A friend in a Slack group posed this question yesterday:
Just got around to watching Whiplash because my son wanted to watch it. Curious who else here watched it, and what your thoughts were on it? (Especially the musicians who went to music school)
I’ve watched Whiplash, and holy cats that movie is intense. It makes for great drama, but it’s not at all reflective of my experience in music school.
In school, I did have a few professors who scared the crap out of me. As a student studying jazz—something that I had very little knowledge of or exposure to before going to school—I was frightened by these professors because they were masters of the craft, able to play with a fluency that seemed unattainable to me at the time. (Decades later, I still haven’t reached their level of traditional jazz fluency, but I’m fine with that now). While I found them intimidating at first, none came even remotely close to the abusive behavior of JK Simmons’ character, Fletcher. They didn’t break students down to build them up, boot camp style. Sure they were demanding, but they were also supportive and encouraging. They wanted to share the music they loved, and they wanted kids to love it too. And they definitely wanted us to reach our potential without breaking our spirits.
Among my peers, I don’t think anybody was as intensely single minded on becoming the best musician in a generation, whatever the hell that means, as Miles Teller’s character, Andrew, was. We all wanted to get good and we worked at it. We spent plenty of time in hot, smelly practice rooms, honing our skills, both by ourselves and together. We inspired each other, pushing us all to get better. But we also liked to hang out, drink, get high, and fuck. You know, like young people do.
Whiplash isn’t really about music school. That’s just the setup. It’s about the relentless drive of two individuals, fueled by their unrestrained ambition and ego. What it completely misses as a “jazz school” movie is the fact that playing music, especially jazz, is very much a communal practice. It’s less about how amazing one person can be, and much more about what can we make together.
I may be rusty on my chord substitutions and bebop vocabulary, but there are two things that stand out as valuable in my music school experience. First, I was being consistently inspired by other students, more than I was by the teachers, as good as they were. Coming out of high school, I thought I was simply amazing. Seeing how damn talented my peers were threw a bucket of ice water on that misguided idea. I learned a lot of humility, quickly, and how to really appreciate and celebrate the achievements of others.
The other thing I learned is how to be a much better listener. It sounds simple, but it’s fundamental for any musician (and indeed, for anybody who wants to strengthen and deepen their relationships). As a musician, it’s easy to have blinders on when you’re burying your nose in a score to just play your part, or if you get enamored with how incredible you think you are. But when you’re playing music with others, being generous with your listening makes the music so much better. Not only for your bandmates, but for your audience too.
In their pursuit of greatness, Fletcher and Andrew needed each other. Though because that pursuit is at the expense of just about everything else in their lives, they really only have each other. The rest of us do need truly driven people to be great, to push the boundaries of what we think is possible and inspire us. But for most of us, I think we’re OK with letting others take that path.