As an addendum to Tuesday’s Slog post on drummers’ responses to the critically acclaimed movie Whiplash, we present the thoughts of Michael Shrieve. A longtime resident of Seattle, Shrieve is best known as the drummer for Latin-rock luminaries Santana during their peak years (1969-1974) and as the youngest musician to perform at Woodstock: He was 19. He also worked with some giants of avant-garde and progressive-music percussion, including Klaus Schulze and Stomu Yamash’ta's Go. In addition, Shrieve has composed scores soundtracks for Paul Mazursky films Tempest and Apollo 13. In recent years, Shrieve has led the group Spellbinder, which for years held a weekly Monday night residency at Fremont club White Rabbit. He’s currently finishing up a Spellbinder album and another record called Drums of Compassion with some of legendary drummers and percussionists like Jack DeJohnette, Zakir Hussein, Airto Moreira, the late Babatunde Olatunji, and Amon Tobin.
Shrieve: I was excited to see Whiplash, of course, because it's about drumming, but I had several issues with it. That approach to teaching [physically and verbally abusive, dictatorial] is something I really don't care for. I think it's more damaging than helpful. It's [fine] to be inspiring and tough, but it's gotta be done with love, a different kind of attitude. I've seen that kind of teaching happen in middle school with my son, and the teacher was so harsh and cruel that it turned him off from learning music altogether. That's the more drastic side of that thing. Although this was supposedly college and people are committed, so it's a different situation. But in younger grades it can take the fun and joy out of playing music. That's not to say you don't have to work extremely hard, but a lot of the high-school jazz bands are in competitions and there's nothing wrong with that. But music's not a competition.
As far as [Miles Teller's character, Andrew Nieman's] technique and the portrayal of him working so hard that he's bleeding, that's completely unrealistic. When you play fast, what you learn to do is the faster you play, the more you have to relax and breathe. Any drum teacher will tell you you're holding your sticks completely wrong if you are doing damage to your hands. So that's really off-point.
That was more of a Hollywood exaggeration, to make the movie seem more dramatic?
Shrieve: [laughs] Yeah. You can't get speed without relaxing. You can't get speed and control with your hands like that, getting bloody. If you're getting blisters, you're doing something wrong. It's not to say you're not going to get them when you're learning. But you're holding them too tight if you're doing that. It takes some years to figure that out, but the speed aspect and the blood was unrealistic. There were things about the movie I enjoyed, but the whole portrayal of teacher and student I thought was... well, it's a movie—what are you gonna do?
I'm sure there were liberties taken to make it seem more exciting.
Shrieve: Dramatic. Yeah. [Nieman's] working super-hard, he's committed enough to get rid of his girlfriend, because she'll just get in the way. [The teacher] throwing the drum [at the student] is really off the wall. [Teller] did learn to play drums and he was okay. There was a feature in Rolling Stone about him because of that film and he talked about learning and working really hard at it. He got a lot of things together in the limited amount of time he had. That's for certain.
Have you taught people how to play drums?
Shrieve: Yes, but not in that context; just private lessons and clinics. I know it gets very intense with these high shools and colleges, when they go to competitions. In Seattle, we have two of the winningest high schools in the nation, with Roosevelt and Garfield. They consistently bring back first- and second-place trophies from Lincoln Center every year. They gotta be tough. So let's say you have Clarence Acox from Garfield; he's gotta be strict and tough to get a great performance like that. The same with Roosevelt. But all those kids loved him, you know? They're not in fear. Music is supposed to be joyous, but of course you have to work at it. And I know it's the same with classical piano competitions for kids and violins. I think that that sort of approach is probably more abusive with piano and young kids going to those competitions and going for those placements with certain schools. It's very competitive. Jazz is a personal journey, too. You've gotta love that music and work really hard. That kind of teacher is a detriment to any path of improving in a way that brings joy and life to the music.
[Here Shrieve recommends everyone read drummer Peter Erskine's take on Whiplash.]
When you were growing up, did you play in your high-school band?
Shrieve: I did. I played in a school band, in a symphonic band. In high school, I played in Police Youth Drum Corps. And I took private lessons as well with some really great people. They were all very encouraging. The biggest jerk I ran into in high school was the football coach and PE teacher. [Fletcher] was more like an athletic coach or a military guy. I didn't have those experiences myself, but I experienced it through my son.
That approach seems counterproductive to you?
Shrieve: Yes. Absolutely. He was very extreme. Peter Erskine tells this thing about Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker [which Whiplash uses as a recurring anecdote to illustrate the impetus for Parker to become an innovative saxophonist] that it wasn’t the way the movie portrayed it. He threw it at [Parker’s] feet [not at his head, as the film implied]. But I know it’s Hollywood… It sounds like [Fletcher] is bitter, like he didn’t have the career he wanted.