In Whiplash, Miles Teller plays Andrew, an obsessive music conservatory student in New York who practices drumming until his hands bleed. Throughout the critically praised film, now in theaters, Andrew endures cruel insults — and the odd chair — hurled by his abusive yet talented instructor, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons.
Tim Monaghan can relate. The New York percussionist got his BFA in contemporary jazz drums in 2008 from The New School in the city where he still resides. And while he didn’t have to duck furniture, Monaghan had his share of tough teachers. Now finishing his Master’s degree in music education, Monaghan keyed Yahoo Movies in to how well Whiplash depicts the world of a music conservatory student:
What did the film really get right about music school?
Oddly, the solitude of the practice room rang most true to me. I spent six to eight hours a day in the practice room to make up for years of experience my fellow drummer schoolmates had on me. In the practice room, I never felt satisfied.
How harsh was your toughest teacher?
One of my first drum teachers at school was a veteran drummer that played with many of the greats in the 1960s, including Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. He was never considered a giant, however, and I think that left him relatively embittered. During our first lesson together, when I asked him the question “How can I swing more?” he replied, “You can’t. You’re a white, and white guys just can’t swing. But you can try.” This was very off-putting and discouraging, as you can imagine. I also had a teacher who screamed and yelled profanities at his students in his ensemble, much like J.K. Simmons’s character. Many students did leave his rehearsals in tears, but it was the hottest, sharpest, hardest-to-get-into ensemble at the school.
Have your hands ever bled from playing too hard?
NO. WAY. I was taught by almost all my drum teachers that when it starts to hurt, that I should just stop playing. Playing through pain causes serious, often irreparable injury. However, I have played a couple handfuls of gigs that left me with blisters on my fingers afterward. These typically happen when I am playing really hard, super-loud, super-physical music — but only when I haven’t rehearsed that specific style of music in a while. The bleeding depicted in the film is totally unrealistic, though it sure did have great dramatic effect.
Anything else stand out as inaccurate?
My school did not have ensembles that entered any kind of competitions. Rather, the development of one’s personal musical identity and artistry was the primary focus of my jazz education. There was much freedom in terms of the individual musical direction each student could take for the remainder of the program.
Thumbs-up for the movie?
I loved the film. It painted a thrilling picture of what it can be like to be a drummer at a very high level, something that hasn’t really been explored dramatically on film.
Miles Teller: Best movie drummer actor ever?
He did a really excellent job as a movie drummer/actor. He’s a better actor than a drummer, and I was thoroughly impressed with his “lip-syncing” drumming. As an actual jazz drummer, I could tell that he wasn’t really playing what we were hearing in the film, but nobody else could. He was great.
Photo credit: Viktor Miloslavsky/Sony Pictures Classics (Monaghan is pictured, left, and Teller, right)