Whiplash – jazz or motivation?

Whiplash is an award winning film of the journey of a budding jazz drummer towards brilliance. Set mostly in a rehearsal studio it describes the practice, drive, suffering and pain deemed necessary, by the teacher, to achieve excellence. Whilst in many ways gripping, should we also view its basic premise as deeply disturbing,  asks Peter Hudson.

Jazz or Motivation?

The recently released movie, Whiplash, is ostensibly about jazz but in reality about motivation.

The story is about two characters:  Andrew Neiman, a drumming student and Terence Fletcher an instructor and leader of the college’s jazz band at a leading American East Coast music conservatory.

JoJonesSTThe thesis of the film is based on an apocryphal story about the composer and saxophonist, Charlie Parker, arguably one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th Century. Jo Jones, the drummer with the Count Basie orchestra, was so annoyed with Parker’s playing off the beat as a very young man, that he threw his cymbal at him. That’s the apocryphal bit – he actually threw the cymbal to the ground; but the effect was that Parker went away feeling so ashamed and disgraced that he practised and practised until he was perfect.

So back to the thesis: shame and frighten someone enough and they’ll become a world beater. In a nutshell this is what happens in the film and Neiman, having really hated how he was treated by Fletcher, plays an amazing drum solo at the end of the film, the message being that Fletcher’s methods had worked! Further, the film dismisses more humane ways of motivation by having Fletcher say that two of the worst words in the English language are ‘Good job!’

As regular readers might imagine, I don’t agree with this form of motivation, not least because, even if it can work from time to time (which I doubt), it can seriously damage people in the process. Whilst the film is clearly brilliantly made and has awards by the dozen, including an Oscar for best supporting actor (the Fletcher character), it is very hard to watch as Fletcher’s treatment of Neiman is clearly bullying in the extreme and, at times, downright abusive.

No one in any profession, and certainly in education, would condone such motivational methods. They would be dismissed instantly if caught. So why write about it at all? I guess it’s a question of relativity: how far is it right and/or efficacious to move into the pushing zone of motivating students? Are such methods better than praise, understanding and listening?

whiplash (1)It would be great to get a debate going on this. Watch the film. Share your views. Tell our readers the best ways you have found of motivating students.

Post Script – for jazz lovers: if Miles Teller, who plays Neiman, really did all the drumming in the film, and he certainly studied the drums, then he probably made the wrong career choice by going into acting! I wonder how he was motivated/taught to become such a brilliant drummer!

Click the image to view the official trailer of Whiplash.

Peter Hudson



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One comment

  • mark September 11, 2015  

    Yea, interesting article. I recently watched this movie because my students told me that I reminded them of the instructor in the movie. When I watched it I was a bit offended by that but I got their point, although they feel that it is/was a good thing. I admit that I am “tough love” kind of teacher and one my things that I say that is quoted most by my students is “suck it up sunshine.” However, I do not agree with the extremes that Terence Fletcher used to “motivate” or scare students into success in the movie. However, what I do agree with is that we do students a HUGE disservice by not demanding personal excellence from them and by using the “we’re all winners for being here” bullshit philosophy. I train my students to succeed not only at Debate and Theatre but also at life and “we’re all winners for being here” gets in the way of that. When my students turn in a horrible performance , I am very blunt with them and I tell them that is was horrible. When they do a great job, I tell them they did a great job. But either way, they know that I am telling them what I think is the truth and they respect and appreciate that.
    So to answer the question that you pose above, I think the answer is somewhere in the middle, at least for me and my teaching style. Some people are nurturers and warm fuzzy. Doesn’t work for me because I cannot do that and be genuine. I also admit that in my younger years I was considerably more harsh with my commentary towards my students. I am certain I said and did things that I would regret now. But I will say this. I have had many, many students come back or write me and say that I changed their lives. I have never had a student come back and say, you ruined my life or harmed me as a person. (Ok, maybe jokingly ;-)) So hopefully I have many more years of teaching in me and just know that even someone like me or Terrence in the movie is just trying to help students the best way we know how. Life will introduce you to many types of people and I tell my students, if you can work for me, you can work for anyone. SO SUCK IT UP SUNSHINE!
    Thanks again for posting your commentary on this movie.