The “Whiplash” effect on greatness
I know this may be hard to believe for anyone who knows me personally, but apparently I was a little behind in my movie watching because I just saw the movie “Whiplash” on cable. Released in 2014, it was the winner of three Academy Awards earlier this year, including one for J.K. Simmons as the brutal band director.
If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a capsule description from IMDB:
A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
And by “stop at nothing” they mean he screams at, berates and humiliates the musicians playing for him without pause, prejudice or mercy. It’s fascinating (although sometimes difficult) to watch, especially Simmons’ performance. Be warned he drops F-bombs the way ET drops Reese’s Pieces – as though he needs them to find his way back to his music stand.
So why am I talking about a movie about a jazz band in a fastpitch softball blog? Because Simmon’s character Fletcher is less like a band director and more like many youth sports coaches we see out on the field. I played in bands through high school and never ran across anyone even remotely like him.
Understand in the movie his methods work. The fictional Shafer Conservatory #1 jazz band is the top jazz band in the country. Not sure if they’d work in the real world, but that’s kind of the point of this post.
At one point Fletcher is talking to the young drummer (Andrew, played by Miles Teller) he browbeat and ultimately threw out of the band when the two run into each other at a jazz club where Fletcher is performing on piano. He explains his methodology essentially by saying no one ever achieved greatness by being told “good job.”
For support he points to a story about jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker having a cymbal thrown at him during a performance by Jo Jones. (According to IMDB’s trivia section that didn’t actually happen. Jones dropped the cymbal, essentially “gonging” Parker off the stage.) Fletcher then says Parker could’ve quit right there, but instead the incident drove him on to become a great. That’s what Fletcher says he is trying to do for his students – even literally throwing a cymbal at Andrew at one point.
So here’s the question: is Fletcher right? Is the only way to push someone to achieve greatness to abuse them until they either sink or swim? If it’s not the only way, is it the best way? Or even an acceptable way? Can people achieve greatness through encouragement and supportive behavior rather than abuse, or does it hold them back?
Me personally, I don’t believe it requires abuse. Do you need to set high standards? Yes, absolutely. I hate hearing “good job” when something clearly wasn’t. But you don’t have to be abusive to have high standards.
That’s just me, though. What do you think?