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.

No comments:

Post a Comment