Last week I finally watched Whiplash; as a student of jazz I was kind of nervous to see it at all, especially given the general reaction in the jazz education community. (This post from UNT's professor John Murphy was actually the first I heard about the film; I also really enjoyed this entry from Ron McCurdy.) Turns out to have been a pretty solid movie from a filmmaking and storytelling perspective —but troubling because it represents some ideas and trends in music that are very much at odds with what makes me love music.

I think it's a shame that musicians, and artists in general, are so often pitted against one another —I mean, it's going to happen at auditions and in the job market, but in school, as a motivational tactic? What a fantastic way to get kids to hate music!

I feel very grateful to have grown up in an educational system that didn't really focus much on competitions and awards. My music teachers in high school were great about encouraging excellence without resorting to shame; I think we typically only ever got read the riot act when we demonstrated a lack of respect, or some other teenage character deficiency. Even when I got to North Texas and was scared it'd be nightmarishly competitive, what I found instead was that the best musicians were all eager to help each other and celebrate one another's success.

Don't get me wrong; I know as well as anyone that musicians have to compete with one another at key points: auditions, getting gigs, and so forth. It's unavoidable at that point because there are only so many opportunities out there. But if that spirit of competition is the key thing that motivates you as an artist, then I'm not sure how long you'll be able to work with other musicians in the field. Jazz is a collegial art form, and it's tough to be a good colleague if you're holding a knife behind your back. It's also tough to care about art when all you're thinking about is how to be better than the player next to you.

We should be teaching our students to pursue excellence in their craft —we should call out poor technique and celebrate good technique (contrary to what J.K. Simmons' character would have us believe, telling a talented musician they've done well doesn't prevent them from knowing where they still need to improve). "The next Charlie Parker" is just as likely to be motivated by encouragement as by shame —and nobody ever quit playing because of too much encouragement. Talented musicians quit because they feel like they're not good enough to make it. Sometimes they're right —but it's pretty irresponsible to shut them down before they have a chance to find out for themselves.

Categories: