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Whiplash stirs memories of stern teachers and high standards

01/09/2015 04:37 EST | Updated 03/11/2015 05:59 EDT
In a season where Oscar-contenders are in no short supply, Whiplash​ is creating quite a buzz. 

The indie feature film pits a talented young drummer (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now) hoping to make it big against an abusive band leader (J.K. Simmons, Juno, Law and Order) seemingly determined to break the kid.

Director Damien Chazell wrote the film based on his own experience with a bullying teacher in a music school.

During an interview about the film, Chazell recounted a story about saxophone legend Charlie Parker, who stumbled so severely through a solo in his youth, the resident drummer threw a cymbal at his head and the audience jeered him off stage.

"He went to bed muttering, 'I'll fix them cats,' and practised like a madman for a year to return and wow the world," Chazell said. 

"It's that relationship that I really wanted to explore in Whiplash. If it's a teacher's duty to push a student to greatness, then at what point is enough, enough? Did Charlie Parker need to be jeered off the stage in order to become Bird?"

Reality or Hollywood?

It's a good question. But Chazell's story raises another: is this a case of Hollywood jazzing up a story to make it that much more gripping? 

Christopher Smith, a trombone player and Vanier College jazz professor, says, for starters, that anecdote is exaggerated.

"The cymbal was thrown at Parker's feet not his head," he said. 

And according to Smith, no jazz musician makes it on his or her own.

"Jazz is a collaborative thing," he said. "You can't have a virtuoso musician on his own. The worth of a musician is judged largely on his ability to throw the ball back and forth."

What about the idea that high pressure, profanity and humiliation make for the best performance?  

Montreal jazz band leader and McGill professor Joe Sullivan said there's a fine balance to maintain between "driving" students and supporting them.

"The reality is that pressure does work, so many teachers resort to it," he said. 

"On the other hand, there is more than one way to get results— I have found that being overly heavy-handed does not necessarily work.  The key is to set standards and insist on them ...Students have to feel a great deal of pressure to be well-prepared if they are to succeed.”

Musicians working with the Beth McKenna Jazz Orchestra spoke with me earlier this week at Casa Obscura, an artists' performance space on Papineau Avenue, about Whiplash.

McKenna was rehearsing for the launch of the band's first EP this week.  

Many of the musicians I interviewed had experience with tough teachers.

Looking back, they realize now just how unacceptable some of that pedagogy was. 

One woman told me she practised so much, she injured herself.  

McKenna said the harsh criticism was tough, but it made her all the more determined to succeed.

“If you really are a person with feelings are broken easily or not really tough-skinned, it’s hard to make it in music industry because there are varying levels of... how nasty people will be to you to try meet their expectations.”

Whiplash won best dramatic feature at Sundance in 2014. 

It’s now nominated for best original screenplay at the Writers Guild Awards and J.K. Simmons who plays the bullying teacher has a best supporting actor nomination for this weekend’s Golden Globe Awards.

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