still from Whiplash
Hoping To Hit a “Bird”: A Critical Analysis of the Phenomenon of Mentorship

Hoping To Hit a “Bird”: A Critical Analysis of the Phenomenon of Mentorship

The moment I saw the trailer for Whiplash, I knew that I needed to see this movie. One scene featured a fictional jazz drummer, Andrew Nyman, in a conservatory big band, with the leader counting in a number of time signatures; the drummer drags, then rushes, then drags, then rushes. The music is not easy. Nyman’s initiation into the school’s top big band is the Hank Levy tune Whiplash, which is in 14/8. Finally, the bandleader throws a chair, screams in the drummer’s face, and slaps him a number of times to illustrate the difference between rushing and dragging.

I was drawn to this movie because I saw in it my time with Fred Ho, and at the same time, it made Fred look like a saint. Fred never got physical with his students, but I saw the same intent in his instruction. My cohorts and I were a dedicated bunch; Fred’s students were his surrogate children, and he was raising us for greatness. There were a number of reasons you went and studied with Fred: You were fed up with the university system. You had an understanding and a desire to spend your life in politics, music, or both. You wanted to be molded and coerced into a force to be reckoned with. You studied with him with the understanding that Fred was not an easy person to work with, but his working style had a major track record: eight self-produced operas, upwards of twenty albums, leader of no less than six world-class jazz ensembles of varying sizes and instrumentations.

Whiplash chronicles the teaching career of Terrence Fletcher, a man whose desire to make his students great leads to what can only be described as abuse: name calling, slurs, physical force. Commentary focused on male dominance and gay jokes runs rampant throughout, but it’s an accurate portrayal of the jazz culture at large. Fletcher’s intent behind the whole thing is highlighted in his story about how Charlie Parker became “Bird” and one of the most important musicians of the 20th century: Joe Jones threw a cymbal at Parker’s head because his playing wasn’t up to par. So Parker went home, practiced, and came back one of the best saxophonists of all time—all because he got a cymbal thrown at him. Fletcher’s career can be summed up by this simple act: he goes around throwing cymbals at people’s heads, hoping to hit a Bird.

Fred never went to the extremes that Fletcher employs, but the intent was the same: he expected greatness from us, nothing less. Fred rarely gave compliments—“fine” or “adequate” was the best you usually got; if you did a really good job, you got “successful.” (I heard such a word regarding my work only three times in the four years I worked with Fred.) Much more common were the moments when you weren’t cutting it.

My favorite story to tell about my time with Fred Ho occurred during our very first lesson. In his Greenpoint apartment, at his kitchen table, Fred looked over a score of my best work while listening to the audio recording of it. He allowed for thirty seconds or so of it—this, the work I was proudest of, the work that had won some small awards and gotten me some tiny recognitions—before shutting the music off and deeming it boring. Equally crushed and enthralled, this was the moment that I pledged to myself to know Fred for as long as he would have me; I knew there was something important that Fred had to teach me. There was a limit to his time on this planet, and equal to this was his sense of urgency around his teaching. Fred was known for his rigor, and I knew that surviving his tutelage would not be easy.

still from Whiplash

J.K. Simmons as Fletcher in a still from Whiplash

I bring up Whiplash in rehearsal with my big band to get a sense of what other jazz musicians think of the movie. The reactions are varied: some have no interest, some hate it, some have harsh criticisms about the way it portrays jazz. Some, like me, love it. The reactions to the movie seem to occupy the extremes, and it sparks healthy debate among my peers. Where is the fine line between motivating someone and abusing them? Will this movie make young jazz musicians think that all you need to do to become the next Bird is work really hard, get yelled at, and practice till you bleed? Is this portrayal of the teacher-student dynamic helpful or harmful?

I don’t agree with Fletcher’s extremism, but I see in him the same intent as Fred had with his students. There’s a scene in which Fletcher tells Nyman that there’s no phrase more harmful in the English language than “good job”; what if Joe Jones had just said good job to Charlie Parker? Fred had a similar rhetoric with me and his other students. “It’s my job to push you,” Fred would say. “I want to make you great.” In a rare and vulnerable moment toward the end of his working life, Fred once thanked me for seeing the larger picture of this and never complaining about his demeanor or intensity.

Having experienced an intense relationship with my mentor makes me conscious of the good ends of this but also allows me the understanding that this dynamic is not to be abused. My time with Fred led to a greater understanding of my own limitations and how to push beyond them, and a transformation of my whole self and my musicianship. Those four years of my life were never easy, spotted with 11-hour stints at my writing desk, scrawling note after note on oversized manuscript paper until my hands would cramp. I happened to benefit greatly from Fred’s presence in my life (never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be leading his big band), so I find the fictional portrayal of such a relationship, however extreme and for better or worse, refreshing. I look at the film and see myself, a few years ago: bright eyed and bushy tailed, hungry for whatever knowledge Fred believed I deserved to learn on a given day.

I am on the other side now: the time I put in with Fred was well worth it. He has been gone for almost a year now, and I still hear his Fred-isms in my mind’s ear when I know I’m not pushing myself as hard as I can or should. Perhaps the greatest gift Fred gave me is a sense of self-motivation, so that when he was no longer here in physical form to push me I could still find my way forward, trusting in the passion and impetus he’d instilled in me during our time together.

And still, my favorite moments with Fred are the ones when my weaknesses showed, the ones when he forced me to push past an instant of discouragement to find myself stronger and more resilient than I’d ever imagined. They are the stories that capture the essence of Fred: the unquenchable fire in his heart, the love he reflected in his eyes but never his mouth. I tell them like private jokes now, because I know that choosing to study with Fred meant stepping into a proverbial boxing ring with him and saying, “Don’t go easy on me.”

I tell with affection the story of the time I conducted a recording session with Fred’s Green Monster Big Band, and he turned to me in front of the whole band and told me to stop being so stiff, you’re like a human metronome. I remember it fondly because I know that in that moment he was right: Fred had taught me that my job as the conductor was to catalyze greatness in the musicians, and I just wasn’t cutting it. I usually follow that story with the time that he listened to a live recording of one of my big band works and called my ostinato bassline “interminable.” He was in hospice by then, a hint of the old Fred shining through with a harsh assessment from his spot lying on his death bed. I went home with conflicting feelings of defeat and relief; I’d worked really hard on the piece, but it was miraculous to have just another moment with the critical genius I had grown to love. When I finally sat down to edit the piece, I found that Fred was right – the next time we performed it, I saw a major improvement, and it’s now one of the works that I’m proudest of.

So I have a visceral reaction to Terrence Fletcher: I love the way he throws Andrew Nyman into the proverbial deep end of the pool and dares him to swim. It’s the same dare Fred challenged me with over four years ago, and it’s been one of the most beautiful struggles of my life.

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3 thoughts on “Hoping To Hit a “Bird”: A Critical Analysis of the Phenomenon of Mentorship

  1. Michael Robinson

    Wonderful passion and detail here. The story about Charlie Parker and Jo Jones is very famous, of course, but I wonder if the throwing of the cymbal was due not only to simple incompetence, but also the inklings of a new musical conception, which unnerved Jones as well. If so, Bird may have realized this, and his subsequent chilla was not just about becoming a previously unimaginable virtuoso, but also placing his precious invention of a new musical form in a casing impervious to any question or doubt.

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  2. LA

    When a talented student with a sensible character would get such a teacher, he probably would spend more time being afraid of his teacher, thinking about him and his humor/reaction, instead of concentrate on his instrument. For this reason , and like there is talented students with sensible character, I consider this way of teaching horrible. Not at all about fun to play music. Maybe the film is just to be seen just as one more hollywood production (-bullshit), entertainment. New kind of action move?

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  3. jazzfritatta

    The cymbal was not thrown at Parker ‘ s head. I have been a student of very tough teachers, but none ever would even consider putting me in physical danger. That’s not teaching. That’s abuse…an ego trip. (What do abusers say? You would be nothing if not for me kind of stuff…that’s too far and it’s bullshit). Pushing is good yes, but actual fear and mind games do harm and are antithetical to creativuty. Great teachers/musicians know this. If any of you out there are ever treated like this rage a holic, notify the authorities and get out of their fricken studio.

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