December 12, 2016

Why I had to stop watching "Whiplash"

It's Sunday evening. I'm in full Relaxation Mode. The opera season is on pause for a few weeks, The church choir I direct sang our Christmas presentation at the 11 AM service this morning, and it went well. Washington beat the Eagles this afternoon. My beagle Joy is curled up on her bed beside me.
James Pellerite: my own personal Fletcher

About an hour ago, I was scanning the cable channels in search of something besides reruns and a football game I didn't really care about, when the feature on the Sundance channel caught my eye. It was Whiplash, the 2014 movie starring J. K. Simmons as a jazz professor at a big-time music conservatory.
I missed the movie in the theaters, and it was still in the first few minutes, so I tuned in. 

I've seen a lot of Simmons' work and always liked him. In case you don't recognize the name, there's a good chance you've seen him unless you never watch TV or go to the movies. He was the staff psychologist Emil Skoda on Law and Order, he was Chief Pope on The Closer, he was Ellen Page's dad in Juno, he was the bombastic editor in a few Spiderman movies, and literally too many other productions to mention. Oh, and he's done a string of commercials as the spokesman for an insurance company, the one whose jingle includes the eloquently tongue-in-cheek lyrics "pum pa-dum pum pum pum pum"

He has a knack for projecting unpretentious straight-shooters; I was curious to see him stretch his range as Fletcher, the tyrannical percussion guru of Whiplash. I suppose I was expecting a variation on the theme presented some 40 years ago by the late John Houseman in The Paper Chase, playing a law professor who didn't suffer fools gladly ("You come here with skulls full of MUSH!")

So I was unprepared both for Simmon's character and the effect it would have on me. Bottom line: Simmons' Professor Fletcher is to Houseman's Professor Kingsfield as Walter White is to Sherrif Andy Taylor.

I had to turn away and go back to football. Here's the scene that had my body tensing up:

Andrew, the student played by Miles Teller, is attending his first rehearsal in an ensemble directed by Fletcher. Andrew is relaxed and confident - he knows he's talented; he knows his future is bright, and so far Fletcher has been friendly and encouraging., 

But then things go off the rails. Fletcher stops the rehearsal, tells Andrew he's rushing. Start again. Stop. "My tempo, please." Start again. Stop. "You're rushing!" Start. Stop. "You're dragging!" Start. Stop. Over and over. The other student instrumentalists sit frozen, not wanting to draw attention to themselves, wishing they were elsewhere. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. In his face now: "Were you rushing or dragging? ?" The student so tied up in knots he know longer knows which - in fact, he no longer knows how to play the drums. Fletcher hurls something at him - I think it was a cymbal. He slaps him.

I watched, barely able to breathe.

If you didn't go to music school, you should know that personalities like this are indeed found working with budding musicians in conservatories and music departments. Yes, the slapping and throwing were over-the-top exaggerations to drive home the dramatic conflict, although one pianist I know once had her teacher throw a metronome at her in her undergraduate years.

Here's MY "Fletcher moment".

I'm the holder of three degrees in piano performance. The last one was a Doctor of Music from Northwestern University; the first two were earned at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. (Back in my day, the '70's, it was just "the School of Music".) My piano professor was the virtuoso Jorge Bolet. We got along well - he wasn't my "Fletcher". I went on to teach college-level piano, play some fine recitals, appear as soloist with a few local orchestras, and enjoy playing with chamber partners. What I'm trying to say is that, though I'm no immortal artist, at no point in my career has anyone seriously questioned my talent and musicianship. That's by way of preface and context to what follows.

My Fletcher? That would be James Pellerite, professor of flute. He was just one member of the impressive line-up of distinguished and celebrated musicians IU's faculty boasted in the '70's. His career as an instructor was as stellar as that of principal flute in orchestras, soloist and published author. He was, indisputably and by common consent, The Real Deal in all matters flute.

In the normal course of events, I would never have met him, much less interacted with him. My two areas of interest were the piano (duh) and IU's great opera theater, in which I was thrilled to participate in the opera chorus. So when I accompanied applied lessons, it was generally for singers; the friends I made backstage.

I can no longer remember who it was from Pellerite's studio who asked me to come in and accompany his private lesson as a substitute for his regular pianist. I looked over the piece he'd be playing - it was one of the Mozart flute concertos (again, I no longer recall which one).

But it didn't appear to be very challenging. Lots of repeated triads, the occasional graceful melody. I could whip it into shape with a minimum of preparation. I agreed to play for his lesson.

The trouble came when one of those repeated-chord passages cropped up during the lesson. This sort of thing:
In terms of piano difficulty, it's the kind of thing one can execute without undue effort. "Cruise control" might have described my approach.

Big mistake.

"Mr. Pianist", interrupted Pellerite, "please play the eighth-notes with rhythmic evenness. Do it again." 

"Oh, I'm sorry", I probably said, "Sure, no problem". Geez, I thought, what a stickler. Okay, Winters, let's bear down and play 'em perfectly even.

We started again. I set my inner computer to the highest "even eighths" setting and played: plink plink plink plink plink plink plink...

"Mr. Pianist! You are not perfectly even. Alone, please, without the flute. Huh? How uneven could it have been? FINE! I'll show HIM!  Plink plink plink plink plink plink...

"Evenly, Mr. Pianist, EVENLY. Again!"

Faithful reader, try it yourself. You don't need a keyboard: just tap the fingers of both hands on whatever surface is in front of you: a desktop or laptop lid will do fine. Tap your fingers moderately quickly, over and over, with the perfectly-spaced rhythmic evenness of a sewing machine bobbin.

Easy, right?

You'd think.

I won't belabor my reconstruction of that lesson. No, Pellerite didn't throw anything, he didn't call me names or slap me or make me cry. Frustrated? Oh yeah - I felt plently of frustration. The whole thing felt surreal; I wish I could hear a recording of that lesson, because from my current vantage point of a 60-something professional musician, I am dubious that my repeated chords were a problem. It really isn't that hard to play precisely.

Pellerite was not the only tyrant-professor I've run into; I witnessed other students being subjected to withering humiliation by other instructors. I once saw Tibor Kozma, a former Metropolitan Opera conductor on the IU faculty, stop a dress rehearsal of an opera to tell a soloist that he was "a completely useless member of society" in front of orchestra, cast and crew. And there are so many other examples I could mention. These personalities exist in every sphere of activity, but there's something about the arts that creates the perfect environment for them to wield their powers of intimidation.

I don't know how the movie turned out; that scene caused way too much PTSD for either me or my wife (also a musician, with her own memories of demanding teachers) to keep watching. I presume that Fletcher and Andrew went on a journey, a journey ending with Andrew's having realized that, as ignoble as his teacher's methods may have been, the goal of perfection is what really matters in one's musical education.

That's the other reason I didn't need to keep watching: like Andrew, that was the gift my training imparted to me as well, all those decades ago in the course of my own journey.

In other words: been there, endured that.


  1. Even the wonderful Benjamin Britten could be famously 'waspish'. At the very first rehearsal of The Building of the House, a piece written by Ben for the opening concert of the Malting which was to take place in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, BB who was conducting was understandably “edgy” I imagine because he was about to hear ‘in the flesh’ what had previously been only in his head. A cellist (the orchestra was the ECO) arrived late to the rehearsal. It was an uncomfortable moment as he crept between his fellow string players and took his seat, all the while deliberately it seems to me, avoiding looking at Britten. As he lifted his bow ready to play Ben shouted (!) “And your mute!” (there was no “please” I assure you). We then had the first run-through of the piece. Immediately afterwards, BB left his rostrum and went over to Peter, smiled, shook him warmly by the hand and (perhaps, I don’t know) apologised. I remember this very well because I was in the chorus singing both at that rehearsal and the subsequent concert. A couple of years ago I had occasion to recall this story with Anita Lasker-Wallfisch another cellist in the ECO at that time and how we both laughed at the memory! I suppose enough time had passed for us to delight in a little Schadenfreude - and it is, after all, a wonderful anecdote. The cellist was Peter Willison.

    1. At least he was equally hard on himself. My favorite Britten quote (I forget where I read it) is that he once wrote in his diary: "My bloody opera stinks". Who can't relate to that?!

  2. I had the same PTSD kind of experience when I watched Whiplash. I made it through the whole thing, but looked away at certain parts and felt completely drained once it was over.

    Unfortunately the ending you hope for isn't how the movie ended. The whole thing was dark and heart wrenching, to the last.

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  4. There are people in this world who are so obsessed with striving for perfection. But we live in an imperfect world and we as humans make mistakes from time to time, sometimes everyday.
    I did watch the movie all the way. I thought it was good and it was based on a true event that actually happened in a high school and not a college. I probably won't watch it again because I don't care for violent films much. The kid worked so much on the drums, that his hands began to bleed. I didn't think that could actually happen by playing drums. The professor in the end did get what he deserved so it did kind of worked in the kids favor. Although, karma doesn't always happen in the real world; it does and it doesn't.
    I didn't have a professor quite like that, although I had a chorus teacher in high school who treated me poorly, and perhaps if he didn't treat me in that way, perhaps my music journey would have happened sooner rather than later. I love chorus music and opera but didn't officially get into voice lessons well into my late 20 and into my 30s. I sort of put it on the back burner now because I needed to make a living for myself. I love singing and chorus, but not enough to be bullied by people who are miserable with themselves.

  5. My Grandmother was like this. She was a piano and organ teacher. I took piano lessons for over 13 years and love to play. When she would visit, I would proudly play for her a piece that I had played for our school play. I was in 5th grade at the time. She told me how terrible it was and how I should be ashamed to have played it in front of everyone. Then she would put two quarters on my hands and tell me that I could keep them if I could play the piece all the way through with no mistakes and without them falling off. As much as I tried, I never succeeded. Thank goodness she did not visit but around twice a year. My mother always asked me why I insisted on playing for her. I think every time she came I thought this would be the piece that she would like, but it was never good enough.

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