by 6:54 PM 2 comments
I have been excited to see "Whiplash" since I first heard a review of it on Fresh Air nearly a month ago. It looked like it wasn't coming to the South Bay, so I'd been trying to download a torrent that doesn't seem to exist. I was ready to see "Gone Girl" instead last weekend, but when "Whiplash" showed up as an option in San Jose I was really happy.

If you haven't seen the trailer, here it is:

Basically, it's about a Freshman jazz drummer at Juilliard (but it's called Shaffer or something in the movie) who is being pushed to the limit by his verbally abusive band leader.

I liked the idea of this movie for a few reasons. First of all, it's not a feel-good Mr. Holland's Opus "yay music teachers!" movie. On the other hand, as the film reviewer made clear, it's not the story of innocent suffering at the hands of an evil teacher. The message is left ambiguous.

I also liked the fact that the movie doesn't go into the category of torture-porn. The worst physical abuse is in the trailer, and it never gets sexual except for derogatory name-calling. I think that too many movies veer into that territory for the thrill of it, and it's nice to see a movie about abuse that keeps it realistic. I don't mean to say that sexual abuse never happens to music students, but it's a lot more rare than the kind depicted in the movie.

*SPOILER ALERT HERE? This isn't so much a film where the ending is going to be ruined by my explaining it, I think. But I'm about to say part of what happens at the end!*

Throughout the movie, we see the kid looking at a picture of a famous jazz drummer he admires. He has a face where you can't tell if he's smiling or grimacing. In the final scene, where the kid is drumming the best he's ever drummed in his life, he re-creates that same expression. Or actually, he switches between that expression and just a pained, slavish look. It seems miserable. But he turned great!

The band leader tells the kid an apocryphal story before his first rehearsal about Charlie Parker. Supposedly, Charlie Parker became great because he had a cymbal thrown at his head when he wasn't playing well, which inspired him to become the best jazz saxophonist ever. In the next scene, the band leader throws a chair at the kid's head.

The idea that 'pushing' a student will lead to their success is a common one, especially in music education. It's a notion that allows a lot of abusive arts teachers to be ridiculously temperamental and write it off as inspiration.

One of my favorite 'mean teacher' stories was a violin teacher that was in charge of private lessons at a Summer music camp. The first thing he would say to all of his students was "the tissues are over there. I am going to make you cry." It was so ridiculously Dickensian, not only was he mean, he was intentionally mean. He played a sonata for a small concert that I was at later, and I had to wonder how his phrasing could be so expressive when he was such a jerk?

Luckily, I never had a mean private teacher. We did have a masterclass teacher that was banned from private lessons for being a little too friendly with his female students, but that was a whole different story. I did, however, have plenty of ill-tempered conductors. The brunt of the anger was never directed at me, but I loved how the movie depicted that feeling. When the band leader enters the room, the entire band is looking down at the floor, nervously. Then, when he starts to pick on one individual, everyone else is smirking. They feel like while it's not directed at them, it's fair. But each student is always uneasy that he/she will be the next target. Because the leader's warmth comes and goes, it's that much more valuable to them.

I remember that feeling so vividly; I had a conductor who would be absolutely furious if a percussionist dropped his sticks. He warned us about it beforehand, and it only happened once, but I think the drummer was kicked out of rehearsal. I was torn between two feelings: on the one hand, I can completely imagine myself dropping sticks, and that seemed like an honest mistake. On the other hand, he was so mad that it must be a legitimate thing to be mad about. And he wasn't mad at me, so I felt relief that the anger was being directed elsewhere. I completely adored this conductor, and his violent mood swings made me feel nervous, but I also felt extremely happy when we played well and made him proud. Also, I should specify that he was nowhere near as bad as the character in this movie.

The way that the band leader spoke, calling things 'his' ("my drumset, my band"), also brought back memories. Not just arts teachers, but also over-the-top classroom teachers, will pretend like everything in the classroom is his/her own. I had an observation with another preschool teacher who would say "you're not respecting my books, you have to play nicely with my toys." It's first of all untrue that these teachers own all of these things, they are the property of the school. Furthermore, it makes it seem like the teacher is doing you a favor by giving you access to their stuff, and like you could take it away at any minute. I always prefer to say "our classroom, our books," which hopefully gives the kids pride in ownership and a sense of accountability. Anyway, it's closer to true, especially at private schools, that it is partly the student's stuff.

Also in "Whiplash", the looks on the kids faces when he walked into the rehearsal space, standing dead silent at attention, reminded me of the students in more intense marching bands. We would see them at festivals, and they were better than us, but in addition to gloating they looked absolutely unhappy. Even when they would get their "Superior" ratings, it just didn't look like much fun to be over there.

On the other hand, those bands won. And a lot of those violin students made significant gains under that teacher. And our band with the dramatically-tempered conductor was very good. So, do these methods work? (It might be unfair of me to class conductors and private teachers into the same category since the dynamic is so different in each space, but I'm just trying to piece together all of my experiences with music education into one opinion.)

I think that in the short term, a little intimidation can go a long way. It can help to shore up discipline and to keep musicians on their toes. However, I don't think that it would work at all in a private music lesson. Since there's no solidarity to fall back on, most students would just be scared out of performing their best. You may get more practice out of a student, but nervous problems can also develop that would counterbalance those gains.

Of course, I have to keep in mind that the most motivating thing that was ever said to me as a musician was "regional band will be the best band you will ever play in." My private teacher told me this, not as an insult but just as a fact. After realizing that regional band was, umm, not that great, I was really angry that he had such little faith in my abilities. And after that, he coached me into all-state, youth symphony, and Northwestern's music camp, spots that I may not have worked so hard for if he hadn't said that in my lesson.

Regardless, in the long term, I'm not sure at all that an unpredictable conductor is helpful. Our youth symphony conductor was full of enthusiasm, and we had a lot of successful players come out of that program. She made us happy to be playing, which made practice fun, instead of feeling like we were being bullied into it.

There are so many stories about mean teachers producing excellent musicians, but when I think about those players who were truly extraordinary, their biographies don't reflect extraordinary pathos in the practice room or in their lessons. Yet some of the most influential conductors, like Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein, are known for being badly-tempered (pardon the pun!)

Maybe being a great conductor means having a lot of feeling, and you can't have a passionate conductor without a temper. Or maybe that's all nonsense, and those conductors are just on a power trip. Maybe someone should step in and tell them to back off. Of course, the aforementioned conductors are directing professional adult musicians. At the same time, though, many conductors of younger musicians look up to the greats, and are inspired by their techniques.

Anyway, if it's not 100% proven that being mean to children helps them to become superior musicians, I would suggest skipping it. Most motivation will likely be intrinsic, anyway, and most of those kids won't become pros. They will, however, carry memories of playing music with them throughout their lives, and isn't it better if those memories are mostly fond ones?

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.


  1. I fear that the film will give comfort to pushy parents and drum soloists.

  2. It might, but I think that the movie only works so well because it doesn't moralize.