Ask a Juilliard Professor: How Real Is Whiplash?

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Damien Chazelle's Whiplash stormed its way into theaters last weekend with a militaristic take on jazz musicians, their mentors, collaborators, and ambitions. Although Chazelle has said much of the inspiration for the film came from his very real high-school experiences, elements of the film were heightened for dramatic purposes. "My teacher was a little less of a monster," he said at the film's East Coast premiere. "I was in a very competitive jazz band that toured around the world, and the teacher modeled it after college programs and professional programs. It was a climate of fear and tough love, and I just remember feeling those emotions of anxiety and stress and anguish as a drummer, and I wanted to make a movie about what that felt like." Vulture consulted Mark Sherman — a multi-instrumentalist and international performer who also serves as a jazz faculty member at The Juilliard School, New Jersey City University, and the New York Jazz Workshop — about what should be considered fact and what should be considered fiction. (Mild spoilers for the movie follow.)

1. There's blood, but it's not that bad.
"You know how the drummer is so frustrated and scared, and his desire to succeed is so strong? He's practicing, really trying to get faster and faster, and he's drawing blood. That's unrealistic. People don't draw blood like that, playing music. It just doesn't happen, and if you do, you're holding the sticks wrong. You're screwed up technically if you're drawing blood. I've never seen anyone draw blood. I used to draw blood on the vibes a lot, because the mallets are being held between your fingers. Sometimes I would play loud and break a callus. Popping calluses, breaking blisters."

2. That's not really how you practice drums.
Some of the things the drummer was practicing were not really things you'd want to practice. When Andrew was drawing blood, for example, he was playing the single strokes so fast and for so long. They were trying to show how deep Fletcher had hurt him and how much the kid wanted it, but practicing like that in and of itself is psychotic and insane.

3. Sure, there's pressure at music schools, but come on!
As I watched the movie, I thought two things: This kid Andrew is going to come to practice with a gun. Then, he's going to shoot the guy. The whole way, I thought it was going to be a statement on the type of stuff that's happening in schools today, where a kid comes in with a machine gun and blows everybody away. Either that, or I thought the kid would commit suicide. It makes me feel bad that people are being led to believe that trying to get a career in music or jazz ... this is what you got to go through. I teach at a place like Juilliard, which is top-tier, and a lot of these kids are under a lot of pressure, yes. But not that kind of pressure. The pressure, ultimately, is the pressure you put on yourself, to survive and succeed in the industry.

4. Fletchers do exist, but they're not that cruel.
I know some people — and I don't want to mention names — but [one] was the director of jazz studies at one of the schools I taught at. He's not there anymore because he retired. He was a guy who, in the big band rehearsals, used to turn a lot of kids and teachers off by calling them "assholes" and "stupid idiots." Not screaming it at the top of his lungs, but using words like that. Even that little bit of verbal badgering was enough to get people to be unhappy. I could see why that would turn a young aspiring player off. Of course, then there's a lot of reproaches. You could say, "The tough only survive, you got to be tough," or "If you can't take this shit, you'll never make it out there." Well, there's part of that that's true, but I don't think that's the way to show it or teach it. This type of mental and verbal abuse, borderlining on physical, is taken so seriously that he'd be thrown out of Juilliard and most schools no matter how great he was. If Wynton Marsalis, who's my boss here at Juilliard, did that — called kids "cocksuckers" and badgered kids like that — he'd be thrown out.

5. Lessons do go awry if students are unprepared — it's just not as terrifying.
My expectation, particularly of the Juilliard students, is to follow the rules here: Lateness and absences count in a big way. My expectations are: Show up on time, with the work I've assigned to you prepared, and/or more. If a kid comes into a lesson and they haven't prepared their lesson properly, we don't need to sit here and watch them practice. So we might say, Okay, you practice and I'm going out for a cup of coffee. I'll be back in 20 or 40 minutes and see where you're at.

6. Yes, the standards are extremely demanding.
I expect my students to be like I was when I was their age. I used to practice about six or seven hours a day, go to all the classes and orchestra rehearsals. It was 14 hours a day in this school thing every day for five years. And for that, you get a little career. I used to enter the building at 8 a.m. and leave at 11:30 p.m. That's all I did for five years, when I went to school here. You want to get good at something, you do it hard for ten years. Practice perfectly for ten years, and you'll have what you want — that's how you get to the next level.

7. For some, it's true, music can be a solitary career.
That part [in which Andrew breaks off with his girlfriend to chase his dreams] is a valid point. The commitment that it takes to play music is like any other art form. The commitment of trying to be a master of jazz's poetic language is an addiction, just like a drug, and there can be very little room for a social life. Some kids here can’t find a balance. That’s a reality; there are lots of people like that. You become a hermit from practicing so much. But you know what? The guys who stay in here for ten hours a day? Those are the ones who come out on top a lot of the time.

8. The movie's end is real and raw.
I actually cried at the end, when the kid was kicking ass in the last tune. And the most important thing about that scene is maybe what the band director was trying to get out of all the students from the very beginning — my take on it, at least — which is he's trying to teach them to be leaders like he is. And at the very end, Miles Teller says, "I'll cue you." He's the leader now.