Liebman Comments on the film ‘Whiplash’

“WHIPLASH” and its implications:

Hello to all. I have some comments about a recent movie that among jazz folks was quite controversial. Basically it’s about a young drummer who idolizes Buddy Rich and gets involved with shall I say a “demanding” teacher who tries to WHIP him into shape…(slang for getting someone to follow orders). By the way the actor who played the teacher got an Academy Award for a supporting role and I have to say he did a great job. The bottom line is that for non-musicians and especially people who are not at all educated in jazz, the movie is a joke and once again not representative at all of what we do in jazz education, or any education for that matter…..more Hollywood butchering of jazz a la “Bird” “Round Midnite” etc. (I hope the upcoming Miles movie is better!!). The movie is so ridiculous that I thought it was a satire, a comedy skit like you might see on the well-known weekly comedy show we have here “Saturday Night Live.”  But per Walter’s suggestion I would like to offer some words on the teacher/student relationship, specifically in our area of expertise.

I have always contended that the top priority for a teacher to instill in their students is “learning how to learn,” By that I mean that when a student receives information, (s)he also been guided towards how to leave the classroom and reinforce, or in our case “practice” that information leading to total absorption and hopefully with time, eventual personalization. My mantra in this regard is “if you know how to learn, you are cool for the rest of your life,” no matter what area of expertise. Not offering that information means the equation is incomplete and the teacher has not finished the job. Especially in teaching an art form where information is NOT for the most part easily learned overnight as compared to law, history, engineering, computers, etc., this aspect of teaching the means of reinforcement is even more crucial.

When I started teaching in the ‘70s (thanks to Jamey Aebersold inviting me to do a workshop), the word on jazz education was that “it can’t be taught.”  Our musical elders by and large did not readily share info (with exceptions……Dizzy Gillespie for example), out of reluctance, non-verbal skills or just keeping things secret (another discussion). On the other hand they did have nightly “learning” sessions working as much as they did. But when I saw the great Freddie Hubbard do a class in my hometown in Pennsylvania I knew that jazz education had arrived.

Can an art form be taught? Can creativity be taught? Does one “have it or not?” My contention is that the tools can be taught along with as mentioned above, the means of reinforcing the knowledge. Furthermore and especially in teaching an art form, there is the notion of sharing curiosity. What makes this music or any art form sound or look like it does (for dance, theater, sculpture, painting…..all different from music, but essentially the same in this respect). My first comment when at fifteen years old I saw Coltrane live at Birdland was: “How can that be the same instrument that I have home under my bed in Brooklyn? How can he do THAT ON THAT INSTRUMENT?  How does it all work and what can a student do to get that information.” This is where the inspirational aspect of pedagogy is essential. When done correctly, we as teachers should be doing the following:






The next stage is “mentoring”…..yet another aspect of the pedagogical process, for future discussion.