“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’”—Terence Fletcher
There’s a story that is told a few times throughout the course of Whiplash. It serves to illustrate Terence Fletcher’s highly controversial teaching methods. Legend has it that Charlie Parker became Charlie “Bird” Parker because Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head when he made a mistake on stage. If Jones had just told Parker that his mistake was no big deal and that he did a “good job,” Parker would not have been driven to improve. But as a result of having a cymbal hurled at his head, Parker went home and practiced. And practiced. And practiced. And he went on to become the most celebrated jazz musician of the 20th century.
I enjoyed Whiplash quite a bit. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film so driven by its performances. Good actors flexing their acting muscles is always a joy to watch. But despite how much I enjoyed the film, I still find myself rejecting its premise. And I largely reject the premise because as I watched the film, I found that I put myself in Andrew’s shoes. If Terence Fletcher had berated me, had verbally and physically abused me, I would not have risen to new heights as an artist. I would have been discouraged. And while the argument can be made that the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged, as Terence Fletcher tells young Andrew, I do think there’s a line that should not be crossed. Yes, we should push artists outside their comfort zones and ask them to challenge themselves, but so often, artists push themselves so hard that a teacher need not do more than nudge. Let’s face it, most artists are not only their own worst critics, they also have tendencies toward self-destruction. Charlie Parker was a 35-year old junkie when he died. There’s also a point past which an artist, despite talent, can hate his craft. When Andrew works in a sandwich shop after leaving school, he needs to pull his drums from out of a closet to prepare for his final performance. Being pushed so hard may have arguably benefited Andrew as an artist, but it doesn’t benefit anyone if his drums are in a closet.
As reductive as this example may seem, when I was in the fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Iglesias, gave me the trophy for “Most Creative Author.” That not only built me up, but it profoundly shaped my identity. I have self-identified as a writer ever since, even during some fairly long stretches when I don’t write a creative word. I am not motivated by being beaten down. I am motivated by being lifted up.
I would agree with Fletcher that perhaps our culture is a bit too soft. If everyone in the class had gotten a “Most Creative Author” trophy, it would not have meant as much to fifth-grade-Beth. However, I don’t think it’s a terribly fine line between “Everyone gets a trophy” and slapping your students across the face for being off-tempo. There’s a vast gulf between these two extremes.
Let’s look back at the example of Charlie Parker and Jo Jones. Jones threw a cymbal at Parker’s head and nearly decapitated him because he made a mistake, so Parker practiced and practiced until he got it right. However, what people know and love about Charlie Parker is not his ability to play music perfectly as it is written. Charlie Parker is known for his ability to improvise, to play the music in such a way that it goes beyond what is on the page. People recognize Parker as one of the great creative geniuses of the 20th century, not because he was perfect, but because he was different. He played outside the box. Jones’s physical attack may have inspired Parker to improve, but it had nothing to do with the talent and genius that made Charlie Parker the Bird. To suggest otherwise is merely justification on the part of Terence Fletcher. Fletcher may have inspired Andrew to practice, but Andrew paid a huge price, and arguably, he had his final performance in him all along.