Monday, March 30, 2015

My Late Thoughts on Whiplash

I've needed to watch this movie for a long time. But a three-year-old at home makes it hard to visit the local theater, so sometimes you have to bring the movies to you.

When WHIPLASH finally appeared On Demand, Anna and I watched it the first night I successfully got my son to fall asleep on time. It started a huge conversation between the two of us, and one inside my head as well. And I can't blog about this movie without revealing massive SPOILERS, so consider yourself warned...

I'm going to break this into sections, because this could easily become a poorly-organized thesis.

ARE REAL MUSIC PROFESSORS LIKE FLETCHER?

Most people ask this the second the credits roll. The short answer, the way I've always understood it, is both yes and no. Music schools are tough and unforgiving, and if you want to make music your career you'd better be ready to fight for it until you're ready to drop dead. But Fletcher is definitely a dramatized interpretation of a well-known trope.

For a longer answer, I point you to this article: Ask a Juilliard Professor: How Real is Whiplash? It separates the truth from the cinematic exaggeration much better than I could, and is accurate to the best of my limited knowledge.

DO YOU REALLY HAVE TO PRACTICE LIKE THAT?

You have to practice a lot, certainly. I've met people with music degrees who spoke of fourteen hour days between classes, rehearsals, and practice rooms.

But I must also in good conscience point out that a drummer should never hold his sticks or practice the way Miles Teller does. He's a wonderful actor and it makes for an incredibly tense movie scene, but his grip is horrible on a technical level. Power/physical exertion does not equal skill, no matter how much percussive blood is spilled.

Locking yourself in a practice room for insane amounts of hours, however, is definitely real. Music students get kicked out of class/rehearsal for showing up without rehearsing.

EDUCATIONAL PHILOSOPHY

Let's talk about the movie's ending, because that final, amazing scene does something terrible and beautiful all at once -- it implies that Fletcher's teaching methods work. A musical "great" has been created by the abuse and ugliness of a sociopathic music teacher. The viewer is left to judge if the abuse was worth it in the end.

Anna and I had a really good discussion about the possibility of Miles Teller's character throwing his sticks at Fletchers' feet and walking off the stage after his final solo. There's something morally satisfying about that, but it's not the right ending. The idea that both teacher and student still need each other is powerful, horrifying, and even a little sick. It was a harder ending to land, but land it they did.

Does Fletcher create great musicians, and is it worth it? I love that they pose these questions, even if my answer is decisively "no." I'll admit that wide-eyed kids often don't understand that becoming a musical great or a star sports player requires insane amounts of work and dedication. You may have to say goodbye to your friends and social life. You can't party all night long -- your competition is spending all hours in a practice room while you're stumbling home drunk from the bar.

But it's not worth it, and I need to be long-winded to tell you why, so...

CODDLING VS BRUTE DISCIPLINE

I've always hated that parents so often fall into two categories...

1) "You can be whatever you want to be!" and
2) "You can be anything that earns you a ton of money."

Why can't we rewrite the first one to include "but you'd better be ready to work your heart out for it"?

We talk so much about coddling VS brute discipline in the teaching world, and how every kid getting a blue ribbon implants the idea that the world doesn't require hard work. We seldom consider that each student and interaction requires a separate, balanced strategy based on the desired outcome, the current emotional state of the child, and what cards you hold in your hand at any given moment.

That is why, as much as I oddly respect Fletcher's character for going for the throat without compromise, I inevitably find him to be a piece of shit as a teacher. Sometimes a teacher needs to be a little nasty, but if that's your only gear than you're taking the easy way out in the same way as a father who hits his son for misbehaving. It will stop the misbehavior in the moment, but you're destroying the human inside in the process.

Keep in mind that I teach elementary school, and have a fundamentally different job with different requirements and outcomes than a college professor of any subject. A college professor can't hold up a student who insists on drowning, and shouldn't really have to. If you make the decision to go to college, you need to act like you deserve to be there. You are the sole person in charge of your education.

There is no part of me, however, that believes in a definitive, one-size-fits-all teaching method. I hold my kids accountable for their successes and shortcomings, especially when they try to blame their parents/peers/me/whatever. But I can't (and won't) flush my students down the drain when they under-perform. They're nine and ten year olds -- they're entitled to be mad, sad, confused, and cry sometimes. They're allowed to have missing homework, and sometimes the proper response is "It's okay. I'll give you another day, but you need to take this seriously because life doesn't always give you another day."

I've gotten plenty of transfers from private schools that love to tell you how much better they are. It's easy to have good standardized test scores when you treat D students like garbage and flush them out of the system.

I have no intention of ever doing the same.

WHAT A GOOD TEACHER REALLY IS

Fletcher's goal was to transform one student. That is a pathetic teaching goal, no matter what Charlie Parker's story might say, and the insistence on "tough-to-the-point-of-abusive-love" is not only sociopathic, but kind of lazy. Teachers need to be tough and set their objectives above their students' expectations of themselves, but physical and verbal abuse is lowest common denominator instruction.

To be a good teacher you need to know what given method works in any given situation. A good teacher makes hundreds of decisions EVERY SINGLE DAY. Fletcher makes one -- do I kick this little brat off the kit or do I let him continue to play while persistently screwing with his head. A certain level of this is necessary at a music school -- if a music student shows up unable to play their part, or if a theater student hasn't memorized their lines, they deserve to be berated and/or kicked out of class because their incompetence is holding everyone else back. You're facing the adult world in college, and if you have no intention of being an adult, take your tuition money and buy yourself a pacifier.

And yet I teach I elementary school, and while I work in a fairly affluent suburb, I've worked in the past with kids all over the map. Spoiled rich kids, kids in poor families, divorces, parents at risk of being deported. How exactly are Fletcher's methods going to inspire a kid who hasn't eaten in two days? No matter how complicated the rationale, it doesn't work when your students don't have the option to withdraw from your class.

The world is brutal and disgusting at times, but sometimes a teacher is the only bright light in all of that darkness. I don't care if I create a Charlie Parker. I care if I create a group of kids capable of smiling.

MUSIC AS A SERIOUS CAREER

It depresses me that people think music careers are not a serious option. My brother is paying the bills as we speak with a music degree, touring all over the country with his band and teaching middle school kids to play rock and roll. He works insanely hard at it, like most working musicians, and would probably die inside if forced to sit in front of a computer forty hours a week and type on a keyboard.

And yet we laugh off music as a career, and tell our kids they are screwed if they take this direction. Is it because we're stuck in jobs we hate, convinced it's the only option? Isn't there a genuine danger in dismantling our children's dreams just because we have a few bruises on our own?

IS THERE EVER A TIME WHEN FLETCHER'S METHODS ARE THE RIGHT CHOICE?

I don't know.

Despite all I've written, it's hard to definitively say "no" when I wrote a book that puts Buddy Rich on a pedestal the same way WHIPLASH does. Want to know what Buddy did when his band under-performed? Listen to this (WARNING: NSFW).

Yep. Sam Morris and Pete Taylor from I AM DRUMS look up to an amazing drummer who treated his band terribly.

Some people believe that you have to destroy something before you can build it up into something greater. Military schools do this all the time. Destroy the disobedient child and mold them into an obedient one.

Despite how much I've written, I don't know where the line is, or when exactly Fletcher crosses it. I do hope, however, that there is indeed a line.

NOTE: I may add to this post in the future. My thoughts on this movie are changing all the time.

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