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I’ve just watched the film ‘Whiplash’ with Hubby.
Many people recommended it to us, maybe because we’re both musicians, or possibly because they thought we might appreciate a film about a bullying arsehole of a teacher/conductor.
I feel quite conflicted after watching it, because I’m not sure about the intended message. For those who haven’t seen it (and don’t intend to see it), it’s about a young student, studying drums at a prestigious music conservatoire in New York, who is at first awed, then bullied by a charismatic but terrifyingly volatile teacher.
Obviously, it was a little too neatly packaged up, in the way of most films, but it did raise some interesting questions (and actually featured actors who were proper musicians, or who could at least hold an instrument the right way up and mime into it convincingly. Do not get me started on ‘crap instrument-holding in films’. I will still be here at dawn, listing them.)
Was the message: teachers should not bully their students – it’s not nice, and could hurt their feelings?
Or was the message: musicians cannot reach the highest standard of playing without being pushed to near self-destruction?
Or maybe, the film was sitting on the fence regarding this issue…
The bullying teacher defended his behaviour by claiming that he pushes people to be better – that they have to go to the edge of reason…and then take a step beyond to be truly great. When asked if his behaviour might not discourage students instead, he counters by asserting that the truly great would never be discouraged – not by anything. Not by shouting, abuse, violence, hurling of chairs, bleeding hands or dogfight tactics.
Throughout the whole film, I felt stressed and tense. It wasn’t the violence and the shouting so much as the other, more insidious tactics – the psychological dominance, the public humiliation, the crafty trouble-making between the music students. As a musician, I’ve observed and experienced some of these for myself, and it is traumatic. And yet, I also believe that achievement at the very top level of anything, but especially something spiritual and emotional like music, cannot occur without huge amounts of suffering.
I remember the moment when I realised that playing the piano wasn’t just about putting my fingers on the right notes at the right time, or even about varying the dynamic and tempo in an appropriate manner.
I had played a piece to my teacher, but despite the accuracy of my playing, I didn’t get the praise I’d hoped for – instead, I observed a bowed head, a slight frown, an expression as if listening to something I couldn’t hear. Apparently, I didn’t have the right tone. Something was missing from my sound. I wasn’t projecting expressively. I wasn’t singing through the instrument.
I felt panicky and anxious to discover that the ONE thing I thought I could do was not good enough. I was made to feel naïve and inexperienced. Well, I was naïve and inexperienced. I didn’t have the weight of knowledge or emotional range of an adult. Apparently, I was just a teenager who could put her fingers on the right keys at the right time.
I lost my confidence. I spent hours agonising over this missing piece, trying to find this intangible quality that I lacked so badly. Everything else fell apart – my technique, my ability to memorise music, my command of different styles, my ability to perform in front of an audience. I completely deconstructed.
This is the power a teacher can have over a student.
The role of a music teacher is, in itself, a paradox. A teacher cannot teach the qualities that make a musician great. For the teacher to really draw out the emotional depth from a musician, he/she often crosses a line, because nothing worth learning exists in a polite, professional comfort zone. A student might initially practise to please his/her music teacher – but then, the point has been missed. Being great is not about pleasing anyone. Whether playing the drums, piano, dancing, doing gymnastics or writing novels, being great is about channelling an unstoppable force that begs to be heard.
I could never achieve greatness. Not just because I didn’t have the ability. I think I always functioned on about 65% of my ability – coasted along, without trying too hard, in other words. I could have reached much higher levels of playing.
I couldn’t be great. I backed away from turning my soul inside out. I backed away from the daily struggle to communicate. I backed away from the constant pressure and the relentless accountability. My fear of failure was more substantial than my desire to create.
Does that make me sad? I don’t know. I’m on the fence about that one. My wish for an easy life fights with my wish to better myself.
Anyway, I’ve decided something. I’ve been dithering about it for a few years, but writing about this has kicked my backside.
I’m going to apply to take a performance diploma.
There. It’s public. If I have witnesses to this statement, I might not chicken out.
I should have taken my diploma decades ago, but the moment passed, and then I spent too much time thinking my best playing years were behind me. I’m going to prove that, even if I’m not GREAT, I might be acceptable enough to pass an exam.
However, I’m not going to adopt a ‘Whiplash’ style of teaching. I believe in nurturing young talent, not crushing those who will never be great. So what if I never teach a Charlie Parker? I’d rather have hundreds of pupils whose lives were enriched by music, than ONE great genius.
Anyway, I don’t know enough swear words to teach like that. (And that is saying something.)