Going to extremes for musical perfection

Watching Whiplash is musical torture: but how close is it to real-life orchestral training?

Going to extremes for musical perfection

‘I regard it as an absolute necessity to push people beyond what’s expected of them.’ That’s the mantra of the sadistic band-master, Terence Fletcher, in the film Whiplash, released last week. His students are subjected to bullying, psychological torture, sleep deprivation and bleeding hands, leading to nervous breakdowns and, in one case, suicide. His goal in putting them through fire is to see if a talented phoenix rises.

We in Britain are culturally suspicious of extremes. We may enjoy the results but we’re pretty doubtful about the methods. We shudder to think about ruthless Russian music schools, the terrifying focus of Chinese piano teachers. There’s a fundamental sense that ‘overdoing’ anything might be psychologically dangerous.

I was always struck by the assessment of both Tasmin Little and Nicola Benedetti’s teachers that they were exceptional not only in their musical gifts but in having been ‘prepared to do the work, many Brits aren’t’.

Importantly, in those two cases, self-motivation was the driver. In the case of Lang Lang he has confessed to being nearly driven to suicide by the pressure put on him by his father, and the perceived shame of failure. Lang Lang is now an evangelist for a more nurturing approach. From another generation, I’ll never forget the pain on André Previn’s face when he recalled how his father would force him to play Beethoven quartets on the piano – at sight – and stand outside the door waiting for him to make a mistake. Previn became a consummate musician, but his boyhood terror never left him.

The abusive behaviour of Fletcher in Whiplash borders on the ludicrous: any student today with a smartphone could have had him fired in minutes. One hopes it’s a thing of the past. Yet I couldn’t help being reminded of some troubling insights into El Sistema in Geoff Baker’s recent book, Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (OUP). The ritual humiliation of ‘stand by stand’ where a player must perform their part solo in front of a 100-strong orchestra; brass being heckled as maricones (homosexuals) for playing poorly; 25-35 hours of rehearsal a week for a national youth orchestra members, intensive seminarios where kids might rise at 5am and still be rehearsing at midnight. Paracetamol handed out to string players. Three days spent on 12 bars…

One of the most seductive aspects of Venezuela’s El Sistema was the claim that it took deprived children and transformed their lives in a caring musical community. The not-very-surprising truth is that, and in its upper echelons, they work gruelling hours under an authoritarian regime: far from being child-centred, performance is king.

Baker is right to question the narrowness of a pedagogical system whose steps are classified: ‘imitation, precision, control, automization.’ Just how adaptable, resourceful, flexible and creative are these musicians going to be? But he’s naïve to think that children are fired up by an unmanaged free-for-all. There’s nothing more dispiriting for a musical child. They respond to great music, high ambition and powerful direction. Fact.

Music is a discipline and does involve intense focus over many years. Great results aren’t generated by magic. It turns out El Sistema has no quick fixes, any more than have the teachers at Moscow’s Gnessin Institute or professors at New York’s Juilliard (‘Schaffer College’ in Whiplash). The potential for teachers to abuse their power in a ruthlessly competitive arena peopled by hyper-driven youngsters is huge, as recent events have revealed, but not inevitable. One has only to look at the holiday courses for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain to see how many other musically-challenging and creative activities leaven rehearsals: the results are on a par with the best in the world. 

Whiplash is not a musically interesting film, though it’s nice to hear some big band jazz. Rather than creativity or ensemble skills, the young drummer is judged only on his speed and endurance. Where’s the music? Which, again, reminded me of one of the bizarre facts in Baker’s book: that one of El Sistema’s youth orchestras can play Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony faster than any professional orchestra – as if that was somehow a worthwhile goal, and not simply music as athletics.

Any parent knows when music ignites a child: they gravitate towards it. Hard work has to happen. But once the technical facility is achieved, it’s all down to their imaginative engagement with the music. And that’s something that cannot be taught, or drilled, or beaten into anyone. 



Photo: Daniel McFadden/Sony Pictures Classics




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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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