I saw the movie Whiplash and it really hit me. It’s about a freshman drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) studying at the most prestigious music conservatory in the country. He becomes a member of his school’s elite jazz band, which is led by an extremist, hard-assed, big shot conductor named Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher screams humiliating insults at his band members, pushing them to the point of bloodshed, all in the name of bringing out the best musician in them. Andrew, who wants nothing more than to be the best, allows himself to be subjected to this mentality in mind-boggling ways. I won’t get specific because I really hope you’ll see it for yourself.
During a pretty tense scene, Andrew gets into it with some relatives about the importance of his aspirations vs. those of his football player and scholar cousins. His family insinuates that in the world of music, there’s no real way to determine who’s “the best” because it’s all subjective. Therefore, there’s little point in striving for something that essentially doesn’t exist (unlike in sports or academia where the standards are concrete). In their eyes, becoming a successful musician is a lesser pursuit.
The validity of art-making is a worn topic, but we’ll never stop discussing it. There will always be artists, and there will always be people who don’t understand how art can be as important as anything else (despite benefiting from it on a daily basis). How many people can’t start the day without that one song that gets them going? How many people eat their lunches sitting on the edges of fountains facing beautifully designed buildings, or on benches in the middle of gorgeously landscaped parks? How many find relief in unwinding in front of a television or movie screen and losing themselves in a world that doesn’t exist, or did long ago? How many read books that open their minds to the things they thought were impossible? In my mind, excellence in art is as necessary as anything else. And unlike in sports, where the prime window of participation is small, art-making (by and large) tends to get better with time. The more we’ve witnessed/experienced/learned in life, the more sophisticated our approach to creation. We become better at expressing our individual truths as time goes on. And the better we know ourselves, the easier it is to reach others.
Art connects us. My first friends were the people whose lives I read about in novels. Certain paintings and illustrations get my blood pumping harder than watching a football match. Some songs move me to the point of tears. Not only does good art reveal its maker (in ways conversation never could), it also assures you that you’re not alone. There are other people who think like you, dream like you, and see the world the way you do. And if we’re talking about music specifically, it brings those emotions you can’t express to the brink of tangibility. There’s nothing like when a chord or harmony hits you just right and you feel it shiver through you, in perfect tune with who you are at that moment. And watching a musician lose themselves in what they’re playing is…I don’t have words for it.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Passion is passion, and no one pursuit is more or less worthy than any other in my opinion. I don’t agree with Fletcher’s methods in the movie — I know my best work wouldn’t emerge in that kind of environment — but I do think it’s a good idea to test the limits of what we think we’re capable of. So if you need to drum until the skin on your hands opens up and your kit is slick with blood, do it. Show the world what being the best is worth to you.