Whiplash Teaching – Thoughts From the Movie

Whiplash is a newly released, critically acclaimed (8.6/10 IMDB, 95% Rotten Tomatoes, 88% Metacritic) movie doing the rounds. It’s about a young drummer named Andrew attending the cut-throat Chaffer School of Music – the top music school in the US – and being absolutely hammered by his teacher, Fletcher. I mean outright, no-holds-barred, verbal (sometimes leading to self-inflicted physical) abuse. He’s a tough, tough teacher. This is Fletcher to Andrew in one of his tamer moments, after a practice set in which Andrew is out of time by milliseconds:

“Were you rushing or were you dragging? If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig. Oh my dear God – are you one of those single tear people? You are a worthless pansy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a nine year old girl!”

Fletcher constantly pushes Andrew to (and over) breaking point in his pursuit of the tightest, most perfect band. He shouts and yells and tricks and schemes to put Andrew in the most challenging of places to see if he survives. It’s a trial-by-fire for Andrew, whose hands bleed with effort and brow beads with sweat.

As I watched the movie I was torn: Fletcher was a horrible, horrible person – abusing and stressing and shouting, but at the same time, he was pushing Andrew to heights he could have never reached otherwise. Andrew was working so hard, practising so much and had so much expectation heaped on him that his potential was unleashed – he became a drummer only one could dream of being. Andrew made it – but only because of the savage approach that Fletcher took.

Fletcher wasn’t his friend.

He wasn’t there to molly-coddle.

He was there “to push people beyond what’s expected of them”

Here is Fletcher explaining his approach, later in the movie:

“I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Chaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong.”

This raises the question – was Fletcher an effective teacher?

Effective? Definitely. Good? Probably not.

Where is that fine line between pushing a student to their potential and being a utter tyrant lie?

In my experience there is a sweet spot that Fletcher goes too far over, a “Goldilocks” spot where the learning, feedback, and relationship is “not too hot and not too cold” – where high expectations are balanced with care and respect.

It’s an interesting thought though – if it took you, as a teacher, to be a utter tyrant, to push a student to their true potential, would you do it?

1 comment

  1. Hi Matt
    I thought a similar thing a few years ago when I saw a movie called first position that follows some young ballet dancers. Their teachers are very harsh and the teachers quite literally push their young bodies to beyond the normal. This clip is representative of a lot of the teachers – they aren’t their friends and they bring something out in their kids https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U69ckKGo2Ho But what is clear from the dancers is that they have they trust under their teacher they will get better so will push through the pain. The kids are just as driven as the teacher.

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