Friday, February 13, 2015


I really wonder why I did not receive one recommendation to see the recent movie Whiplash. Maybe no one I know or has ever read anything I posted here saw the movie either. That's possible since it's not a widely distributed movie, nor widely read blog. But did not one person even hear about it after it was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture? Was no one curious about it and even read the synopsis? When I see a movie or even a commercial I think someone else find interesting then I send them a link to it. I had to find out about this movie when I was reviewing all the nominees and let me tell you that student jazz band movies are not something one finds every year. I can think of Mr. Holland's Opus (school orchestra/band)...Drumline (marching band) and that's it. Two other movies that are remotely related to student jazz bands. And now Whiplash. I don't want to lie and say it's the best movie I've ever seen but this particular topic, jazz bands rehearsing Cherokee, is so rarely dramatized that you'll likely not find another example.

I did go to college for a music degree but I was a violin player and could barely tune the instrument after 6 years. I feel in another life I could've been a good player but that particular instrument is not one a normal human masters after picking it up around age 30. I knew of the Jazz Band in college and went to their performances but honestly the division between classical players and modern jazz players is pretty impassable. Neither are particularly snobbish, unless they were snobs to begin with, but the personalities required by each are usually non-transferable. Only some of the brass and the bass players would cross between the two arenas and even they had their preference and would either tolerate the monotony and predictability of Beethoven or would sneer at musicians tapping their toes to a Wayne Shorter tune.* Jazz conductors rehearse the band and then get them started and cue to bridge and the final head, but they step aside as a rule for all the solos. The players must listen and partly conduct themselves. This is unheard of in classical music where the conductor will cue every single entrance because every note is written down and also greater flexibility with phrases is given in classical music. Also, a Classical piece might be 78-150 minutes long while a jazz piece is typically all repeats after 50 seconds. No one improvises in classical unless it's a Concerto and even then there are recognized solo "cadenzas" that are rehearsed. Only Nigel Kennedy will break into a blues solo during a Beethoven Concerto.

The two worlds are very different and my choice was classical. In fact, violin is only allowed in symphony so I had no choice, but I suspect I would've been totally lost in a Jazz Band. Furthermore, I'd never paid any attention to Jazz even though I lived near San Francisco. I went to the S.F. Symphony and the Opera regularly for three years but not one Jazz performance, which is odd since my first theory and Musicianship professor was a lounge pianist in a trio at a fancy hotel in S.F.. He said, "If I walk in to hear a trio and I see sheet music then I turn around. They haven't done their homework."

But about 10 years later I had an opportunity to take a jazz class at a college in L.A. so I signed up and learned about improvising with a group. It's fair to say that at 38 years old I was hoping to unlock some secret ability rather than trying to learn from scratch. But I'm no Mozart so any progress I've made has been the hard way. It was my last year in Los Angeles that I made enough progress playing guitar that I felt it was feasible I could make substantial progress if I put in the effort. That college Jazz band was a good start and we played a few blues tunes and some basic standards, talked about Dorian scales and what scale to play over a minor7flat5 chord. 

Later in Mexico I was introduced to the true American Standards songbook with a bar band of retired gringo musicians. Then I saw the light of how good these songs were, how much better compositions they were than blues and rock, how much more audiences enjoyed them and how much depth they had for the musicians. Satin Doll and All of Me never get old because the genre of jazz insists there are no limits, only a well defined core. These lessons made sense theoretically but the process of making it intuitive physically as a musician is sort of addressed by Whiplash. I wish I could say I identify with the main character but I don't. I merely recognize a commonality because of the music we have in common. I'm not good enough to even be an alternate guitarist in a high school jazz band. My opinion is that the dedication required to be a really good musician is not something a responsible adult should contemplate. Don't try it. Be an electrician. 

I'm divided on this movie's premise because I think they got it half right. One Jazz drummer takes the easy, hyperbolic route and writes, "I was so offended by every aspect of this trash that I gave one of my students that I told to check out the film the cost of their ticket back. Don’t go and count all of the things that are wrong with this film. Just understand that there’s nothing right with this film. STAY AWAY!"

"Nothing right." ?? That's a bold statement and I don't think AC backs it up because he seems a bit emotional that his craft was poorly explored. I feel it got one simple thing right: practice is important.

The amount of work the drummer in the movie goes through to elevate his playing is definitely the reality for most of us. You will sacrifice everything else. You will bleed. You will despair and want to surrender. No one will believe that level of dedication is necessary so you'll also be mocked and doubted. You will think that if it's this hard then you must not be gifted and it's a waste of time anyway. All of that is well addressed in the movie and I approve. Most movies don't emphasize the hellish hours of practice because it's not interesting. But it's all true. However, the part of the premise that this drill sergeant teacher is what inspires him to try to elevate his playing is the part that doesn't entirely ring true to me because it wouldn't work with me. Furthermore, I knew two drummers at college who attempted to elevate their playing with absolute commitment to practice and both developed carpal tunnel syndrome that was so bad they could not hold a pen, followed by failing classes and depression, they probably never graduated. I developed chronic agonizing tendonitis in my neck, my violin teacher had to perform spinal traction on herself throughout the day because of nerve damage. I often wake up with no feeling in either arm. So, it's simplistic to talk about "practice" as a guarantee to performance. No. If you are lucky then all your pain and time will pay off. But if you end up an assembly line worker the pain will still be there and your time will be lost for good. Very few people are physically equipped to tolerate the self-abuse of a professional musician. Max Weinberg, drummer for Bruce Springsteen, wears tight gloves to sleep and must ice his hands every day. He's a role model. Charlie Watts, Rock drummer for The Rolling Stones for something like 70 years, is a phenomenon so rare he should be cloned; his blood should be archived for DNA. I injured my wrists after 5 hours of bongo drumming. Most drummers have careers as long as a football lineman...6 years.

Serving Two Masters. This is how I've typed everything for the last two months.
One problem with these music movies is that the main subject is either going to be a Mozart with a gift, maybe 1 in 50,000,000,000 people. Or someone who has to work hard which is about 1 in 1 people. So the film has to quickly track progress that is incremental in real life. So the filmmakers must balance what is realistic and what makes a movie interesting. The approach Whiplash takes is to examine someone who is very good and determine what will make them great. What's that last step? Well, it's the theory, at least, of what makes someone better than they have been before. Is it typing essays with a guitar on your lap so you can absently finger scales with one hand and type with the other? I could make a circus act where I type at the same time as tap melodies. And it's not a gift because it's never been easy.

My personal feeling is based on being an adult when I first sat down in a band or orchestra. That's totally different than when a teenager sits in the same seat. The conductor knows this is a hobby, personal enrichment for me so their frustration (and there is always frustration for a conductor) has limits. My violin teach did not make me cry, although learning violin was agonizing for me, but she did have several people leave her practice room in tears. One girl complained that she was conspiring against her to make her crazy. My teacher was not remotely abusive but the same effect can be realized with carefully chosen words. I would stress what another teacher told me about teaching: "I don't believe in student equality, I believe in student equity. Give to each student what that student needs. Some won't need the same attention and you should accept that you won't give them the same attention. Some need more attention so you give them more attention. Do not spread yourself out equally. Equity, not equality."

I find it very unlikely that this Whiplash conductor had students who all responded to the Drill Sergent approach, yet he was equally abusive to each of them. That part doesn't ring true. Yes, a few students might need the extra incentive via verbal abuse, but others need something different. A good teacher, and good musician, makes adjustments and I didn't see the adjustments with this conductor. 

An important consideration that all reviewers might be missing is whether it's fair to consider the movie representation of the conductor as "accurate". Like, why can this not be a flawed conductor? Why does he have to be Mr. Miagi? The writers presented A conductor, not THE conductor. They only failed to show ANOTHER conductor so people with no experience in this realm would get an idea. So all musicians think, "Hey, this is totally inaccurate." Well, inaccurate compared to what? Why is this example of film 'fake' when Star Wars is considered fantasy? This brings up a larger topic of how moviegoers are being trained to see the characters as archetypes, and modern film has definitely trained us all to look for generic archetypes, when there is no law that these characters have to represent the ideal person. The conductor is flawed and the drummer is flawed, but in this particular instance the drummer elevates his playing and how he got there is for the audience to judge. Maybe it was this flawed conductor who doesn't resemble any other conductor, and maybe it was a coincidence. But presenting archetypes isn't always the intended goal.

The anecdote, probably an urban legend, that Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at his head for not sounding good so he practiced until he could impress people is easy support for a 'hard love' approach to teaching. Sure, I'll throw a cymbal at 1000 saxophonist's heads and not one of them will be Charlie Parker. And who can say Parker wasn't going to elevate his playing anyway? Furthermore, I think the implication was that this conductor's hard approach had created another Gene Krupa, which he actually expresses, "Just once I'd like to have a great student..." and that means this drummer has reached a new pinnacle as a band leader, which his final solo 'conducting from the kit' performance demonstrates. But he should've thrown the written music parts in the conductor's face, if that were the message. "I don't need these anymore. Shove them up your ass." something like that. But the conductor stays to lead the band back to the head...which should've been the drummer's job, as the conductor walks out the door instead, his work done. Sad, missed opportunity.

The conductor in Whiplash makes good cinema and I've definitely had conductors who genuinely were on the verge of brain stroke because of dragging tempos or out of tune strings. So it's not a myth. There are conductors who are like that both in Jazz and leading symphonies. Music is emotion realized so conductors are naturally emotional. Musicians have varied personalities and it's possible there is an unemotional musician somewhere but generally a conductor accepts that his musicians only respond to emotional requests. It's different with adults because adult conductors realize an adult has probably reached their potential. Realistically, an adult will balance their career and other priorities, (like writing a novel in my case). However, a student is defined by untapped potential and the teacher's job is to tap that potential. 

The Whiplash conductor is one extreme and I will say it makes for good cinema because it's dynamic and emotional, but it's merely one extreme and might be employed for good in certain circumstances with certain students who respond to abuse or are motivated by outside forces. Personally, I don't think that's many musicians. Practice, master classes, exposure in real situations, and self-motivation are the normal keys to excellence. A music student will probably never have a perfect teacher. That's a sad truth. And you'll probably never have a perfectly dictatorial teacher like demonstrated in Whiplash. Most likely, you will have a completely average and forgettable music teacher who expects average things from you. And what kind of movie would that make? But you are far more likely to have a drill sergeant teacher than you are of having one who fits your personal learning style so perfectly that he or she inspires you to greatness. It's simply a rare phenomenon and making a movie based on some kind of Mr. Miagi dream combination is also a disservice to teachers since it establishes an ideal that is super rare. My advice is to lock yourself in a box and learn from your own mistakes using your own ear. It all comes down to that anyway so you might as well ignore the short cuts and teacher's advice and method books. Only after you fully engage the material will you learn and in my opinion, teachers and method books are actually a hindrance to full engagement, so ditch them. Get an album that inspires you and study the shit out of it. Your own instincts are all you need.

I can say I never had a music teacher who saw much potential in me or else suspected I would not respond to verbal abuse or aggressive encouragement and so they all treated me respectfully, gently, encouraging me to practice more. My guitar teacher said, "Fingerstyle guitar songs in altered tunings all sound the same." And he has a point. I only played one song, once, when he said, "Oggy, that was good." The rest was boring. I was old for my class and had an ability to learn the theory and explain the theory but I wasn't in the music education program so they assumed I was in it for personal enrichment. Furthermore, I don't respond well to instrument teachers at all. The theory part made sense to learn like math but in a formal arena instrument lessons seem totally artificial and the first and last guitar teacher I had in Texas basically told me that classes are a waste of time for adults unless I want to learn how to teach classes or verbalize the theory. Instrumentalists learn by self motivation, copying the greats. If you can't copy the greats, transcribing note for note off a recording, then there's nothing to be done for you. There's a class in college called "Jazz Transcription" and the whole class is one recorded song, no written music...the final exam is you playing that song as it was played on the recording. The number of mistakes determines your grade. I was so baffled by that class I didn't take it and kind of regret that because now I have to attempt it on a song like Jumpin' at the Capitol and try to figure out what the hell Oscar Brown is playing on the guitar without any help. But there can be no help in that realm because if I have to be shown how to play it then I won't be able to play it.


And if you can copy the greats then you only need a chord grip chart that costs $2, because hearing clusters of notes is advanced and it's so much easier to look at the grip chart and memorize them. But then I read the transcriptions of Freddie Green and realize he wasn't playing anything I recognize. All the great musicians copied the great musicians before them and took it to another level, a personal level. Formal lessons are for those interested in personal enrichment or a chance to debate theory and I'm of the opinion lately that it probably does more harm than good to the aspiring instrumentalist. Like studying Plato is not the shortest path to wisdom. All the tools to playing great are freely available so what do you need a teacher for?
"Oh I want to know how to play like So-and-So." 
Well, buy a record and copy it. 
"Well, how does he do such-and-such?"
"Experiment until it sounds right. Trial and Error. Hundreds of Mistakes. The instrument won't bite you if you don't get it right."
"But I want to know how to play faster."
"Figure it out for yourself."

See, there's a simple answer for everything and sadly there is no magic secret. Yes, there are many gurus who profess to have a magic method to mastering your instrument in 5 weeks and they are full of shit. Their method is how to get your money to pay off their debts. I've studied several methods and I did learn something from all of them, but I also shook my head and wondered why I needed to buy a method to show me something so obvious? Why hadn't I seen it before? The answer is because my quest for a teacher who will show me some secret method has hindered my own self-motivation. It's easiest to break the news to kids early: Only you can make you a better musician. Yes, rehearsals are good, ask questions, read books, listen to recordings, keep a practice diary, play live...and it will still come down to your personal opinion of your own playing and your personal method of improving your playing. There are no secrets. It's like, if you want to play like Stevie Ray Vaughn then do not buy a SRV songbook. No. If you need a songbook to play SRV songs then you won't be able to play SRV songs. It's a paradox. Tablature only helps if you're merely interested as a hobby and you don't want to invest any time in learning by trial and error, which is the only way to really learn. There's a different between learning an SRV song and playing like SRV. A big difference.

My first jazz band teacher had the simplest method imaginable. It was so simple it makes me laugh. He played a chord and then asked you to play a note. Then he would ask, "Does that note sound good or bad?"
And he kept doing this until we had 7 notes that were "good", called a chord-scale. Does that method sound complicated to anyone? Is the note combination good or bad to your ear? Listen. Trust your ears. What other judgement can there be? Did I need a teacher to tell me to listen to the notes? I guess I did. Does it take a short time to do this? HA! Hour after hour of one chord and one note. Over and over. It's very painstaking, but it works. Either you will have 7 notes that belong in the chord-scale or you have learned that you need to fine tune your ear some more. OR move to India where there are quarter tones. Western music is a specific traditional sound and Jazz is part music and part history lesson.

Maybe you need a teacher to teach you how to practice. That's feasible and that's about the only value I can see for a private teacher but if you can't learn how to practice in a week then there is something wrong with you, and if your teacher can't teach you in a week then there is something wrong with him. Once you know how to practice and self-motivate and isolate problems then the teacher will only hinder you with his own shortcomings. Horn players have a saying, "Know before you blow." In other words, if you don't know the note you want to play then what are you doing? Your messing around with finger exercises. Maybe they're in the right scale but you'll never know what to play. Your personality will never be communicated because the sound itself is not internalized. Maybe the physical movements have been internalized but there's a difference. "Know before you blow."

Maybe I'm biased because I don't like formal lessons and never have liked them. I don't take direction well. I learn by locking myself in a garage with a broken motorcycle and not leaving until I fixed it. That has always worked for me. Some people are probably different and take advice better and respond to guidance. It's frustrated many people I've worked with that I delve deeper than I need to into some project, at least until I know why the problem happened. Until I know the system then fixing a component seems pointless. I prefer to take the scenic route to the destination** and if I can't motivate myself then no one can. But that doesn't apply to everyone so it's feasible that some people need to be pushed and Whiplash looks at that scenario specifically. I suspect most teachers shook their heads at the aggressive approach and many students laughed because they saw shadows of their teachers, but I'm happy to see a movie that recognizes a style of music I like.

The Gene Krupa Story (1959) was a bizarre bit of anti-pot propaganda about a drum playing band leader. 
Jazz Groups Hot-Bed of Marijuana Users?? WHAT?
Krupa was indeed imprisoned for 90 days in 1943, the length of a Guatemalan visa, for two smoked joints in his possession. How fucked up is that? Well, it raises another good point about creative inspiration. While I don't doubt Krupa's timing in Swing Jazz got worse when high, I'm pretty sure Charlie Parker, who is the poster child of 'hard work' in Whiplash did benefit creatively from heroin use, probably more than he was inspired by having a cymbal thrown at his head. Isn't it as likely that a drill sergeant approach to teaching will inspire the same number of people who would be inspired by having everyone smoke heroin?

The movie had flaws but to hear the conductor call out Caravan by Duke Ellington was really refreshing because it was like vindication for a small sub section of musicians in jazz bands everywhere who, like the movie points out, are overshadowed by sports heroes. Jazz does take some time to appreciate. Most people like music but have no interest in Jazz but for me it's more about the personality of the musicians as demonstrated through the music. Music relies on personality but when an instrumentalist can still express themselves clearly then it transcends the notes. I'm not sure this movie or any movie can adequately communicate that element. These songs are 50-80 years old and they are standards because they teach a genre and require the basic tools to play. There's a huge range of skill, but the basic musical tools are required for a jazz band to play and that's why bands perform them. Jazz is an American musical tradition and it's good to see a movie that finally recognizes the young musicians who are continuing that tradition.

*I should stress that a musician in an orchestra or band barely hears the music in totality and it's sonically nothing like what the audience hears. An Oboe might rest for 10 minutes and all she hears is a droning of bassoons in her ear and the far off scratching of the harmony violin. In a big orchestra you can't hear anything but the instrument playing next to your ear and that's merely one reason why the conductor is so important 

**I'm definitely one of those men who doesn't ask directions if I get lost and I defend myself by rationalizing it's a Neanderthal instinct surfacing and my deep desire is not merely to go from Point A to Point B quickly but to also know the wrong way to get to my destination, and what's located in the wrong spot. That makes sense to me so I never ask for directions. In essence, I'm never 'lost', merely learning more about places I didn't want to go.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.