Music teacher sentenced to 11 years in prison as abuse film Whiplash prepares for Oscars

By Ian Pace, City University London

Philip Pickett, a very prominent conductor in the early music world, has been jailed for 11 years for sexually attacking two pupils and a young woman. He carried out the assaults in sound-proofed practise rooms in the 1970s and 1980s.

Abuse in music education is an issue that also currently features in a very different sphere – the Oscars race. Whiplash, nominated for Best Picture at this year’s awards, is is set in the fictional New York Schaffer Conservatory, the setting of which is undoubtedly based upon the Juilliard School (and where the classroom scene is shot). We follow a student jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman, as he is driven to the edge by tyrannical teacher Terence Fletcher.

Despite relying on two-dimensional characterisation and implausible scenarios, the film makes some very pertinent points about bullying and the pervasive power games that conservatoires promote.

Recent cases

Abuse of students by teachers is a real problem in music education. The Venezuelan massive music education project El Sistema, once hailed as a social program, has since been described as “a model of tyranny”. In March 2013 Michael Brewer, a former music teacher at Chetham’s school of music was jailed for 6 years after abusing a student who took her own life during the trial; a further teacher at the school (my own conducting teacher there) was jailed for 8 months in September 2014 after admitting to sexually assaulting a student when she was a child.

Various other cases involving teachers from the school await trial at the time of writing. A series of women have come forward to attest to their abuse at the hands of former Director of Music at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the late Marcel Gazelle, while many men came forward too with horrifying stories about the late Alan Doggett, the major conductor for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and former music director at Colet Court School, following investigations by myself and The Times.

I have been involved in as a campaigner and researcher on the subject of abuse in music education for several years. I have chronicled many cases coming to light both before and after the Michael Brewer trial. I am aware of many other allegations, sometimes against very prominent musicians, throughout UK music education but also in the US, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Russia and elsewhere.

What I have seen, overwhelmingly, from having gone through an elite musical training, working as a professional musician, and also from a large amount of information disclosed privately to me, is a systematic pattern of domination, cruelty, dehumanisation, bullying and emotional manipulation from unscrupulous musicians in positions of unchecked power, of which sexual abuse is one of several manifestations.

Pure fiction?

Compare Whiplash. Terence Fletcher is very much a cartoon villain. He physically assaults and publicly humiliates his students, and fires off homophobic and anti-semitic insults like an unintentional parody of Joe Pesci in a Martin Scorsese film, or anything scripted by David Mamet.

All of which he justifies (at least outwardly) by the old lie that he is pushing students to get the best results. Any individual acting in such a blatant manner in a US or UK conservatory today would almost certainly face severe disciplinary action very quickly (in Russia or China it might be a different matter).

Few could deny that Fletcher is a vicious bully. The fact that he is a jazz rather than classical teacher, and as such less bound by conventions of bourgeois respectability, may make him superficially more plausible, but I have found that bullying musicians are often more subtle and insidious.

A more devastatingly incisive rendition – the most realistic rendition of the culture of the conservatory I have yet seen on film – is Isabelle Huppert’s portrayal of the monstrous Erika in The Piano Teacher. Erika is a bitter and twisted woman utterly unfit for teaching. She uses the language and rhetoric of musical discernment and sophistication to undermine the confidence and sense of self of those she resents and envies.

Despite being somewhat caricature-like, the nature of Fletcher’s power is portrayed with insight. Although his methods might be exaggerated, such abuse of power does regularly occur and the film should not be dismissed as entirely fictional.

Classical conservatoires

It is important to note that the conservatory environment portrayed here belongs historically to classical musicians. While jazz has occasionally been taught in such institutions ever since the first course in Frankfurt in 1928, it has remained marginal until quite recently. Juilliard, for example, first offered jazz courses in 2001 and few big names in jazz – such as Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, both mentioned in the film – had this type of musical education.

Conservatories are still strongly weighted towards classical music, and a large amount of bullying is found in this field, though it is often less obvious than that of Fletcher. Fewer volleying barrages of insults. Instead, I have found that frequently students’ inferiority is insinuated through assertions about their perceived emotional maturity or even level of sexual prowess, on the basis of their playing.

Some use personality stereotypes, based on just a few tawdry attributes, to demean and humiliate the student and flaunt their own power. In earlier times these might be overtly based upon the student’s ethnicity or social background; the difference now is simply that this is implicit rather than clearly stated.

Whiplash’s Fletcher knows just how vulnerable and desperate fledgling musicians are. He exploits this situation. Relationships, friendships or other trappings of a normal life disappear under the weight of naked ambition; other humans matter only to the extent they can further one’s career. The pressure to act in such a manner is very real in advanced musical education.

Budding musician.

Those who lose out

The rather hollow “victory” achieved at the end of the film by Neiman (in a tour de force of filming as well as playing) could be argued to have legitimised Fletcher’s treatment of him. But the lasting message is not optimistic.

We find out that a former student, Sean Casey, likely hanged himself in response to his treatment by Fletcher. This is far more striking than some of the other implausible and melodramatic plot devices. But Casey was successful, at least in the terms set out here, having found a place playing in Marsalis’s museum-piece concerts.

More important, and ignored in most portrayals of musical education, is the fate of those who do not find success. These people have sacrificed everything else in their lives. Institutions teach significantly more students than could ever find available work. And so alongside the rosters of starry names brandished in conservatories’ publicity material, their legacy is equally to be found in the other alumni who are left bereft and disillusioned.

I know of many cases, some involving those I knew at school or college, in which the legacy of such study has been chronic depression, difficulties with relationships, drink and drug abuse. This is often prompted by the terror and paranoia engendered by repeated psychological, physical or sexual abuse, as well as the cripplingly low self-esteem that can result.

For those of us lucky few who have been able to devote our professional lives to music, many factors beyond supposed talent or natural selection are involved, often beyond one’s personal control.

This throws light on the real inadequacies of both the teachers and the institutional culture. Better results, both personal and musical, could be achieved by a teaching culture founded upon co-operation and mutual support rather than aggressive competition. The learning needs of students must be prioritised above the reputations of teachers. Educational breadth is needed to enable students to flourish as whole people, not just performing machines.

But this will only happen when the musical professions take real steps to reform a brutalising and dehumanising range of practices and attitudes, the justifications for which are no more convincing than those of Fletcher.

At the star-studded Academy Awards, remember that the essence of what is portrayed in Whiplash is very real and has profound effects upon many young musicians.

The Conversation

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Stephen Hawking Congratulates Eddie Redmayne Through Facebook Message

If you’ve seen The Theory of Everything, you know that Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of iconic physicist Stephen Hawking was worthy of an Oscar, and last night the Academy came through with a best actor trophy. But, perhaps, the real award came after the Oscar telecast when Hawking left a message on Redmayne’s Facebook page.


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Complete List of 2015 Oscar Nominees and Winners

The 87th Oscar Nomination was finished last night. Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel were the lead winners of Oscars.

Actor in a Supporting Role:
Robert Duvall, “The Judge”
Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”
Edward Norton, “Birdman”
Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”
J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash” WINNER
JK Simmons

Costume Design:
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” WINNER

“Inherent Vice”
“Into the Woods”
“Mr. Turner”

Makeup and Hairstyling:
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” WINNER
“Guardians of the Galaxy”

Foreign Language Film:
“Ida,” Poland WINNER

“Leviathan,” Russia
“Tangerines,” Estonia
“Timbuktu,” Mauritania
“Wild Tales,” Argentina

Live Action Short Film
“Boogaloo and Graham”
“Butter Lamp”
“The Phone Call” WINNER

Documentary Short Subject
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” WINNER

“Our Curse”
“The Reaper (La Parka)”
“White Earth”

Sound Mixing
“American Sniper”
“Whiplash” WINNER

Sound Editing
“American Sniper” WINNER

“The Hobbitt: The Battle of the Five Armies”

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood” WINNER
Laura Dern, “Wild”
Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”
Emma Stone, “Birdman”
Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods”

Visual Effects
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
“Guardians of the Galaxy”
“Interstellar” WINNER

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Animated Short Film
“The Bigger Picture”
“The Dam Keeper”
“Feast” WINNER

“Me and My Moulton”
“A Single Life”

Animated Feature Film
“Big Hero 6” WINNER

“The Boxtrolls”
“How to Train Your Dragon 2”
“Song of the Sea”
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Production Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” WINNER
“The Imitation Game”
“Into the Woods”
“Mr. Turner”

“Birdman” WINNER

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“Mr. Turner”

Film Editing
“American Sniper”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”
“Whiplash” WINNER

Documentary Feature
“Citizenfour” WINNER

“Finding Vivian Maier”
“Last Days in Vietnam”
“The Salt of the Earth”

Original Song
“Everything Is Awesome,” “The Lego Movie”
“Glory,” “Selma” WINNER

“Grateful, “Beyond the Lights”
“I”m Not Gonna Miss You,” “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me”
“Lost Stars,” “Begin Again”

Original Score
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” WINNER
“The Imitation Game”
“Mr. Turner”
“The Theory of Everything”

Original Screenplay
“Birdman” WINNER
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Adapted Screenplay
“American Sniper”
“The Imitation Game” WINNER

“Inherent Vice”
“The Theory of Everything”

Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Birdman” WINNER

Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”
Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”
Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”

Best Actor
Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”
Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”
Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”
Michael Keaton, “Birdman”
Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything” WINNER

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”
Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”
Julianne Moore, “Still Alice” WINNER

Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”

Best Picture
“American Sniper”
“Birdman” WINNER
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”
“The Theory of Everything”

Birdman and the intoxicating alchemy of cinema

By William Brown, University of Roehampton

Birdman is awash with in-jokes, but laugh and then forget about them. And forget about the fact that Birdman is a backstage comedy set in a crappy 800-seat theatre in New York. Because this is really a film about cinema – and a searingly insightful one.

Plaudits will – from within the crucible of self-congratulation that is Hollywood – rightly go to Michael Keaton, although they could equally go to any of the other players in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s piece: Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan – maybe even Zach Galifianakis. But the star of this film, alongside New York and the witty script, is director Iñárritu and most of all, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera.

Birdman is comprised, Enter The Void-style, of multiple shots that are made to seem as though we have before us a single, unbroken, 119-minute take. Iñárritu might well invite us to contemplate the relationship between theatre and cinema – and the lingering belief that treading the boards will legitimise an actor known otherwise for schlockbusters. But as we wander in and out of the St James theatre on West 44th Street, what really comes through is how cinema can trump theatre through its central device: movement. Not movement of the players on to and off of the screen, but movement of the camera itself.

Birdman or Batman?

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor best known for his roles in the Birdman superhero films (nice casting of Keaton here, who didn’t see much success after Batman Returns in 1992). Now he is risking his whole career to produce a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He has an actress partner (Riseborough), a rehab daughter (Stone) and a best-friend producer (Galifianakis) all involved in the production, together with Broadway wannabe Lesley (Watts) and established stage star Mike Shiner (Norton).

We see rehearsals and previews, all leading up to an opening night that can be made or broken by critic Tabitha Dickinson (Duncan). Riggan also has around him two ghosts from his past: ex-wife Sylvia (Ryan), who haunts him like Marjorie haunts Mel in Carver’s title story; and, more particularly, the voice and sometimes body of Birdman himself (Benjamin Kanes).

The doubling would do Borges proud.
20th Century Fox

The film is somewhat ostentatiously called BiRDMAN. Highlighting “Bi” in this way tells us a lot. We are all plural (“bi”). We all have voices in our heads asking us questions, telling us what to do. The fact that Michael Keaton is actually Michael Douglas’s stage name in itself is weirdly appropriate then, too – the kind of doubling that would suit Jorge Luis Borges, whose Labyrinths Mike Shiner reads on his sunbed.

And so this voice, this alter-ego Birdman, tells Riggan how being a superhero movie star validates him above all these theatre fucks, while chastising him for his vanity. The inner voice also visually breaks out on to the screen as Riggan flips into fantasy sequences, meteors crashing to earth, battles breaking out and he flies around NYC, Spidey-style.

The screen is all

Birdman speaks of cinema’s capacity not just to move, but to move between fantasy and reality as if they were the same thing. Cinema’s power over society also comes through: theatre might well add gravitas and credibility to a performer, but these days no one at all is anything unless mediated by the screen, whether that be at the movies or on Twitter. The fear of being irrelevant has now become the fear of fading from our screens.

Daughter/personal assistant Emma Stone, fresh out of rehab.
20th Century Fox

Riggan asks his daughter to buy him some flowers, demanding alchemillas. A self-conscious nod to the alchemy that is cinema – which, at its best, makes something that is clearly not live seem so. You don’t script these references or get your camera to move the way that Iñárritu and Lubezki’s does without meticulous preparation. And yet the film plays out as if live – a single, unbroken sequence that moves through time in a way that defies the capabilities of the human body. Only when intoxicated can we miss a day and resurface as if no time had passed – but Birdman does precisely that on several occasions. And perhaps cinema is indeed a form of intoxication: joyful, mind-altering and pregnant with the risk of dependency.

In presenting us a continuous shot, the film performs the cinematic alchemical trick of showing that our fantasies are continuous with our reality, even if, like Riggan, we are but shadows full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The Conversation

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