If you have not seen the film Whiplash, and prefer to watch with an unbiased view, you may want to stop reading here. Judged as a film alone I believe it is worth your time.
“Great men are almost always bad men...” John Dalberg-Acton
This summer my sister Brittney told me about one of the best film she had seen, quoting lines like poetry. Last week my masseuse/yoga student told me about a “piece of shit” movie that filled him with so much vitriol the words were almost shouted during a massage. Since they were the same movie I figured I needed to watch this film which inspired such intense emotions. For the first half of “Whiplash” I was entirely with Brittney, this was an accurate depiction of old-school music teaching. Greatness must be inspired at any cost mentality, just as the mythical Phoenix arose from its ashes, great artists are born from pain. J.K. Simmons character Fletcher at one point tells the emotional tale of how Charlie “Bird” Parker became one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century after Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him (though the story is heavily embellished in the film), which would turn into his provocation to practice obsessively. This would later be followed by a very important and revealing moment when Fletcher would confidently proclaim: had Jones been supportive, Charlie wouldn’t have been given the impetus to become great and the world would have been deprived of greatness, an “absolute tragedy”.
Finally, not a hollywood story of a musician’s road to greatness: Start with a child’s interest, throw in some talent, a dash of adversity and vola! If you grew up with any potential in the schools of western classical or jazz, there is a good chance you not only encountered someone a lot like Fletcher’s character, you were also led to believe if you wanted to be great, this was pretty much one of the only people who could get you there. The world has finally been awakened to the abuse that happens in a lot of sports, but most think high-level music as a bunch of whimsical artists, nurturing greatness through undying encouragement.
This is about where I turn more to my masseuse's point of view, a fellow conservatory graduate and like the protagonist of “Whiplash” a percussionist who attended one of the best conservatories in the country. For those of us that were at least in some part exposed to and damaged by experiences like this, to see the tyrannical instructor proven right at the end of the film when Miles Teller’s character Andrew achieves greatness as Fletcher conducts the band, feels like watching a rapist winking at his smiling victim as she overcomes “adversity” to become a strong person. From my biased point of view, had the movie ended with tragedy we would be left with a profound statement leaving audiences speechless. Of course ethical judgement aside, we need to also look at how a film tells a truth, many great artists have arisen from this environment. It is also far from coincidence many great artists succumb to addiction and depression, there are often unrealistic pressures that are asked of great artists, but abuse and creating a psyche riddled with PTSD is neither a good way to do so nor the best way. It only creates one kind of artist, not necessarily the best kind.
From Andrew’s point of view as a budding great, the audience is introduced to a common mentality in the arts: Greatness is immortality in the minds of the audience. With many “great” men/women of history we recognize the difference between “greatness” and “goodness” with John Dalberg-Acton’s quote above “Great men are almost always bad men...” we understand the difference. Some of the worst people in history have been burned into our memory with their “greatness” (a measure of size, not of value judgement as in “goodness”). We rarely talk about the lives (often including their own) great artist destroy, “Whiplash” in my opinion fell short in depicting the devastation “greatness” in the arts achieved by this means of abuse, leaves in its wake.
For the old-school music teacher like Fletcher who still psychotically believes “greatness at any cost”; the greats after all did not arise from passivity. I counter with the argument, does the cost need to be high. As a music teacher and now as a yoga teacher I tend to believe “greatness” is not a talent, yes a natural proclivity exists in some people and paves the way. I’ve had students that can not hear pitch and at a certain point I don’t think this is teachable, “tone deaf” is not an insult it is an actual neurologic disorder. Past the early stages of music, greatness seems to be developed through the “10,000 hours” that Daniel Coyle spoke of in “The Talent Code”. Greatness in the arts is not a talent and as someone who has put a lot of time in (though never the required amount), I personally find the notion offensive. I do believe greatness requires adversity, and there are times where I’ve excused music students from my studio. I would rather a student, who is not putting forth effort and lying to get by, get “fired” from my studio then kicked out of school or fired from a job. Hard lessons are the most difficult to learn, but always important. I do not believe dishonest encouragement is a healthy change to the problems of our past (extremes tend to be the problem). We as teachers have the highest responsibility of any profession, to prepare our students for their lives outside of our classroom, but dedication and discipline can be taught by fostering love rather than fear.