell with American education in general these days.  (To be fair, the high school jazz programs I see in our state are competitive but also supportive, demanding yet filled with mutual respect and friendship.)

Is there a place for such a challenging, or even threatening, environment?  Fletcher set up a situation where students were not so much seeking an ounce of approval as they were avoiding a pound of abuse.  Is this necessary even at the “best music school in the country”, as the school in the film was called?

In conversation with Andrew over drinks, Fletcher reveals the method behind his madness – he wants to forge another Charlie Parker.  He feels that “good job” are two of the worst words that could be uttered by teachers because they encourage mediocrity.  He cherishes the image of Jones throwing a cymbal at Parker and humiliating him into practicing so hard that he would never be embarrassed again, and as luck would have it, Parker pushed himself to become one of the greats.

Andrew replies with a very reasonable response – isn’t there a line that should not be crossed?  He was clearly referring to level of mental and physical abuse that could cause psychological damage.  A former student committed suicide, due to what we might call post traumatic stress disorder.  Andrew himself could have been killed in a car accident trying to satisfy Fletcher, or at least to not allow Fletcher to win their battle of wills.

I hope no music teacher imitates Fletcher.  Have you seen or experienced anything like it?  If so, please make a comment below; it would be interesting to hear about whether you found it had any value or explanation.

It’s important to challenge students to some degree, of course.  In an earlier blog I wrote about pianist Ernst Bacon’s book, Notes on the Piano, I presented many quotes from his philosophy of music teaching.  One of them was, “Too much American teaching is by encouragement, too little by provocation.”  In this sense, Bacon might have understood Fletcher’s intentions, if not his methods.

Another quote from Bacon also resonates with the movie:  “A great deal of the best teaching is achieved by nonencouragement, even sometimes by outright obstruction.”   But his point was that good students need to stretch their own musical and mental as well as physical muscles, so he followed up by explaining that being overly tolerant will leave “to resistant minds no academic crimes to commit…. A good talent needs some sturdy rules upon which to sharpen its claws.”   Fletcher had no room for any sharpening of claws unless the student could match his own level of hardness.

Bacon also wrote something quite the opposite of Fletcher.  He noted that “the superior teacher…invites rather than compels the student…he is pleased by the emergence of differences.”  Fletcher appeared to be all about compelling rather than inviting.

And yet, at the end of the movie, it was clear that Fletcher finally accepted Andrew as being beyond his reach, untouchable by threats or humiliation.  As Andrew plays his big solo Fletcher finally gives up challenging him and joins him, conducting the solo and encouraging Andrew to bring the most out of it.  They exchange glances that tell us that they have reached a moment of mutual respect.

It’s exciting theater, gripping to the end, full of impending catastrophe and physical and mental threat, but it ends in triumph.  The question is, was this triumph enough to justify the means?  How many students did Fletcher ruin for life, such as the trombone player he verbally tortured into confessing falsely that he had played out of tune, or Andrew himself who quit playing for a while?

Away from these extremes and back into real music teaching.  What is the line Andrew was referring to?  Where does challenge become abuse?  When is “good job” well worth saying, and not just acquiescing to mediocrity?  It would be great to read your opinions, so please write your comments below.

My own opinion is represented in a blog I posted here, called Becoming Great Teachers, about the benefits of experience:  that the more experienced and attentive the teacher, the more the teacher is able to understand the source of a student’s good and bad qualities, and the more s/he can guide the student to the next step without merely yelling or intimidating them into working “harder.”  In truth, teaching such as Fletcher’s is not about guidance but about motivation, about forcing someone past their obstacles and concerns to create a determination to excel.

Again, Ernst Bacon had something to say here, about talent versus motivation: “The superior artist is not always the one with the largest capacity; he is usually one who has realized what has been given him to the fullest.”  But as I’ve said elsewhere, fear is not a long-term motivator.  Rare individuals will respond to intimidation in a positive way; others are simply lost along the way.  Bringing out the fullest potential in a student is a constructive, not a destructive, task.

Ironically, I feel the American stereotype of the struggling artist matches the vision of Fletcher’s, and perhaps this is why the movie is so popular.  Americans tend to imagine that the true artist is so moved by his art that he will excel despite lack of funds, support, food, or respect!  As if anyone else who caves in the face of these hardships wasn’t worth it.  Fortunately, many of us know better.

Whiplash was a movie about extremes.  Fletcher is not, I hope, representative of very many music teachers, though I know a few who are of a military bent and do yell and intimidate students in order to gain control of their students.  Fletcher was over the top, though.  There’s no indication that he regretted or even was cognizant of the mental and physical abuse he engaged in.  There’s no indication that he might not some day commit a serious crime.  People such as Fletcher are often so imbued with their mission that they are not rationally aware of their worst offenses.  His abuse is really not far from violence committed in the name of any noble goal, whether starving ballet dancers and models to make them thin enough, tearing down new military recruits to foster blind obedience, or destruction and crime done in the name of a religion.

In that sense, Whiplash was about something totally separate from music.  And yet, we did gain some serious looks at the dedication of music students, heard some great jazz, and were hit with a lot of questions that are well worth our time, as music teachers, to try to answer.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]