Whiplash – What Does It Take To Achieve Mastery?

At a certain point in Whiplash – the new movie written and directed by Damien Chazelle – a young musician-in-training quits music because his teacher throws him out of his class. And later on he’s lured back to music by the same teacher. Eventually, we are relieved to see him break free as a musician in his own right. But does he really? Could it be that, even in that final act of defiance and triumph, Andrew is still seeking the teacher’s approval? That once again, as seemed to be the case throughout their entire relationship, what really drives him is the urge to prove himself to this one teacher?

Teachers can be extremely powerful, says the movie. They can make or break someone. I find this message troubling. I keep wondering… Absent this provocative and abusive teacher, how good a drummer would Andrew have become? In the future, when he stopped hurting, would he describe Fletcher as a tough but excellent teacher to whom he owes everything? Most importantly, what does the movie say about our motivations and drives? About why we get up in the morning? Is it to make an impression on others? To win recognition?

I learned from this interview that one of Chazelle’s goals in making the movie was to decide for himself whether “music should be fun” or “artistic greatness is worth any cost”. In other words, what should we strive for, have fun or achieve mastery at what we’re doing? Because we can’t have both, he implies. But in the end, he says, he didn’t arrive at any conclusion. Could it be that he puzzles over the wrong dichotomy?

His dilemma applies, in fact, to all human endeavours that require substantial effort. And in my mind, the answer lies in what truly motivates our efforts. Whom do you want to show that you can do it, to yourself or others? If it’s to others, then yes, you’d feel more misery than fun, like Andrew did. Your fate would be blown with the wind. As Andrew’s, who would have not returned to drumming to follow his vocation if he hadn’t happened to meet this teacher again. And what a pity that would have been! If, however, Andrew’s goal were to show it to himself that he can become a great drummer, nothing would have stopped him, and least of all someone as ruthless and abusive as Fletcher. Some viewers may claim that this was exactly what happened, but I disagree. That claim could be made only if Andrew had persisted and achieved mastery even after being thrown out from Fletcher’s class and with no further involvement of that teacher. But that didn’t happen, did it?

So, let’s not confuse the issue. Pushing yourself is not the same as being pushed. The former is driven from within oneself, while the latter depends on others. And in my eyes, Andrew wasn’t pushing himself, but he was being pushed. Clearly his motivation was to prove himself to Fletcher, to win recognition from this one teacher. And he wouldn’t have fulfilled his aspirations otherwise. Which is what troubled me.

Good educators nourish rather than crush one’s confidence. They instil self-reliance, not fear. And they inspire learners to push themselves, rather than let others push them. So, the fact that Andrew did eventually fulfill his talent doesn’t mean that Fletcher was a good teacher. He wasn’t. He did not take Andrew on the right path. Here, the end didn’t justify the means.









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