About the movie Whiplash and jazz education

A couple weeks ago I sent Richie Beirach a YouTube clip from the movie Whiplash as a bit of levity. It was the scene where the teacher in the film Fletcher berates that poor trombone player for being out of tune. Spoiler alert: He’s not out of tune and Fletcher knows it but was using him as an example for his own perverted sense of teaching.

Richie is fond of taking occasional potshots at the trombone, all in good fun as ribbing of me. So, I was surprised by his anger at the clip. He knew of the movie but had never seen it. Seeing that clip set off a bunch of spirited dominos that would fall leading him and I to create a written piece on jazz education.

Richie has taught privately and within music schools his entire professional life including the Mendelssohn School in Leipzig Germany for 15 years. As you would expect, he takes the profession of teaching jazz very seriously, so seeing the glorification of a monster like Fletcher in a popular movie put him over the top.

He called me later that day and said, “I want to write something to express my opinion about this horrible film.” So we fired up the printing press and got to work.

The piece we just finished is not just a criticism of the film but in fact, most of it is Richie’s thoughts and guidance on effective and motivational jazz education.

If you haven’t yet seen the film, our 3,500-word essay will spoil a couple of the scenes, so be warned.

Feel free to download the piece by clicking the image below.


If you like what we’ve said in the piece, please share the 14-page PDF with friends and colleagues.

And feel free to comment on your thoughts about the film.

29 thoughts on “About the movie Whiplash and jazz education”

  1. Hollywood rarely gets musicians. Musicians are often portrayed as substance-abusing geniuses that somehow create spontaneously with no practice, preparation or work. In the eyes of Hollywood, musicians show up to a studio or venue and everything magically appears. Couple this with the lack of music education in this country (as well as many other countries), and the myth feeds upon itself. ‘Whiplash’ simply put, insists that in order for the education of a musician to be effective, it must be violent.

    1. Luciano, I totally agree with what you saying. I think it’s because the true working creative artist’s life is not nearly as glamourous or dramatic as depicted in those shitty movies, the hours years and decades of concentrated hard work on your instrument and composing all the time doesn’t fullfill the dreams and fantasies of the lay public who wants its artists to be radically different from the normal hardworking person. The reality lacks color and excitement to many of the producers who make decisions about which scrirpts become movies. When a producer and director go to the big movie studios like Warner Universal, etc., those executives know nothing about the subjects of the movies and ONLY LOOK AT THE BOTTOM LINE. Sex, conflict, violence, and bullying in all its forms of cruelty appeal to the public, especially in already dummed down America.

      So, you are right. Hollywood rarely gets musicians, artists, poets, and especially jazz musicians

      1. Remember, the actor speaks the lines on the page. Don’t blame the messenger , he has very little control of the material. He’s a laborer, a sideman, like most of us. FYI reminder that’s all.

  2. This goes well beyond musicians. More and more we see people embracing virtual worlds and, by default, eschewing reality. Why learn music when you can so easily fall victim to some monster like Fletcher. It is a lot safer to play Guitar Hero than to aspire to the high standards of creativity set by our great musical artists. The question we need to deal with is how to encourage students to strive for excellence, not how to discourage them in some misinformed attempt to set impossible standards that even the educators cannot achieve.

  3. I always thought this movie was misleading to put it lightly! Glad to read your similar thoughts on it. It still surprises me that some people rate this as a good film when it seems so obviously a parody of the worst kind of abusive teaching style. I remember watching it till the end waiting for the director to expose the teaching for what it was but the great reveal never came!

  4. I hated the movie, and I simply love Richie’s reply. It confirms what I always thought, and the similar replies I gave when people asked me about the film. It’s not a case that he and Dave Liebman are the foremost influences in my musical life.
    Thank you Mike for this. Your work is invaluable.

    1. Massimo!! Is that you bro?? We hung out in Copenhagen for a week at the jazz school with Lieb and QUEST ?? over 40 years ago. I remember you. You were a drummer and so kind to us. You had a wonderful wife too, very kind.

      Hope you are doing well my friend.



      1. Richie! yes, we spent a lot of time together back in the ’80s in Copenhagen with you, Lieb, Jabali, and Ron. I surely miss those days together. Hope we’ll have a chance to meet again! Thank you again for all you have taught me. Stay safe, my friend.

  5. When I was at Berklee, there was not a soul there who was anything even remotely like Fletcher. On a harshness scale from 0 to 100, where 100 is Fletcher, I can’t recall ever meeting a “2” or higher. The strictest, most no-nonsense teacher I ever had there was still laid-back to the point of falling over — he loaned me his $10,000 tuba for a year, and came over to my apartment once for a wine party (this was back when the drinking age was 18) — a supremely cool guy, like literally everyone else there.

    I just don’t think a character like Fletcher could exist (for long, at least) in a music school setting, particularly an elite music college, where some of the students are as good or better than the teachers. I guess there could be some justification to teaching, say, a karate class the way Fletcher conducts a big band, since part of mastering karate is remaining calm under the pressure of a physical attack, but that’s about it. Fletcher seems very much a standard movie villain rather than a depiction of an actual jazz musician.

  6. I also went to Berklee 65-70 with Richie and agree with his comments. I have played and taught all over the world and have never seen a teacher like Fletcher I don’t believe in teaching like that. if anything to bring the best out of a student you have to encourage them not put them down. The writer of this file had no idea of what He was doing. I did like what the drummer did at the end of the film.

  7. As a jazz fan and music student, from the first time I thought the film was horrible, not only because the character of the teacher, also because of all the stupid topics about jazz. I didn´t even like the election of Buddy Rich as the epitome of great jazz drummers.

    1. Sergio, the film IS horrible. I agree about the really dumb ass topics about so called jazz in the movie. I grew up with the great opportunity to hear LIVE RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME TRANE QUARTET, MILES QUINTETES, BILL EVANS TRIO, OSCAR TRIO and many more great real jazz SMALL GROUP BANDS. Buddy Rich WAS A GREAT BIGBAND DRUMMER cause he had a sense of extremely powerful DRIVE AND ENERGY in his time feel, but he was a very bad asshole unnessarrarily humiliating his sidemen in front of everybody. He LIKED to hurt people and was a nasty hitler stlyled band leader. I can’t deny his excellence in his narrow big band drummer field, but I played with him in a small after hours jam session in a hotel lobby once. He was horrible heavy and flat flooted with no swinging at all.

      But here is the thing. The really great jazz drummers like JACK DEJOHNNETTE, JABALI BILLY HART, AL FOSTER, ELVIN JONES, ROY HAYNES, ADAM NUSSBAUM, AND TONY WILLIAMS would NEVER EVER TREAT THEIR BANDMATES OR ANYBODY LIKE BUDDY RICH OR FLETCHER IN THAT MOVIE. The global jazz community is small. We try to take care of each other and especially OUR STUDENTS who will be THE FUTURE OF THE JAZZ ART FORM.

  8. Producers make movies to make money. They probably made a lot a money on this one and did not even consider if they are going to offend teachers of any subject. I ending up watching because non musician friends said it was good movie. I have seen it 2x’s my first time and my last time. It was totally unrealistic and way over the top but apparently a lot people were entertained and the movie received high marks in the movie industry. JK Simmons is towering talent but in the long run the movie and whatever message they wanted to send will be long forgotten.

    1. dear bill ,alot of people voted for hitler too ,,it doesnt matter that non musician friends liked the movie ,it was NOT a good movie ,,it was based on a COMPLETE AND HORRIBLE LIE ,,that cruelty intimidation bullying and hurtful methods are THE WAY TO INSPIRE GREATNESS IN TEACHING A STUDENT JAZZ DRUMMING or ANY SUBJECT the movie received very wide accliam and unfortunately WILL BE REMEMBERED BECAUSE IT REWARDED JK SIMMONS AN ACADEMY AWARD the movie industry which shall we say has the morality of a garden snake will of course give high marks to anything that sells tickets ,,most of the really big hits are taken from MARVEL COMIC BOOKS ,,not a very high bar is it ?? thanks for your comments


  9. total POS movie. watched part of it and then vowed never to see the rest of it. i haven’t and i won’t. very interested to read with RB has to say. thanks for sharing…

  10. While I totally agree with everything that is being pointed out about the instructor no one wants to talk about the student. In my opinion the student was just as FU as the teacher was and in a sense was the perfect student for him. and I think the teacher recognized that. I think that if this particular student went on to become a jazz educator he would turn into exactly the same type of instructor

    1. Derick, I agree completely. The student drummer in the movie was a total competitive asshole and was partly responsible for taking all that hideous abuse in the first place. He should have left the class after the first attack from Fletcher and gone directly to the director of the music department and get that prick fired.

      But, what can i say?? Hollywood feels it NEEDS THE VERBAL AND PHYSICAL ABUSE so there it is.

      Thanks for your comments


  11. I totally agree with Richie. When I saw the movie I was horrified. Being a teacher for close to 60 years, I have never treated students and would never treat students like that. My only disagreement with Richie is how Chet Baker embarrassed him on the bandstand. Having my own groups since I was 15, I would never do what Chet did. He could have whispered in his ear the same thing and got the same result and Richie would have remembered it.
    I had the same experience in 1977 while working in a club. The singer had a tendency to sing out of time and her intonation was awful. On this particular night when she was bad she said something over the mike blaming me for her a awful performance. After the set I went up to her husband who was the leader and conductor and said, ” tell your wife that I can play out of time for her, but not out of tune”.
    The next night there was another guitarist in the audience watching the show and at the end of the week I was fired, which was alright with me.

    1. don ,,thanks for your comments ,,well concerning chets behavior ,,,i can only say that he had a plan to GET MY FULL ATTENTION and right after as i say in my article he came to me smiling and full of love telling me what he tried to accomplish ,,at the time it was a shock ,,but sometimes a shock works ,,the difference was that chet was a sensitive loving guy who really dug my playing but he didnt want to wait ,fletcher was in his character in the movie a total asshole and intentional soul destroyer ,i was fine after that and actually better than fine caused i learned a musical life lesson about personal dynamics and that i cannot vforget to remembver that heavy world masters like chet stan bill miles and trane plus michelangeli and rubenstein have a level of sensitivity way beyond us mortals

  12. I played violin when I was a child. I loved playing music and being in the orchestra. When I got to HS, the teacher thought he could inspire children to play better by screaming at them. I didn’t mind when he yelled at the orchestra, but in my lessons, he stood over me and screamed. It got so I could no longer hold the violin because my hands were shaking, so I quit. Now in my 60s I am learning sax and playing jazz. I have seen bad teachers like this throughout my career (I am a medical school professor). Luckily there are fewer teachers like this now. Yelling, berating, and embarrassing your students does not provide motivation for them. The kind of intrinsic motivation that Charlie Parker had did not come from that incident with the cymbal. It came from within him.

    1. Hey Alice, how are you doing with your sax playing?? BTW, Mike Lake has some great learning aids in the form of his books and courses.

      It’s great that you survived that moron bully teacher. You are probably a very organized and disciplined person if you have reached the level of being a professor and teaching in a medical school. There are alot of things that I believe CAN be taught in jazz like technique, intonation, composition, etc. But there are many IMPORTANT THINGS THAT CANNOT BE TAUGHT LIKE FINDING YOUR PERSONAL SOUND ON YOUR INSTRUMENT OR BEING ABLE TO SWING AND PLAY YOUR PHRASES WITH A GREAT SENSE OF RHYTHMIC FLOW but that’s true of any art form.

      So good luck with your studying and playing, and keep the joy of doing it like you are!!


  13. Y’all need to take a couple of deep breaths on this one; it’s a MOVIE for chrissakes, not reality! If you want to see what real music educators do, watch a documentary! This is taking a certain tendency that SOME music educators (and musicians; I’m looking at you, Buddy Rich!) sometimes have and running with it to its almost absurd end. It’s a piece of fiction, drama, and in that vein I think it succeeds very well. J.K. Simmons’ performance is incredible, as any good cinematic or theatrical performance should be, but as a villain, pure evil! He deserves that Academy Award, in my opinion! Does anyone really believe that all these super hero movies are real? This is the same thing, though in the opposite direction, and in territory that hasn’t been mined yet, at least cinematically. I have no personal experience with music schools or with the jazz scene in New York, but from what I’ve heard from people that do, there is a competitive mentality there that can sometimes get ugly. This movie just takes that to it’s extreme, and for me at least it was enthralling.

    I also agree with the person who felt that Chet Baker’s embarrassing Richie over mike on a gig was too extreme. Someone with somewhat less of Richie’s fortitude could easily have been seriously derailed. To me, this is on the same continuum as Fletcher in Whiplash, albeit way on the other end. Also, my main problem with the portrayal of jazz musicians in film (Bird, Round Midnight, etc.) is that it always seems to be raining! Were there never any sunny days?

    Anyway, that’s just me. Others may (and obviously do!) disagree!

    1. Hey clyde, you think its just a movie huh, and I should LIGHTEN UP ?? Well, in our culture movies have definitely SHAPED PUBLIC OPINION, especially movies that get the ACADEMY AWARD exposure. Clyde, think back to the movies like THE GODFATHER didnt that totally nail the truth about the ITALIAN MAFIA IN AMERICA?? EVERYBODY SAW THAT MOVIE and it shaped their opinion of Italians!! Not that people thought all Italians are evil, but it did add to the perception. Think about BONNIE AND CLYDE or THE DEER HUNTER AND APOCALYPSE NOW AND PLATOON in terms of capturing the essence of the vietnam war!!! You are wrong my friend that this has no cultural effect!! MOVIES CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE IN THE PERCEPTION OF A SUBJECT, like you say why is it always raining in the jazz movies?? Listen to what you wrote in your comment that you know nothing about jazz schools and education and have never been to NYC. Well, I am here to tell you that people walking out of that movie THINK THAT FLECTHER’S METHODS WORK AND THAT IT’S OK TO HUMILIATE, ABUSE, BULLY, AND TRY TO DESTROY THOSE POOR MUSIC STUDENTS !! NO !! Thats not the way to teach anybody anything other than the US Navy SEALS or those amazing commandoes of the US DELTA FORCE!! BTW,I knew Buddy Rich and played with him a few times. He was a gigantic asshole with a terrible ego problem. He was a brilliant big band drummer but HIS EVIL NASTY SHIT WAS NOT NECESSARY FOR HIM TO BE A GREAT DRUMMER !!

      Of course movies have and should have artistic license to change a story for the benefit of transfering a great novel to adapt to the screen, but again, THE AUDIENCE DOESNT KNOW SHIT ABOUT JAZZ EDUCATION AND IT’S NOT THEIR FAULT IF THEY WALK OUT OF THE THEATER WITH THE IMPRESSION THAT CRUELTY WORKS AND THAT INTIMIDATION GETS RESULTS FROM MUSICIANS. NO, it’s not true and it’s hurtful to future musicians.

      Regarding what you said aboout Chet, I understand how you could think what he did to me was similar to Fletcher. However, Chet simply wanted to get my attention, which he did, but right after the set, he came over to me and hugged me. It was momentatary but Fletcher’s abuse was non-stop. Finally, I want to reiterate, this movie does serious damage in the public eye of how a great jazz music educator teaches.

      With all respect to you Clyde, I’LL NEVER LIGHTEN UP !!


      1. Hey Richie; I’ll guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one! I actually know a lot about NYC and the “NY State of Mind; “ I grew up there.

  14. I know some people will watch this movie and realize that it gets it totally wrong. I will never understand the use of anger, violence, disregard for other humans, etc. as a form of entertainment. And yet it is PERVASIVE. And we wonder why we are shooting school children and watching so many people die from COVID. Makes it look like we don’t care. And maybe we don’t. I would prefer to spend my time watching the Clark Terry documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On”. You know, reality, not some fictionalized account of made up characters. Why waste any time celebrating violent people when we can obtain knowledge about the people who have made the world a better place? Hm? No reason to watch Whiplash so I haven’t.

    1. William, hey thanks for your comments. I agree with your feelings about use of violence in teaching or anything. It is pervasive. I do however, disagree with your suggestion NOT to watch the movie and I will tell you why. I too reacted with disgust and anger while watching it and I did turn it off. But then I realized some simple but important things. YOU MUST KNOW YOUR ENEMY BETTER THAN HE KNOWS HIMSELF IF YOU WANT TO EVENTUALLY DEFEAT HIM. Of course it’s not a war and there is not just one enemy. But since I personally felt the need to express myself in writing publicly about how much i hated the movie and WHY i felt COMPELLED to see the whole ugly upsetting mess
      I’m glad I watched it because it allowed me to criticize the movie with even more specific instances of that jazz terrorist Fletcher!

      There are great devoted jazz educators out there. I know a bunch of them. The scumbag film industry powers will NEVER make a movie about THEM unfortunately because that movie would not have the conflict, cruelty, and violence they think they would need to sell popcorn and tickets.



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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, marketer, & tech guy

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