“What is the strongest tree?,” a student once asked his master. The master replied, “The strongest tree is the tree with the deepest roots.” “But what is the tree with the deepest roots?,” the student pressed on. The master paused for a moment and then said, “The tree with the deepest roots is the tree that faces the harshest winds.”
The preceding anecdote augurs well with the central theme of “Whiplash,” a 2015 Oscar best picture contender which recently earned the Best Supporting Actor Award for veteran character actor J.K. Simmons. Simmons portrayed the role of Terence Fletcher, possibly the harshest albeit talented music teacher ever to figure prominently in a major motion picture. At the receiving end of Fletcher’s harshness is Andrew Neiman who is portrayed by Miles Teller. “Whiplash” chronicles Neiman’s struggles as a driven and promising jazz drummer aspiring to greatness in the course of his training in a New York conservatory. It is in the pursuit of his musical aspiration that Neiman seeks out the notorious Fletcher first as teacher and eventually as coach and mentor. The latter he pulls off by qualifying as back-up drummer in Fletcher’s award-winning college jazz ensemble.
“Whiplash” also happens to be the title of a Hank Levy jazz composition which was extensively used in the film as a rehearsal and competition piece. The enthralling piece foreshadows the numerous crests and troughs of Neiman’s journey to musical mastery against the backdrop of Fletcher’s persona as both a nurturing teacher at times and a terrifying mentor most of the time. In itself, the song embodies the perfection that is the object of Neiman’s numerous sacrifices en route to his ultimate dream. In this respect, the movie both inspires and shocks as it presents seamless tableus of what exactly it would take to be great at something.
1. The Rule of 10,000
In his best-selling book “The Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell points out that the Beatles, Bill Gates, Mozart, Bill Joy and Steve Jobs all share one thing. They all zealously decked a minimum of 10,000 hours to hone their craft before they achieved career breakthroughs.
“…research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.” (p 43-44)
“Whiplash” affords its viewers a well thought-out cinematic treatment of Gladwell’s rule. There is Fletcher’s fascinating storytelling of how jazz greats like Charlie Parker paid their dues to achieve their celebrated status – a story that becomes the template for Neiman’s own journey as a first year music major. To get a clean shot at his dream, Neiman does not only dissect the music sheets to distill the secrets behind each composition. He literally breathes and lives out the music sheets. Posters of his idols adorn the walls of his room obviously to inspire his already inspired drive. Listening to the pieces he seeks to master everywhere he goes becomes as second nature as eating and sleeping. He downloads what are presumably YouTube posts to understand how his idols practiced and performed at the top of their game. Most importantly, he knocks himself out practicing and practicing and practicing in sync with the original recordings even after his hands literally bleed. Talk of making the Rule of 10,000 rule your life as an aspiring musician.
2. Love is Blindness
His musical progression though is by no means linear. At the same time that he embarks on the roller coaster pedagogical approach of Fletcher, Neiman falls in love with Nicole, (Melissa Benoist) the girl of his dreams. This is where the movie becomes even more intriguing as it offers a different take on how love could, take your pick, mesh with or mess up the life of a musician as driven as Neiman. You’ve probably heard variants of the story of a promising young scholar from the provinces who qualifies for a scholarship in a premier university in the city only to lose it all after falling head over heels in love with his supposedly academic muse. Well, that is not what quite happens here. Neiman realizes that his love of drumming could not co-exist with his love for Nicole. They would have to compete for his undivided attention. The option he chooses would no doubt dismay the viewer but it is one proof of the power of his teacher’s ever growing influence in encouraging nothing less than single-minded devotion to his craft. To ignore everything, to notice nothing, to focus on only one thing, namely, his dream to be the best that he can be. Now we know of an entirely novel, but nonetheless, disturbing take on the famous lines penned by the great Filipino poet Francisco Balagtas: “O Pag-ibig na makapangyarihan, pag pumasok sa puso ninuman, hahamakin ang lahat, masunod ka lamang.” (i.e., “O all-powerful Love, when you take ahold of anyone’s heart, everything could be forsaken in your name.”)
3. Kind Dad, Cruel Dad
As Neiman navigates his way through the labyrinthine route to the promised land that is musical mastery, one can’t help but perceive the workings of two types of fathers in his life – two fathers who are a study in contrast reminiscent of Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” Whereas Neiman’s biological father is what you would expect of 21st century fathers who have no issues about being there for their teenage sons even as they are conscious of quantity time as quality time, Fletcher is the exact opposite. The latter channels the exacting and distant demeanor of the old school father of the 60s. Or if you will, the battle-hardened sergeant major who would stop at nothing to turn a civilian into a cadet during boot camp. While Neiman’s father makes his paternal presence felt by way of regular night outs with his son at the nearby cineplex, Fletcher uses graphic insults and hurls chairs to uncover student potential. To Neiman’s dad whose presence in the young man’s life seems to suggest the assurance that “I am here for you no matter what,” Fletcher’s appears to say: “What does not kill you makes you strong.” Kind Dad, Cruel Dad, indeed.
4. Color It Red
Which brings us to how Neiman’s devotion to his craft almost gets him killed. Without a doubt, passion is the only word that comes close to doing justice to everything that Neiman gives up to turn his aspiration into reality. Passion, unfortunately, is also the reason why he ends up taking things too far eventually leading to a sad and unexpected career detour.
Thankfully, just when the viewer starts to think that Neiman’s dream has crashed and burned, passion is what enables him to turn his crises points into opportunities. How this happens is where the movie wraps itself around your heart and mind and does not let go until the closing credits.
Talk of passion rubbing off on the viewer. Along the way, Neiman’s passion along with that of his fellow musicians get past the celluloid screen and into the heart and mind of this writer. Having been raised on pop and rock music, I did not use to care that much about jazz music. Jazz compositions all used to sound the same to me. Sad. Repetitive. Unexciting. In fact, copies of “A Kind of Blue” and “A Love Supreme” have been gathering dust in my record shelves. Not anymore. “Whiplash” made me want to check out the rest of the works of Hank Levy, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other jazz greats. Thank you, Director Damien Chazelle!
5. Lessons from The Tiger Mom
How the movie ends brings to mind the two different outcomes of employing what Amy Chua calls the Tiger Mother approach. Chua is the celebrated controversial Yale professor who wrote a best-selling book entitled “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” The book is a riveting documentation of her unique real-life parenting style which is as razor-sharp and as laser-focused as Fletcher’s pedagogical objective. To wit: to bring out the best in each of her 2 daughters by pushing them beyond their limits. For Chua, the best indicator of exceeding one’s limits is through getting A+ in all subjects in school. To make this happen, it is critical that a well-meaning parent ground his/her parenting style in the belief of a Chinese mother:
“The Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be 2 years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or a coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.” (p 4)
The impact created by her parenting style on her daughters compelled Chua to engage in a rigorous self-reflection which led to her writing of the book. While the eldest eventually actualized Chua’s vision by becoming a piano prodigy, her second openly rebelled against her and as she would put it, humbled her no end. Thus validating her mom’s constant reminder to her to adjust to her children instead of simply imposing her own cookie cutter approach to raising her kids the Chinese way.
“Yet my own Chinese mother had been warning me for a long time that something wasn’t working with Lulu (her second child.) “Every child is different,” she said. “You have to adjust, Amy…” (p 232)
But where Fletcher fails, Chua eventually succeeds. That’s because Chua, the Tiger Mother is able to imbibe the best traits of the two kinds of fathers above. More importantly, Chua, for all her strictness and harshness, is blessed with parental self-examination which I suspect is the ultimate point of the book and if you will, the movie. The intuitiveness that is so innate and natural among mothers may also help explain her edge over the elder Neiman and the harsh Fletcher.
Beware, then, parents and teachers.
Beware of imposing your pedagogy without any regard for where your children and your students are coming from. Chua’s mom is correct. Students, like our children, have different thresholds. No one is exactly the same. Under extreme pressure, one might eventually suffer a nervous breakdown or even be driven to commit suicide just like in the case of the earlier prodigy of Fletcher’s in the movie. Yet another just might triumph and break on through to the other side of virtuosity just like Neiman’s character or so we are led to believe in the final scene of the movie. But at what price?
In this regard, taking Kahlil Gibran’s admonition to heart might serve all of us parents and teachers in good stead.
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls. For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams…”