JK Simmons drama Whiplash stormed cinemas earlier this year with its powerful depiction of a young jazz drummer whose struggle to appease an overbearing teacher pushes him to a dangerous brink. For classical pianist James Rhodes, who you might recognise from Channel 4 shows Don’t Stop The Music and Notes from the Inside, it was a dark reminder of how humiliating and torturous training to become a virtuoso can be – mobile phones were thrown at him, his face was spat on and his life became full of “pain, sweat and terror” as he mastered his instrument. Here’s his story…
I watched Whiplash initially with some scepticism, thinking it would be Hollywood doing for drum lessons what Vin Diesel has done for driving. But very quickly I realised it carried an awful echo of truth to it.
After a decade of not touching a piano, I came back to it aged 28 and through a friend found the most brilliant teacher who lived and worked in Verona. Every month I’d fly out to spend four or five days with him. The phrase “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” had never rung so true, and here’s where Whiplash, with its demonic, savage depiction of the teacher/student relationship, moves from fiction to biography.
Edo, my piano teacher, could’ve taken JK Simmons any day of the week. He knew that telling me I had talent and was going to be a brilliant, surefire success would’ve backfired horrifically. I was already lazy, self-indulgent and conceited enough. What I needed, but didn’t know I needed, was to be deconstructed and rebuilt. And he didn’t remove each brick tenderly and carefully. He shoved ten pounds of Semtex under my ass and lit the fuse. Mobile phones were thrown at me from across the room mid-performance, piano lids were slapped down missing my hands by millimetres, spit drenched my face as he shouted at me, mockery, scorn, belittlement and humiliation were daily, hourly, minute-by-minute occurrences. The three (count ‘em) times in five years I played well enough for him, I was met with a shrug and a ‘what’s next’. But Christ was it effective.
The greatest musicians make it seem so simple that anyone watching simply can’t conceive of the amount of work that goes into a performance (Gladwell’s 10,000 hours doesn’t come close). And it’s important to note this doesn’t apply just to classical music. I can’t bear the faux ‘artist shrouded in his own genius’ bullshit that many classical musicians swagger around with. Any band, any soloist, any ensemble will be painfully aware of the endless quest for perfection. And the kicker is that it is unreachable – the forty hours spent rehearsing just four bars of music is done in the hope that, with a bit of luck, the wind going in the right direction, a decent instrument and acoustic, a performance might just be be ‘good enough’ during performance.
It’s an obsession of the mind that equals some kinds of addiction. Just look at any music-mad teenager who looks themselves away for hour upon hour in their room with guitar, drum kit, logic pro, whatever. It’s a bottomless pit of searching for something unattainable, but we do it anyway because, like Andrew, Simmons’ long-suffering, tormented student did in Whiplash, there is simply no choice. He practises until he bleeds and then he practises some more because it is only that level of commitment that may lead to something approaching success. I guarantee you that he would not have come away after nailing a drum solo or winning an audition believing he’d got it right. He, and I, would be thinking how it could be improved, that there were two, maybe three notes that were a fraction of a beat behind, the timbre and sound wasn’t quite right in one spot, the gradation of the crescendo wasn’t exactly how I’d wanted it to sound, and a thousand other recrimination echoing in a void that keep us awake, terrified, driven to work harder.
Even the magnificent, close-up, extended drum-porn sequences in Whiplash don’t do the effort involved in learning a musical instrument justice. The thousands of individual elements that comprise playing even a seemingly simple piece of piano music (the infinite gradations of touch, tone, weight, breathing, volume, tempo, rubato, fingering, pedalling, voicing, the memory, posture, interpretation, dexterity, finger-independence and on and on) when combined in the right way are what make the magic happen. Edo calls this the 0.2-second rule. To you and me it’s the blink of an eye. To Lewis Hamilton it’s the difference between world champion and 4th place. And who remembers who came 4th? Talent or hard-graft can get you on stage with the chutzpah to charge for tickets, but it’s the decades spent chasing down that 0.2 seconds that elevates a musician to a genius.
Terence, Simmons’ character in Whiplash, knew this. As did Edo. Whatever it takes for as long as it takes to unearth that fraction of a second has to be the abiding principle. I’ve never found it. At least not yet. It’s highly likely it’ll remain elusive. But I’ve caught glimpses of it (just as Andrew did). That alone makes the pain, sweat and terror absolutely worth it. For all of its ups and downs, blood on the keyboard, pressure and isolation, I couldn’t imagine a better career.
Whiplash is available on Digital HD on May 18 and is out on Blu-ray & DVD on June 1.