Whiplash and Ted Dunbar: Tough Love in Education

One of the most important things I offer as an educator is honesty. While I like to think I am a kind person, I feel I am doing no favors if I allow a musician, especially a young musician, to delude him or herself. It was in that spirit that I went into watching the film Whiplash, and it is why I found the movie upsetting and possibly even irresponsible. I am no film critic (I found the plot and characters thin, but what do I know?) and I also do not need to rehash the many musical details that were portrayed inaccurately (others have already done this). However, if anyone mistakes the dynamic depicted in the film as having merit on pedagogical or moral levels, then that is a big problem.

I needn’t go into great depth about my philosophy of the morality behind this sort of tough love . . . because I already have in past entries on this blog. I wrote extensively about the balance between nurturing and administering “butt-whoopings” in a post a couple years ago (click here to read) and a little more recently about the importance of teaching young people to be consistent with word and deed, particularly as relating to setting goals one legitimately intends to do the work to pursue (click here to read).

When I look at my own years of study, I got lots of tough love. I still remember the time that Ted Dunbar, when giving me the final exam in my first of six semesters of classes with him, asked me “Do you study classical music?” I beamed and said yes, thinking he was praising my technical abilities. He then said “I thought so. You see, you have to understand that jazz has a different feeling rhythmically.” Imagine the sound of one’s ego going into the toilet, and that was the sound amplified throughout my being at that moment. And so I worked harder.

Ted taught me more than anyone I’ve ever met about pedagogical tough love. I’ll write another post sometime about his music (which I have always found extraordinary), and I found his pedagogy extremely effective (as have so many others, hence his guru-like status) but it was his high standards that really changed me more than anything.

Ted believed that he was simply expressing the standards inherent to the music itself. If you did all the assignments for a class on time and at high quality . . . then you got a grade of B. Because just doing your job equals a B, and jazz demands far more than that. In six semesters I got an A once, and it was literally the most profound growth I ever experienced in music. The A itself meant very little by the time I checked my transcript, it was the work that got me there that changed me. He was never unkind, but he also didn’t seem to see himself as a motivator – indeed, the music should provide ample motivation if you love it enough to make this sort of pursuit at all sane (a phenomenon conspicuously absent in Whiplash, sadly).

I am tempted to say he was a gatekeeper, but he wasn’t keeping any gates, he was simply stating what he had observed for decades about how good you need to be to thrive and how much work you need to do to get there. Did I feel like Ted liked me, that he cared or thought about me beyond doing his job to teach me music? Strangely that was never that important. At a certain point I realized that his opinion was valuable as a yardstick for measuring how close I was getting to my goals, not as something of great interpersonal importance. Once I saw that, I was liberated from caring what he thought of me . . . while at the same time being bound (until I die or quit) to the objective truth of how well I’m pursuing my goals. That truth is unyielding, which is frustrating at times but is a lot more straightforward than trying to curry someone’s favor and confusing oneself about what that person’s approval does or doesn’t provide.

On the other hand, I experienced numerous educators who were just jerks, or who at least engaged in unkind behavior with no real intention. I saw teachers insult people for their music . . . and for things other than music. Maybe it’s clever to say “you think that’s worthy of a Master’s degree? Maybe a master of baiting” or to let out a big fart and say “I guess that’s what I think of your assignment.” But any valid substance there could be communicated with dignity. Ultimately I never saw an instance in which cruel words or actions had any positive effect on the delivery of a pedagogically valid message.

I had one teacher, who subsequently went on to become the head a reputable jazz conservatory program, publicly mock a lump on my elbow that had plagued me for years. As he, I and a number of other students stood in a courtyard, he declared “it looks like there’s a f***ing PRUNE on your arm! Hahahaha!” I look back now and, as the public shame has dissipated over the years, what strikes me most is that I was a lot more self-possessed at that time than I gave myself credit for. I say that because I didn’t think “that’s it, I quit,” nor did I think “I’ll show him.” I thought that was a mean thing to say, something that was utterly independent of music aside from the fact that I’d have to suck that up if I wanted continued access to the knowledge that instructor possessed, which I did.

Which begs the question: are these two things mutually exclusive? That is, does cruel behavior negate pedagogical legitimacy or even genuine desire to see a student thrive? Can valid information only come from those who deliver it with dignity? Not necessarily, which is why this subject is complicated. It would be easier if it were a duality, but it’s important to see that these issues of pushing someone to excel and being a jerk are not interconnected in terms of cause-and-effect or even springing from the same well, but they can coexist.

There are essentially three elements that are conflated here:

1) To survive as a jazz musician, you have to be really good.

Jazz music is really hard to play at a high level, requiring a degree of devotion (as crazy as this may sound to non-musicians) not out of proportion to attorneys, doctors and other highly skilled professionals . . . except that in those other fields, employment and healthy compensation are comparatively likely. Because the jazz business is extraordinarily competitive and the finances are scarce, the degree of commitment and dues-paying required just to playing at a reliably employable professional level (i.e. to get enough gigs to eat food and sleep in a dwelling) is tremendous.

2) Young musicians need mentors both to become that good and to know if/when they’ve gotten there.

Most really accomplished jazz musicians had, during their developmental years, the mentorship of at least one key figure, whatever the setting or the degree of formality to the relationship.  A central facet of that mentorship is honest, sober assessment of the “disciple” in terms of potential, growth, work ethic and other pertinent facets of the disciple’s growth. Given all this, there inevitably has to be some “tough love” along the way in communicating ways in which the student must step up his or her work to achieve ambitious goals. Likewise, there is inevitably a degree of faith on the part of the disciple that the mentor possesses a greater degree of wisdom and objectivity about where the disciple’s skill set places him or her on the food chain; pleasing that mentor can become the mechanism by which to evaluate whether the skills are adequate.

3) Some of us are vulnerable to abusive yet charismatic authority figures.

Some people are abusive, angry and cruel. Some of those people are in positions of power. Some people “underneath” them in the hierarchy have a desire to please them. This isn’t a blog post about deep patterns of abusive relationships, but there is much documentation in the literature of psychology about the ways in which some vulnerable people long to have the approval of those who are inaccessible or (downright nasty) and the dynamics that result.

This is in a sense what was so amazing about Ted Dunbar’s relatively detached objectivity. I say “detached” not because he lacked passion or didn’t care about his students, but because it was inherently not about him. By all means it’s great when you can find a teacher who is nurturing, inspiring and deeply caring, because we all need people like that for the good of our souls. But in a perverse way the pedagogical danger there can be comparable to that of encountering the type of miscreant who is so exaggeratedly portrayed in Whiplash. That is, pleasing ANYBODY else (whether they deserve it or not) is not the point.

Trying to please a cuddly teddy bear feels a hell of a lot better than trying to please a rabid grizzly bear, but then maybe the latter feels like more of an accomplishment. All of this just diverts attention in the wrong direction, because both put the focus elsewhere. The music itself is where the truth lies. The joyless, status-obsessed student character in Whiplash was so vulnerable to that abuse in large part because he forgot (or perhaps never perceived) that. Pursuit of joy and truth through the study itself is what has driven every accomplished musician I’ve known, and with that on one’s side, even the most exaggeratedly despotic authority figure is utterly powerless.

4 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. I watched Whiplash, and while I didn’t think it was terrible, as some others I know did, I was struck by the joylessness in the music, an odd rigidity that seemed completely antithetical to what I experience when I listen to it. Maybe it was the relationship that I was reading, instead of the music.

    I can only imagine what a gifted teacher Dunbar must have been.

  2. It was the lack of soul and joylessness in the film “Whiplash” that made an impact on me. I saw shades of almost every student I knew in music school in the character of that student. In so many ways it could have been a film about anything – music, sports – but what I came away with from seeing it was just how lost both of the characters were, and how they had taken something we know to be so beautiful and meaningful and completely miss the point. Maybe I’m personally biased because I’ve had lengthy discussions with the film maker’s sister about it (and how the film is based on a teacher he had in high school) – it’s possible.

    As for Ted Dunbar, he was the best, but you know that’s how I feel about him, Noah. He was so committed to the highest power, the music. I will be forever grateful to have spent time learning from such a master.

  3. Filipe

     /  March 15, 2015

    This movie is a hoax. That or simply a parody of the typical lame hollywood sports movie… What struck me the most is how irresponsible and ultimately, condescending, it is. I would really like to know more about your discussion with the film maker’s sister!

  1. Top 10 Favorite Ted Dunbar Tracks | NOAHJAZZ – NB PONTIFICATES

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