Music is a Demonic Mistress in Whiplash


My grandfather died when I was ten. I don’t remember much of him other than what others have spoken of him, that he was a piano tuner and a musician that taught and cajoled all of his 7 sons (not his one daughter) to play an instrument, two of whom were later professionals. I was told he was a gentle and kind man, soft spoken in juxtaposition to his louder more vociferous “witchy” wife, as characterized by an oft chastised daughter in law, my mother. The one lasting memory I have of him, Julius, Isidore prior to immigrating from Russia as his wife’s brother, is a cello lesson he gave me one summer afternoon of a rare visit to our Long Island home.

Though he and my grandmother lived merely a half hour’s distance away, we traveled to their Farmingdale home most visits. My father was the last of the seven boys, so his parents were older grandparents vis a vis my family and thus we traveled to them. On this one visit to our home, my grandfather, as ever interested in family musical progress (all four siblings and I played an instrument), decided to see for himself and sat me down for a listen. I remember his stern, disapproving look as I muddled my way through a piece I was learning for the school orchestra, probably some Muller-Rush simple exercise piece disguised as a song. Those were the days of music lessons and orchestras in elementary school, when instruments were offered in third grade at which time I was appointed the cello due to my long fingers despite my request to play violin. I had only been playing for a couple of years then and had not started the private lessons that I would have the following year, despite my family’s limited budget.

He was aggressive. He shook his head in decided disapproval, got up from his seat and pushed my fingers all about the neck of the cello, pressing down on the forefinger up high and stretching the ring finger down low and absolutely smashing my pinky. Then he jerked my bow arm from the elbow up to place it properly from his perspective, which strained my neck and torqued my hand whose fingers were being smashed into the neck of the now source of torture, formerly my cello, as used by this draconian musician. He instructed me in something barely conceivable as English worsened by his frustration, “Do dees, now dees, like dees!” He muttered in Russian probably.

Since I was ten and was not well versed in Russian, Hebrew, Latvian, Polish, German or other languages my grandparents spoke, hell I was barely fluent in English at 10, I had always felt distant from my grandparents who were adoring enough, calling me pet names like Pamaluchkala and ochichonya (dark eyes), and teasing me with the yiddish equivalent of ugly girl and then smiling and calling me the opposite. They made me nervous, however. I didn’t understand them. That cello lesson did not help matters. I was nervous about playing in front of anyone let alone an exacting musician who spoke little English. If I had any talent or education in the instrument, none of it was going to show under those conditions.

Recalling that experience still elicits a frown to my face, sadly the only recollection of my grandfather, who was a receding character compared to the imposing figure that was my grandmother in stature and voice. That memory still conflicts with the one or two video preservations of some 35 mm film of him, my grandmother and extended family at their house. He always looked gentle, smiling, and composed. Was it the music that brought out the demon in him, the child abuser that plowed over the slightest sensibilities of a child not taking into account the damage he may have done to that child’s love for and thereby development in the instrument?

That question of the madness in the musician besieged me, awakening my grandfather memory and provoked a long look at my musical endeavors, after seeing the movie Whiplash recently. The movie in pinpoint precision well casted acting and unlikely thriller momentum (my glutes hurt afterward) presents the outermost limits of the innermost determinants of personal achievement through mastery of a musical instrument, here the drums: monomaniacal focus of the musician, the demented exactitude and sadism of the teacher torturously beating greatness out of his students, and the Odyssean journey of the student musician into Hades to learn the truth: Am I capable of greatness?

The movie was truly well done, especially the nuanced acting of Miles Teller, the aspiring Buddy Rich, and J.K. Simmons, the complex, somewhat deranged professor. So much of the movie occurred in their faces, that subtle twitch, stare or glint. As is often the case after seeing a movie of such caliber that it lingers in my mental limbs the next day, I wanted to read more about the movie, reviews and such.

Serendipitously, I came across this quote by renowned American conductor Leonard Slatkin on my morning travels through the net: “Ultimately, music is a possessive mistress.” I read this and immediately thought about the scene (SPOILER ALERT!) in which Teller brilliantly and brutally spells out to his girlfriend in a great detailed cause and effect chain of prognostications why he cannot maintain a relationship, which, without spoiling too much, amounts to the essence of Slatkin’s quote. There just isn’t much time for other passions when one consumes so absolutely, burns so powerfully inside that all thought and action is that passion or tied to it in some way. All else is peripheral. One eats to keep the engine able to execute for the sake of the art.

Whether my grandfather broke my art or I just wasn’t good or passionate enough, I gave up playing the cello seriously by my junior year in high school, the year I delved deeper into the world eschewed by obsessively driven musicians, artists, actors, and anyone with the monomania to pursue greatness: a social life. Now I pick up the cello or the guitar, which I later tinkered with, when the mood strikes me. I like it that way. The small suffering of frustration and yearning for skillful music making, that lifelong itch, falls far short, even in amassed decades, of the inconceivable agony in attaining greatness: the innumerable hours, indomitable doubt and suffocating insecurity for a payoff that may turn out to be no more than a less than stellar roster of achievements.

Sounds a lot like the trials and tribulations of the writer, who must likewise be owned by a “possessive mistress” if she wants to be the next something to read on a list somewhere. Or be content to dabble to her heart’s compromised content. The only writing whisperers of the J.K. Simmons kind that writers withstand are their own tormenting demons. They have to find their own motivation for distinction in a sado-masochism of their own making.

5 Replies to “Music is a Demonic Mistress in Whiplash”

  1. Reading of your Grandfather’s sternness, that was the European method, it’s real business. I myself can be stern when it comes to music, but he was surely a bit too rough with you, perhaps a way of showing he truly cared for you, wanting to show you a bit of himself in a rare moment. There is love in it, but it’s got some thorns on it for sure.
    The commitment of an instrument? To me there is no such thing, you are the instrument, it’s your language, it’s your muse more than mistress as musician, the very word invokes that connection with the evoking of spirit and emotion.
    One thing I have never been able to understand in life are friends who walk away from their instrument after years of following the path, having the talent, and just walking away… Good Article!

  2. “They have to find their own motivation for distinction in a sado-masochism of their own making.”

    I agree with Jim completely. Yes, at some point beyond their adolescence an artist will have to find their own motivation. But those who do find that motivation do so because they willingly choose to do so. They don’t think of it as a sado-masochist pursuit. For them it is a joyous journey with the Muse by their side. I play because the Muse and me are in love, not because she is a cruel and calculating mistress who won’t let me go to live “my life”. I think musicians who do pursue greatness or even just to make a decent living playing do so for the LOVE of playing and not the sacrifice of another, different life. They wouldn’t be happy in a different life! That life for them would be the mistress who won’t let them go.

    1. I agree to some extent, though the pursuit of greatness, I maintain, is a dedication that excludes much of what else takes up time, excluding prodigies, I suppose. It’s not just the practice hours, but the hours spent doubting “the good enough” and fears of expending so much time and energy not to achieve what you want.

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