How to teach music (& how Whiplash failed us)

how to teach music whiplash failed us mary kastle musician bowen island jazz pop soul folk singer-songwriterIf you are interested in music, then you’ve probably seen the movie Whiplash by now. It’s taken me a while to process my feelings about it because it was so deeply triggering for me. I’m sure anyone who’s been through jazz school had at least a few head-nodding moments throughout it. 

I know I’m an idealist, but this movie really got me thinking about how to teach music (and how not to). I knew I wasn’t the only one who had a precarious music school experience, but if they are making big-box features about it, it must be way more rampant than I ever imagined.

[PS. If you haven’t seen the film yet, this post might not make sense without a quick synopsis. It’s a mild spoiler but the movie is still definitely worth watching! The story is a young jazz drummer nearly kills himself (physically and mentally) trying to master bebop drumming and win his harsh band director’s approval. It all comes to a head in the final scene when his teacher sabotages him in front of an audience, but the student gets his retribution by playing a burning solo that presumably emancipates him from the scorn of the bebop gods.]

An outdated mentality

It’s strange because most jazz musicians I know are totally open-minded about music when I talk to them one-on-one, but for some reason once you get into the music school system there is this subversive mentality that bebop rules, and until you master it, any other form is pretty much unworthy of respect (especially pop, rock, and its myriad hybrid forms!). I can attest to having lived through it, and have thankfully come out the other side, despite the shadow it cast over me for years afterwards.

Most likely this exclusion comes directly from the mindset of the original founders (Ie. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, et al.), which was quite intentional. Bebop WAS about flash, exclusivity, sophistication, and competitiveness, and there was still enough momentum behind the scene to draw new players in. Some were so desperate for inclusion, they even got hooked on heroin just to fit in. It’s sad.

But Whiplash demonstrates so clearly the disconnect between that era and this one. Back then the hubris worked because those players were already all a part of their own club. They worked their skills out among friends on the bandstand. They were gigging with each other all the time, and there was an understanding that if they didn’t prove themselves one night, they would have umpteen more chances to do so over the course of their careers.

But export that mentality to 2015, at a little jazz college or a private music lesson, with a beginner/intermediate player at a vulnerable formative age, coming in completely naive to jazz and its history, and raised instead on pop, rock, hip hop, or electronic music. This student might be intrigued by jazz, but already feels intimated by the complexity of the theory, the speed of the solos, and the sheer volume of repertoire they need to absorb. Then add into the mix a cynical teacher criticizing them for not practicing hard enough, ridiculing their other music interests, and making them feel like rejects until they can play a certain way at a certain speed. It’s a recipe for disaster!

A new music mindframe

According to this article, more than 50% of students quit music lessons within their first 2 years. But is it because kids don’t want to play? Or because they hate practicing? No. The study found that they don’t even know why they’re quitting. All they know is that they feel inadequate and they don’t know how to fix it. The music itself is a enough of a technical struggle. But now their teacher is making it an issue of self-worth. Unless the kid/teen/YA is completely devoted to music as their calling, they will likely throw in the towel.

Even Damien Chazelle, the director of Whiplash, admits to using his own twisted high school band experience as the idea for the script.  He quit music because he was taught by a heavy-handed bully. In the interview, Chazelle says he NEVER resolved his feelings about his experience and is still baffled at why there is such a gap between playing music for fun and “taking it seriously”. I guess he never took himself to therapy like I did, (which is a sick indication of how long these experiences can stay with us), and it’s too bad, because who knows what kind of musician he might have become if his teacher had only been able to back off and encourage him to work on his chops at a friendlier pace.

Teaching music v.2015

But what does that even look like in our day and age? Most music teachers are still struggling with their own dark shadows and unless we make our own healing a priority, the negative cycles will just continue. Luckily, I’ve meditated on it A LOT over the years, and though I don’t teach these days, if I did I would keep these mindsets at the forefront of my practice:

1) Music is not self-worth.

You are still a fine human being if you do not play Giant Steps in all twelve keys at 300 bpm. Let’s just reflect on that for a minute. I’ll say it again. You are a worthy human regardless of your musical ability.

2) Everyone’s music can co-exist.

No matter how simple or complex, everyone’s music has an equal right to exist. Your 3-chord pop tune is just as worthy as the jazz tune with polyrhythmic shots, open-ended jam breaks, and modal changes with 4th voicings. Let me say that again: Your 3-chord pop tune is worthy.

3) Music is not a race.

It’s OK if you are still practicing your II-V licks when you’re 90. You still deserve a turn at jam sessions and you are still a fine human being (see #1). Take your time and listen to yourself play. Don’t worry about your solo not burnin’ enough. It’s an illusion!

It’s almost silly that we need to go here. But we do.

The music teacher’s role

A music teacher’s actual job is not merely teaching theory and technique. It’s guiding the student to find his/her own voice on the instrument and ultimately giving them the belief that they have something worthy to say, no matter how sophisticated or complex. Can you imagine if teachers actually taught students to play as if “there are no wrong notes”, like Miles once said? Much like parents, teachers have a choice. They can either do it patiently and gracefully, or they can fuck you up. Big time.

And neither is the gentle path dramatic enough for Hollywood, which results in music films that are more like fight movies than anything. The problem is that we absorb these dramatic stories, and they reinforce everything that’s wrong about our music education culture. We need new stories – healthier ones – if we’re ever going to evolve the teaching and learning of jazz as the fluid and powerful form of expression that it is.

Whiplash v.2.0

So, rather than just talk the talk, I rewrote the ending to Whiplash, as it would have happened in my perfect music school Utopia. LOL.

Here it is:

// A young jazz student goes into college and wants to be the next Buddy Rich. He is so enthusiastic about it that he practices until his fingers bleed. His teacher is extremely passionate and detail-oriented, and day after day, he gently and joyfully points out to his student the skills he’s improving upon and which ones still need work. The student practices, cries, practices, cries. The teacher makes it very clear that the student’s diligent work ethic is the most important factor, and that the technique of the music is bound to come over time. As Gandhi said, “full effort IS full victory”. It’s competition day, and the school band is performing. In the first set, the student messes up the tempo. On the break, the teacher comes up to him. “You’ve got this. I have faith in you. It’s time to let go of the technique and play with your heart. Fuck Buddy Rich. Play like YOU!” In the second set, the student closes his eyes, lets everything go, and plays something so mind-bogglingly original the world is forever changed. //

The end.

Hmm.. Actually, I think I would have paid $20 bucks to see that! I probably would’ve shed a few tears too. How about you? 😉

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One thought on “How to teach music (& how Whiplash failed us)

  1. Ted Parkinson

    I studied saxophone both in classical music programs at two universities and at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I really wanted to try Berklee because of course I wanted to play jazz and I was not learning it in school. I was surprised when I got there about how closed minded eveyone was because, as you say, ‘bebop ruled’. It was a far more constricted place than my classical school where students got together for free improvisation, we had ‘sonic lab’ where we performed contemporary works like Steve Reich etc. But I believe the bebop mentality was because jazz lacked the legitimacy of classical and it was a ‘canon’ that could be taught. I mean, most of rock is a few pentatonic scales, but bebop is a ‘language’.

    Having said that, I did find Whiplash to be outrageous and not very compelling because it simply does not reflect what the majority of music educators do as teachers. Generally, music is joyful and the classroom experience sometimes reflects that. I think there is also an underlying realization that the majority of music students will never have careers in music, so we need to push them, but also allow them the pleasure of making music is probably the best group in whcih they will ever play.

    Reply

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