"Whiplash" and the Art of Training Artists | Connecticut Public Radio

"Whiplash" and the Art of Training Artists

Mar 5, 2015

Several of my musical friends had said I should see the movie “Whiplash.” They told me I probably wouldn’t like it but that I should see it anyway. So I did.

They were right on both counts. I didn’t like it all that much but I’m glad I saw it. I think young people interested in the performing arts – not just music – should see it.

“Whiplash” is mostly about an archetype. It’s an archetype that nearly all of us in the performing arts have encountered both in fiction and in real life: the ferocious, even abusive son-of-a-bitch teacher who bullies and berates his (they’re almost always men) students, but who deep down ostensibly wishes the students well and thinks that toughening them up will help them to succeed in an impossibly competitive field. Did I leave anything out? Oh, and ideally the archetype should have a token sensitive side that is revealed occasionally, but tellingly, in order to establish that he is not a total jerk.

“Whiplash” certainly has its moments, although I would say that its Best Picture nomination was, to put it mildly, evidence that this was a weak year for movies.

The abusive teacher – appearing here in the character of one Terence Fletcher, a jazz ensemble director at a fictitious cutthroat New York conservatory – is played by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for his efforts. The featured student is a gifted, driven, appealingly earnest undergraduate drummer named Andrew Neyman, played nicely by Miles Teller.

Fletcher’s abuse of the kid is instantaneous and relentless.

His profane, spittle-inflected tirades have an almost comical, Lou Piniella theatricality to them, although it’s clear that we’re not supposed to like this dude even a little bit.

There’s not much chance of that – the sight of grownups screaming, purple-faced, at young people who are doing their best to please is not an attractive sight, whether it’s a music teacher going off in front of a band, or a women’s collegiate basketball coach screeching at his players despite being up by 40 points with only a few minutes to play.

“Whiplash” could have been a much better movie. (Not to be a spoiler, but how many people, for instance, can suffer bloodying injuries in a car crash but nevertheless climb out of the wrecked vehicle and sprint half a mile to perform in a high-level music contest?)

What makes this imperfect movie worth watching, and worth thinking about, is that it does ask us to confront meaningful questions about art and the training of young artists:

* Is the music profession so demanding, so absurdly set up for failure, that only the most brutal and unforgiving brand of harassment can adequately prepare its would-be practitioners?

* More to the point, does such an approach truly toughen the skin and make the young artist strong and combat-ready, or does it create neurotic, cynical professionals whose joy in sharing their artform has, by the time they reach the professional stage, been literally beaten out of them?

A scene from the film "Whiplash."
Credit Sony Pictures

For sure, to the extent that the classical segment of the profession, fueled mainly by big-money international competitions, rewards robotic note-perfect virtuosity over musicality, or personality, or sheer quirky interestingness, the drill sergeant school of training will probably maintain a foothold. 

But I detect signs of change.

I can’t speak for the other arts, but I think we’re seeing a wave of young musicians who are finding value in creating a smaller, more personal universe of professional activity. Which is to say that these young players (and composers) are creating their own ensembles, their own concerts and series, selling their recordings and downloads through their own websites and social media platforms, commissioning new works from their own circle of colleagues and friends.

And when the inevitable time comes for this new wave of musicians to devote some part of their life to teaching, it seems inconceivable that they will have any interest in perpetuating the Terence Fletcher methodology. One can hardly imagine Andrew Neyman, when he eventually gets his own teaching gig years from now, doing anything but trying to be as unlike his old tormentor as possible.

So maybe the real cultural significance of “Whiplash” is that, even as it documents a well-established archetype, it also points the way toward that archetype’s final, and surely long overdue, demise.

The Incomparable Durufle Requiem

The word “beautiful” might seem a little glib to describe great works of music. And yet it feels like the right word for certain pieces. The Requiem of Maurice Durufle is one of them.

The Requiem will be the centerpiece of the Hartford Chorale's “Great Music of France” concert, scheduled for Saturday, March 21 at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford.

The Chorale’s music director Richard Coffey will conduct. Organist Larry Allen will be the special guest organist, returning to the church where he presided over the music program for over 30 years.

Credit Hartford Chorale

The featured vocal soloists will be soprano Salli-Jo Borden and baritone Chai-lun Yueh.

The 4:00 pm concert will also include music by Poulenc, Vierne, and the living French composer and organist Yves Castagnet. Tickets are $30.00; $25.00 for seniors and $15.00 for students. For directions and more information visit hartfordchorale.org.

The HSO’s 20th Summer in Simsbury

The Hartford Symphony has just announced the lineup for its annual five-concert summer series, the Talcott Mountain Music Festival.

Credit Hartford Symphony Orchestra

This year’s festival includes an evening with the Mambo Kings, an evening featuring the music of Queen (an HSO first, if I’m not mistaken), a patriotic night, and two mixed-repertoire evenings.

The concerts, which take place at the Performing Arts Center at Simsbury Meadows, will be held on five consecutive Friday nights beginning June 26.

We’ll talk about these concerts in more detail, but for now visit the website for more info:

A Cardiff Giant

Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, who is a recent graduate of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, is one of the 20 finalists in this year’s BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

He is one of just three Americans chosen from a field of more than 350 applicants from around the globe. The finals will be held in June.

Ryan Speedo Green
Credit imgartists.com

The Cardiff competition, which takes place every two years, is considered the most important event of its kind for young opera and concert singers.

Green, a native of Virginia, made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2012, and has subsequently been seen in major opera halls throughout the United States and Europe. He graduated from Hartt in 2008.

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant’s fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.