“I push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity.”
How much does forceful mentoring help students achieve excellence, and when does it become abusive?
Those issues are part of the movie Whiplash, apparently named after the jazz standard by Hank Levy.
The quote above is by acclaimed teacher Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) at a music school reputed to be “one of the best in the country,” explaining his teaching approach to one of his star pupils, Andrew (Miles Teller), who idolizes jazz drummer Buddy Rich, and has aspirations to also be “one of the greats.”
Fletcher is a complex and driven character, perfectionistic and proud of it, who egocentrically wants to uphold his reputation in the arts community, but also seems to genuinely want to help his students who “have what it takes” to become exceptional.
But he uses a brutal and often cruel drill sergeant-like teaching style to do that.
He comments about his aversion to mediocrity and giving praise to students for merely passable work:
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”
In his review of the movie, Brian Tallerico notes Fletcher “likes to tell the apocryphal story of how Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head one night when he messed up, thereby pushing him to the breaking point at which he became Bird.
“Without that cymbal, would music history be the same? Would Charlie Parker have gone home, refined, practiced and driven himself without the threat of not just failure but physical violence?”
Andrew drives himself even harder after hearing this Charlie Parker story, and even after Fletcher carries out his own version of the story, throwing a chair past Andrew’s head in a rehearsal room with other students, for falling short of what Fletcher thinks is the required level of performance.
But the story is apocryphal, as noted by Forrest Wickman in his article What Whiplash Gets Wrong About Genius, Work, and the Charlie Parker Myth:
“Jones didn’t throw the cymbal at Parker’s head. He threw it at the floor around his feet, ‘gonging’ him off… The humiliation of Jones’ gesture did help motivate Parker to keep practicing, but creative genius is more than discipline and how-fast-can-you-play athleticism.”