whiplash and the quest for greatness
Yesterday, I watched the closing scene of Whiplash and it's been on my mind all morning. In the scene, the film's protagonist, Andrew Neiman finally demonstrates the kind of greatness that his inordinately demanding teacher has been searching for his entire career.
You can watch it below, but I don't recommend doing so unless you've already seen the film.
The conductor in this scene is Terence Fletcher. He used to teach Andrew at one of the finest music schools in the country, but was fired for psychologically abusing his students (at one point, a lawyer implies that one of the Fletcher's students committed suicide because of that abuse).
Fletcher doesn't consider his teaching style abuse. He considers it the only means to bringing out greatness in his students. According to him, the worst thing you can tell a student is "good job", because positive praise like this fosters a sense of complacency. For Fletcher, struggle and humiliation are the ultimate motivators.
In a revealing scene towards the end of the move, Fletcher tells Neiman the story that underpins his entire teaching philosophy. It's summarized in the passage below, taken from the New Yorker article "Getting Jazz Right in the Movies".
"Fletcher justifies his behavior with repeated reference to a long-repeated anecdote about Charlie Parker, who, while still an unknown youth, was playing a solo at a jam session with professionals - one of whom was the great drummer Jo Jones, of the Count Basie Orchestra, more or less the inventor of classic jazz drumming, and even of the four-four glide that persists as the music's essential pulse. In Fletcher's telling, Parker played so badly that Jones threw a cymbal at his head, nearly decapitating him. After that humiliation and intimidation, Park went home and practiced so long and so hard that he came back a year later and made history with his solo."
According to the same article, however, this story is largely a myth. Jo Jones didn't try to decapitate Parker, he merely embarrassed him once onstage. Parker, meanwhile, loved playing and studying jazz so much that he would have broken through either way. At least that's one perspective.
Fletcher reminds me of a soccer coach I had once. He regularly berated most of the players on the team. After games, we'd sit in a circle while he went from player to player and harshly critiqued each performance. His approach was effective, to an extent. I was highly motivated to improve at the time, so I felt I needed honest feedback, even if it was occasionally brutal.
I improved significantly during this time. The problem was that many of my teammates did not. They were there for fun, not to be yelled at and embarrassed. My coach would have chalked this up to them not having the passion for the game. He was right in most cases. But he made a lot of players who liked the game quit playing altogether. That always bothered me.
My coach justified his approach in a similar fashion as Fletcher in Whiplash. The difference was that his alleged quest to bring out greatness in his players was, at least partly, an excuse to be an asshole. He was an unhappy person. Once, while relaxing at a hotel on a team road trip, I watched him make fun of one of the weaker players on the team for minutes on end. It didn't have anything to do with soccer. He wasn't a leader or a coach at that point, he was just a bully. I switched teams the following season.
A few questions about all this are lingering in my head.
Do teachers like Fletcher exist in real life? Can someone be so demanding, to the point of being psychological abusive, and still retain a pureness of motivation? Or do they just become a monster?
Does this kind of demanding style even work? Or do some personalities wilt under the pressure, regardless of their talent? Fletcher would say that their willingness to give up is proof that they didn't have the potential in the first place. I'm not entirely convinced.
What happens to people like Andrew Neiman, or Charlie Parker, who sacrifice everything in pursuit of a goal? What are they left with? According to the analysis of the movie below, maybe a drug overdose. Maybe destruction is unavoidable.
I can't remember where I heard this, but Andrew Neiman in Whiplash has been compared to the heroes of Greek myth. Like Achilles, he had to decide between a short, glorious life and a long, obscure one. The decision isn't as easy as some people pretend it to be. Even Achilles had left battle and was planning to return home before Patroclus was killed.
If Achilles considered abandoning his quest for eternal fame, what chance do the rest of us have?