By: Rachel Weiss
The dimly-lit halls. The clusters of talkative yet slightly sleep-deprived students. Loud melodies pouring out of every door that is even just cracked open. At first glance, the fictional conservatory depicted in “Whiplash” kind of seems like Purchase.
There’s only one big, bald difference: the terrifying villain of a band director.
In this 2014 award-winning film, “Whiplash” follows freshman prodigy Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) who works his way into the top-level studio band at Shaffer Conservatory. Although he is naturally talented, this doesn’t seem to impress his instructor right away. Terrence Fletcher (phenomenally played by J.K. Simmons) is known at Shaffer for being strict, to say the very least. He claims that through his emotional and sometimes physical abuse, he painstakingly molds his musicians into the sharpest, albeit most intimidated, versions of themselves. This causes our protagonist to crack under the pressure.
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three of them, including the “Best Supporting Actor” achievement for J.K. Simmons and the “Best Film Editing” award, which went to Purchase alum Tom Cross.
So, as “Whiplash” centers on Andrew’s trials and tribulations at Shaffer, which include (spoilers ahead) a chair being hurled at him, a bloody car accident, and an incident that gives “stage fright” an entirely new meaning, all of it begs the question: how realistic is this portrayal of music school? And is this really as far as some conservatory musicians will go?
The answer is: possibly. Senior jazz drummer Eli Wilson-Berkowitz saw “Whiplash,” and while he thought some of it was “Hollywood-ized,” the rest was mostly accurate.
“I liked the movie; I thought it was inspiring,” he said. “It was kind of a feel-good thing. I thought from a musician’s perspective, it was kind of unrealistic in certain ways. Like the dude’s bleeding over his drum set. That doesn’t ever happen. And if you’re doing that, something is seriously wrong.”
Wilson-Berkowitz was unsettled by the depiction of Terrence Fletcher, but not completely skeptical of his character.
“He was an exaggeration…but there have been some really abusive band instructors,” he said. “This guy Buddy Rich, great drummer, there were videos and audio of him screaming at his band. But I think the guy in the video is more abusive than any other guy in history.”
Wilson-Berkowitz went on, “I suppose it could happen; there could be a guy that’s that abusive and there could be a band that’s so afraid that nobody stands up to him. I suppose it’s possible. But I cringed a little bit seeing that. I’ve never had [a director] even remotely close, I don’t think.”
Robert Cosgrove, a senior classical percussion major, can attest to a different conservatory experience.
“I had a teacher that basically every week before my lesson, I would stress out so much,” he said. “And I never cried, but there have been some stories of people crying. There are some things that go on in conservatories that people don’t realize. But at the same time, that’s kind of how it is. In the real world, no one’s going to be babying you. That was something we were always taught: to be professional and to always be prepared.”
Cosgrove has yet to see “Whiplash.” This past year at Thanksgiving dinner, many of his relatives warned him not to see it.
“They were like, ‘This is so freaky, it was so scary, it’s probably too close to home for you.’ So I didn’t see it and didn’t think about it for a while. But I’m actually starting to think about watching it because I’ve heard a lot of good things,” Cosgrove said.
Many Purchase musicians haven’t seen “Whiplash” yet, but whether that’s because of the content or the limited release of the film is undetermined. Even the head of Purchase’s percussion department hasn’t seen it yet. Cosgrove vowed to watch the film, but he’s still deciding whether to do it before or after graduation.
“Everyone in the conservatories are doing something they technically love to do and it’s something that’s always associated with your passions and emotions,” he said. “So obviously it’s a very emotional journey and there are some very low points and very high points, and the high points are what makes it worth it.”
Wilson-Berkowitz has a similar philosophy, and knows for certain what he’d do upon encountering anyone like Terrence Fletcher.
“If a dude’s throwing a chair at me,” he said with a sly grin, “I’m going to throw a chair back.”