Watching: Whiplash – How do you make a musician?

by James M. Potter

“Not quite my tempo”

I recently had a chance to catch up with Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014), a film about an aspiring jazz drummer who labours under the unforgiving tutelage of J. K. Simmons’ bandleader. In addition to being a great film, it throws up all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of talent and creativity, and, in particular, just how far you can or should push someone to realise their talent.

Watching the film, my friends and I found ourselves seeing some familiar behaviours in both student and teacher. It’s not difficult for a choral musician to draw parallels between Fletcher’s uncompromising exactitude and that of conductors and choral directors we’ve worked with or heard about. Take the scenes where Fletcher stops the band, turning to the drummer and simply saying, “not quite my tempo”. Again, they start up, and again Fletcher stops them. The process continues, and Fletcher’s initially friendly “not quite my tempo” becomes gradually more vicious. Eventually he becomes so angry that he hurls the bass tom at the wall, whilst the terrified drummer keeps playing. There’s some exaggeration – Fletcher seems like a composite of a lot of legendary stories of brutal teachers – but such passive-aggressive psychopathy is hardly unknown in the choral/orchestral world.

Effective conducting relies on either respect or fear – or perhaps a sort of Old Testament ‘fear’ that implies a bit of both. For a group of musicians to realise the musical will of one person, they ideally have to believe or be convinced that the will of the one is superior to that of the many. And whilst conductor-less bands and choral groups are in the ascendant, they are still very much a minority, partly because it takes so much more time to align multiple viewpoints than it does to subsume them to one. The more efficient the conductor, the quicker he or she can bend a group to their will and produce a musically satisfying result. It requires a confidence and strength of ego which, in some, can turn to mania.

Of course, there’s another way, by which a conductor can be transparent enough to effect some sort of amalgamation of their will for the music with the individual desires of the musicians. It’s a fine line, and it’s easy to see why many would prefer the former approach. Peter Phillips wrote last year that the ‘mean bullying maestro is dead – or should be‘ – but they’re still about, even if they tend to belong to an older, less sensitive generation of music-makers. There are always one or two conductors and bandleaders who get where they are less by talent than by determination, connections, or financial resource.

In the film, Fletcher is undeniably talented – towards the end, we see him playing the piano with a delicacy that belies his earlier monstrous tantrums – but also believes passionately that the only way to produce a truly great musician is to push someone to a point of discomfort, and then keep pushing. It’s unlikely anyone would agree with his methods as presented in the film. But is there a musician who hasn’t once or twice benefited from a harsh critique, and turned that shame into a drive to do better? In my youth I learned to sight-read because I was expected to be able to. A mistake would be met with an incomprehension which I subsequently took great pains to avoid. Can we expect our conductors to know us so well that they know where our individual threshold for discouragement lies – how far they can push before they reach the point at which we stop benefiting from criticism and begin to shut down?

When questioned about what happens if he goes too far and discourages the next great star, Fletcher simply replies that the next great star would never be discouraged. He has no interest in those in the middle, those content simply to improve, not necessarily to be ‘great’. His target is the student for whom mediocrity is not an option, like Andrew in the film, for whom it is better to blaze gloriously and die at 35 like Charlie Parker than to form friendships and risk not being remembered. It’s a drive that leads him to push others away, for fear that they might somehow compromise him. It makes for uncomfortable viewing, and leaves the audience wondering just how talented someone has to be to justify such behaviour. It’s a question Phillips asks in his article, finding it more reasonable for creators – composers, playwrights – to behave abominably than for performers and conductors, who are mere re-creators of another’s work. Wagner can be remembered for his achievements, which are re-enacted daily, despite his being an ‘arch-shit’, whereas a performer’s contribution to posterity, delivered in a live concert, is necessarily more limited.

Right now and in recent memory there are great choirs who have enjoyed a relaxed rehearsal ethos and achieved wonderful performances. Yet others have achieved comparable results with performances forged in the heat of considerably less forgiving leadership. Which are better is up to personal taste, but does the method matter, or do the ends justify the means? Should a performer be like a formless piece of metal on the anvil, sustaining the crashing blows of the blacksmith’s hammer and emerging stronger and tougher – or would some simply shatter?

The tyrannical conductor is probably dying out, at least in classical music, as a generation of singers and players come of age who are unwilling to put up with him. The routes to greatness are pursued, we like to think, in a more humane way. But Whiplash wisely avoids coming down strongly on either side, leaving us to make up our own minds about Fletcher and his monstrous methods. How much should it take to get that tempo just so – and is it ever worth it?