How Whiplash Changed My Life: A Music Educator’s Manifesto

Whiplash is a film about a lot of things. It’s about the experience of being profoundly driven to excellence at all costs. It’s also a film about that voice that all musicians have in their heads, our inner Fletcher. You know, the guy who, despite all the compliments we get from ignoramuses and our parents, knows that we actually suck. He catches all our mistakes and lets us know that we made them in the meanest way possible.

All this is true, and all of this is part of why I loved this movie so much. But it’s not the reason why Whiplash changed my life. Whiplash changed my life because it is also a movie about education.

The most famous pedagogical scene in the movie is probably the “rushing or dragging” scene, which is certainly awesome. But as awesome as it is, I thought the two most important educational scenes in that film came much later. One of them is embedded below:

This is, in a sense, Fletcher’s “Philosophy of Teaching”–a document that every teacher has to submit when applying to grad school or almost any job. And as philosophies go, it’s actually not all that unusual. This idea–that praise can be harmful to the growth and development of young people–is shared by a broad range of educators, including Alfie Kohn, whose original article “Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job” was an early popularizer of research that had been done over the previous decade on the harmful effects of praise. Since then, this line of thinking has shown up in opinion pieces and books that all support the basic idea that being too positive does irreparable damage to our kids.

While I’d certainly agree with a lot of these ideas, hearing them come from Fletcher–a manipulative, abusive monster–really made me realize how much these ideas have been co-opted in the realm of music education to support a terrible pedagogical model. While I will admit that there is literally no one in this country who teaches the way Fletcher does in Whiplash, the kinds of teaching behaviors he exemplifies aren’t quite as far out as you’d imagine. In a world in which achievement at music competitions is the one and only measure of a director’s success, it’s totally common to hear stories of band directors who fly into fits of rage when the music isn’t up to their exacting standards.

And while it’s undoubtedly true that these types of teachers produce results, I think it’s important to ask at what cost? This brings me to the second scene I wanted to talk about here. In it (and, boy, do I wish there was a clip on YouTube) Niemann watches a video of himself as a child, playing drums and beaming with pride, excitement, and joy at the sheer fun of playing music. From where he stood, having just gotten kicked out of music school after tackling his band director, the loss of this joy is as painful as anything else he’s experienced.

It’s a commonly understood phenomenon that school music programs experience considerable attrition. And while much academic ink has been spilled trying to discern the cause, so deeply imbedded is the idea of success-as-achievement in our educational institutions that hardly anyone is asking the question: what about joy? Could it be that kids quit orchestra or band because they simply don’t find it to be any fun?

When I started as a music teacher, one of my most deeply held beliefs was the idea that harnessing the inherent joy and interest that all kids have for music is the single most powerful tool an educator has. Over time, it’s become a somewhat timidly-held belief; such is the power that the cultural milieu can have. However, this film reminded me of it.

This film reminded me why I strive to be as encouraging of my students as it is possible to be. I strive to ensure that I’m enjoying myself when I’m making music with my students and that they’re enjoying themselves, too. This film reminded me why I dance around the room when the kids are playing. It reminded me why I play their games and learn their language; why I invent silly nicknames for them and let them call me silly nicknames too. It also reminded me why I let them pick the songs we learn; why I let them add their own ideas to the music when they have them; and most of all why I don’t really concern myself all that much with their achievement as measured by trophies and competitions.

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One thought on “How Whiplash Changed My Life: A Music Educator’s Manifesto

  1. I was thinking of Alfie Kohn’s philosophy throughout the movie too. I find myself not wanting to say ‘GOOD JOB’ in class, but instead just acknowledge actions as specific factual statements (ie. ‘Great reflection on that concept!’ vs ‘You explained your thinking in a way that showed me that you understand the concept thoroughly.’)

    Glad I found out about your blog.

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