Anyone considering majoring in music –– as well as those already in music school –– will find valuable takeaways from the new movie “Whiplash.” The film is intense and visceral, and focuses on a music student attending a top-notch conservatory in New York City. Accomplished young musicians portray highly-competitive music majors in the film, so it’s easy to perceive “Whiplash” as a glimpse into the realities of life at a music conservatory. But while there are some highly valuable takeaways, there’s far more fiction than fact represented in “Whiplash.”
– Guest Blog by Daniel Weidlein
As a music major at a well-respected school, I never saw blood shed in a rehearsal room (save for a popped blister from a swinging bass player), nor did I ever see a director repeatedly slap a student to help them keep time. (I have had a chair thrown at me before by a director, but that was in high school and that’s a whole different story…) Perhaps more chilling is the film’s relentless use of over-the-top obscenities hurled by the band director to belittle his students under the guise of motivation. Each instance of abuse is purposely exaggerated. The intent is not so much to give an accurate portrayal of life as a music student, but rather to hyperbolize very real tactics that teachers and mentors have used for motivational purposes –– and taken too far.
“Whiplash” overdramatizes the life of a college musician, especially around practicing. I never met anyone who devoted 100% of their practice to playing “double-time swing” as fast as they could and for as long as possible. While that might result in serious blisters and perhaps bloodied hands, it would definitely lead to becoming a one-dimensional musician. Music school is all about developing depth of musical knowledge, not just technical skills. The latter, in fact, could be acquired without paying $50,000+ a year in tuition. The film does remind us that sometimes, in the heat of competition, both teachers and students can forget this fact and fixate on things that may not best serve long-term goals.
While “Whiplash” didn’t remotely represent my time in music school, its underlying moral dilemma deeply resonated with me. What do you have to sacrifice in your life to be the musician you want to be? As an mentor or a teacher, how hard should you push your student to motivate them to be the best they can be? These are extremely important conversations and self-reflection starters for young musicians who are really serious about their craft, as well as for teachers who want to see their students succeed.
“Whiplash” references the famous story about a young Charlie Parker, who was humiliated at a jam session in Kansas City and kicked off the stage after a cymbal was hurled at his feet. It is said that this singular experience led him to lock himself in his house and do nothing but practice for a year until he became one of the greatest saxophonists of all time. But at what cost? As depicted in Clint Eastwood’s film, “Bird,” Parker’s obsessive tendencies resulted in a chaotic family life, and an addiction to heroin and alcohol that led to his death at age 34.
What is the price of greatness? Is it worth sacrificing personal happiness and relationships to be “the best”? ”Whiplash” brilliantly presents and explores these topics without trying to provide answers. As the film progresses, it becomes less about the physical, emotional, and mental abusiveness of the band director and more about the common goal of greatness that both teacher and student share. It reflects the repercussions of their mutual fixation on greatness, on their lives and the lives of those around them.