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Answer by Henry Modisett, jazz drummer in high school and college:
I played jazz drums in high school and in college. My high school had four jazz bands with two to three drummers each. They not only competed with one another, but also went to multiple competitions against other high schools throughout the state ever year. So, I have experience being in a competitive band and competing for the No. 1 role within the band as a young drummer.
I think it’s safe to say that Whiplash is a dramatization that takes a lot of ideas to the extreme. Perhaps that qualifies it as unrealistic, but that is what makes movies interesting, so I’m not bothered by it. There are a few themes throughout this movie that I could really relate to.
I have experienced both forms of competition that the movie highlights: the band-versus-band competition and the drummer-versus-drummer competition.
Although I’ve never had an experience as intense as the main character’s at a band competition, they are certainly tense. You spend months of your life learning every measure of four songs perfectly, and it all comes down to about 20 minutes onstage. As the drummer, you are uniquely positioned to ruin everything. You can play too slow, too fast, too loud, or too quiet. You can completely miss an important hit or do it at the wrong time. If you stop playing, the whole band stops. If you play poorly, the whole band plays poorly. I remember all the intense feelings that come along with this from being nauseated to having sweaty palms and trying not to drop my sticks to making sure my music is all in the right order. I’ve dropped my sticks during a performance. It really sucks. Playing with one hand while trying to pick up your other stick is certainly a skill you develop. Hopefully the sitting drummer also helps out. I felt that the movie generally captured the feelings that come from experiences like this. Obviously the scenario in the movie was the absolute worse-case scenario, but the overall stress resonated with me.
In both high school and college, you got into the jazz bands by going to tryouts. This often involves doing things like playing different styles, playing different tempos, playing along with a recording, trading fours with someone, etc. After doing this, you were assigned a band and a spot within the band. So I was in Jazz 2 (second best band) in high school and was the No. 2 drummer in that band. The movie highlighted this dynamic pretty well, although I thought it was a little too intense. You are certainly competing with the other drummers for a literal seat, but there’s also a lot of camaraderie and mentorship that comes with it. Everyone ends up being better than the others at different things. For example I was probably a better funk drummer than a Latin drummer. That said, competing with someone is hard, and losing your spot feels terrible, while gaining a spot feels incredible. I’ve been pulled off of songs, moved to different bands, replaced other people, etc. You’re constantly being evaluated on a very raw aspect of who you are all the time—your ability to be creative, disciplined, mechanical, sharp, and strong. The highs are incredible, and the lows are terrible. I felt like the movie also captured this dynamic pretty well, even if it was simplified too much. You don’t hate the other drummers, but you are always trying to be better than them.
The movie chose the concept of drumming speed as a proxy for talent. This makes sense as a plot point because it’s very tangible for an audience of nondrummers to evaluate. It also references Buddy Rich a lot as his idol who was known for his chops. So I’m not really insulted by this artistic choice, and although it doesn’t fully encapsulate what it means to be a good drummer, it is a tangible facet of one.
Being a successful drummer requires a level of discipline that has not been asked of me by anything else I’ve personally experienced. I think the movie did a good job at illuminating this with the scenes of him drumming alone to the point where he hurt himself. I think that him bloodying his hands is certainly over the top, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t allude to something real. I’ve chewed up my hands many times from practicing too much or too hard. You often have to do the same thing over and over again to get good at it, so it’s pretty easy to hurt yourself. I also feel that they captured the frustration that comes from wanting to be better and wanting to be fast but your body won’t do what your brain says. Being a good technical drummer requires years of disciplined practice and drills, and it can be overwhelmingly frustrating to have to wait for that. You want to be good now, not in five years. You’ve been listening and analyzing forever, and you know what you want to do, but your body won’t do it. The movie really captures these feelings well.
Relationship With Director
So this was obviously the main focus of the movie, and I’ll say right away that I’ve never experienced anything that intense. I do think that band directors like Fletcher do exist and certainly inspired his character.
I’ve had a few band directors in my life who demanded a lot from me. I don’t think that I’ve ever wanted to please and impress people more than my band directors. You have a very intense and emotional relationship with them as the drummer in a big band because you are expected to be the backbone of the whole thing. The times when you do well, you are the hero. The times when you didn’t practice or don’t know the chart, you are the worst person in the world, and you are wasting everyone’s time. I’ve been berated and embarrassed many times. I don’t think my self-esteem has ever been crushed more than in a practice room because a band director called me out for doing something subpar. Being a musician is an intense experience because it’s both deeply personal, and you have to contribute to the success of a larger group. I think this combination makes being a musician unique in the category of artistic struggles. I felt that the movie captured this really well, even if it was an extreme case.
In conclusion, some of the details aren’t there and it is an unapologetic dramatization of reality but I see those things as excusable because it’s a movie! This film captured a lot of the emotional essence of what it means to be a young ambitious drummer in a competitive environment, so it really resonated with me.
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