The 2014 movie drama "Whiplash" is an Oscar winning worldwide hit. Based upon the relentless pursuit of a young aspiring college musician (Miles Teller), and his battle against an overbearing and outright mean music instructor (J.K. Simmons), the message of the movie undoubtedly resonated amongst its viewers, and propelled the art of drumming into the public eye in a way that arguably no movie before it has done. (Despite the best efforts of Animal from The Muppets).
The movie was met with mixed opinion throughout the drum community. On the one hand, the message is undeniably inspiring; one young man's determination to be the best drummer he can be, in the face of adversity that is, at times, uncomfortable to watch.
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On the other hand, the film was dramatized in such a way that the plot scenarios ranged from the unlikely to outright unrealistic. (Not unusual for motion pictures, one might argue). The critics were up in arms, with great drummers like Peter Erskine chiming in on details and scenarios that would most likely not happen in a collegiate jazz education setting. Social media buzzed, and it seemed that every drummer in the world had a valid opinion to share.
My main concern was that aspiring drummers would be put off learning by the experiences of our at times unfortunate protagonist. The feedback I received from my students, however, suggested otherwise. Most found it inspiring and entertaining, so in that respect, one must give full marks to Hollywood. I will say however, that I have not had one new student who has come to me for lessons having been inspired by watching Whiplash. Compare that to the multiple referrals I have received over the years from gamers obsessed with Rockband, and you get an interesting contrast. An unfair, or possibly irrelevant comparison you might think - but for me, it encapsulates the results of a negative experience versus a positive one.
It's certainly not my intention to chime in on the good, the bad and the downright ugly of the movie - there are enough opinions online should you wish to review them. I see Whiplash as it is - an entertaining movie drama based loosely on reality, taking a few liberties in the process, but generally delivering a good story. There is also the undeniable fact that there is some great music and drumming in the movie - although good luck identifying the actual musicians in the movie credits. The one myth I would like to address though, is the blood on the snare drum. And why this particular nuance in a film that literally has dozens of talking points? Since it's release, I have been amazed at how many pictures I see on Instagram and Facebook of snare drums and drumsticks covered in blood. As an educator, I find it quite uncomfortable. To be fair to Whiplash, such images have been about long before the movie's conception; the film writers just jumped on the bandwagon.
Firstly, learning the drums should not hurt you. When you take drum lessons, whether online or with a local drum teacher, you will be shown how holding the sticks in a light and relaxed manner is the key to musically dynamic, controlled playing. The key to speed and power on the drum set depends on this, not on holding the sticks tightly and hitting the drums and cymbals as hard as possible. Speed and power are nothing but a byproduct of control. The scene where blood is oozing as a result of playing faster and faster is a myth. One would assume that if the student drummer had already attained a place at music college, then basic principles like this would already have been learned.
As a student drummer, if you are regularly bleeding, breaking drum sticks or cracking cymbals, then this is a sure sign that your technique needs work. In our videos, we give you guidance on how to hold the sticks, posture and cymbal playing techniques that will save you all but a few occasional calluses, and spare you from the expense of repeatedly replacing sticks, drum heads and cymbals. There are, of course, times when you might bleed if you accidentally hit a cuticle on a cymbal or some other freak occurrence, but this really should be the absolute exception.
One thing that interests me generally about Whiplash is that it did create a talking point amongst drummers of all levels, other musicians, and educators. There are so many online articles that pick apart the story and critique it to unreasonably fine details. One thing that must be remembered is that the percentage of musicians watching the movie would have been small in comparison to the remaining viewer demographic, and from the feedback I received from the latter - the movie was a huge success. I was on a flight from Los Angeles to London last year, and an elderly couple a row ahead of me watched it twice. I don't normally "movie stalk" other passengers but this was interesting to me. It raised the profile of drumming, and gave the general public some insight into how challenging our instrument can be at that level. It may be far-fetched and pushing the boundaries of realism, but it was undeniably entertaining.
Hopefully you will not be encountering any J.K. Simmons-like characters in your private music lessons, after all, the experience should be fun!