Inspired to vomit: Music, education, and Mr. Holland’s Opus

Mr Holland’s Opus is a bad film. It is a miserable, overlong, poorly structured specimen of the “inspirational teacher” genre of movies (mercilessly parodied in School of Rock and Here Comes The Boom) in which a charismatic teacher uses unconventional methods to inspire apathetic students to apply themselves. It is pornography for the worst kind of educators, and like all pornography it profoundly distorts the things it claims to illustrate.

Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, The Emperor’s Club. Starting high school in 2007, I was taught mostly by people born in the 1980s who had grown up on this glurge. I had many teachers who were “inspirational” in the cinematic sense, not a few of them so inspirational that they never got round to teaching us anything.

The genre, and Mr. Holland’s Opus in particular, is sentimental trash, but that’s not my main reason for criticizing it. It’s simply too easy to say that Mr Holland’s Opus is bad because it is cheesy bullshit, and if that was all I had to say it would be hardly worth writing about. This movie fails in a very special way, through its egregious abuse of a subject near and dear to my heart. Ultimately its flaws are spiritual, and they shed some light on why the inspirational teacher movie is such a malicious force in popular culture.

***

Glenn Holland is a composer and pianist who takes a break from the busy life of a touring musician to spend a few years teaching music, hoping that this will give him some time to compose. When he finds that he has to direct an orchestra and teach a music appreciation class, and may not even be able to leave the school the moment the bell rings, he quickly learns that his rosy expectations were unrealistic. (I know of plenty of music teachers who run three or more ensembles and still have time to play in a community band and live a fulfilling life, but I’m no expert.)

The orchestra plays a truly awful rendition of the opening of Beethoven’s symphony no. 5, a performance that places it by my reckoning below the level of most grade six bands. Instead of tackling the problem by first working on his spastic conducting (which is much worse than Henry Winkler in Here Comes The Boom, who at least knew which hand to use), Holland offers private lessons to the orchestra’s clarinetist, a self-effacing girl named Gertrude.

Gertrude can’t play across the break. Since this is a mysterious problem that no young clarinetist has ever encountered, which is consequently not mentioned in any woodwind teaching manual known to man, Holland has her waste her spare time in fruitless practice hoping that something will click. Eventually he gets fed up and tells her the answer: she just needs to become more confident in herself. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t take in so much mouthpiece.1

Another student needs to get a band credit so he can go to die in ‘Nam. Holland puts him on percussion, but he “can’t find the beat”. I’d say that any kid who can’t at least tap his foot in time well enough for high school band either isn’t trying or has a grievous hearing defect, but Holland is a more intrepid instructor than I am: he goes through an elaborate training montage with the kid in order to teach him to play the bass drum.

I repeat: the kid can obviously play the bass drum, and if “he can’t find the beat” means anything it means that he’s not a good ensemble player. But neither is anybody in high school. And it’s a marching band, where being rough around the edges is the whole point. By all means work to improve his skills, but if you threatened to throw out every student who can’t play in time you’d have a very small music program.

To sum up, the Mr. Holland music teaching method is:

  1. If a student is struggling with an easily fixed technical problem, convince them that their entire outlook on life is wrong.
  2. If someone dumps a student on you that you don’t want, judge him by a needlessly harsh standard.
  3. Accept praise and adulation years down the line.

Of course Gertrude and what’s-his-face have the advantage of being fictional, so they can’t be harmed by Mr. Holland’s teaching methods (or ‘Nam for that matter). But movies like this influence the way we think about music teaching problems. At their worst they imbue our concepts with emotional falsehood.

Surely one of the reasons for music education is that it teaches students how to exist in a large group. There is a complex play between your need to do your own thing and the group’s need for you to fit within a certain framework. Large ensemble training makes this play audible—you can hear the damage done when someone fails to cooperate. So Mr. Holland is right to be concerned about Louis’s inability to play in time. But “finding the beat”—being more or less in time, most of the time—is such a stupidly simple thing to do that if he can’t do it, it’s a sign that something much bigger is wrong, and a responsible teacher would find and address that, rather than putting in extra hours for a montage.

He comes similarly close to an important truth with Gertrude. Confidence does improve performance, in music as in everything else. But confidence is a result of past success. If you have no past success, you’re right to be unconfident—to be otherwise is delusional. To engender confidence in a student you must first engender success, otherwise the whole teaching process is a sham that evaporates as soon as you look away. That means you must teach them to be successful without being confident. In Gertrude’s situation, this translates to giving her the technical knowledge she needs to stop making the error she makes. The high-minded artsy metaphor “play the sunset” is meaningless and distracting to her.2 All it serves to do is further entrench a self-serving lie—that all you need is inspiration, breathed into you by an inspiring teacher.

***

Mr. Holland’s music appreciation class is even more embarrassing. He starts (of course he does) by trying to define music. From the textbook. The definition is wrong or at least incomplete, but that’s beside the point. No one who actually likes music would teach it this way. He is a competent pianist and has access to recordings: he has everything a music appreciation teacher could possibly want. Yet he is never once shown playing music for the kids.

That is, not until his epiphany. Partway through the movie Holland realizes that his inept teaching is doing nothing for them, so he decides he needs to start speaking their language—the language of rock and roll. He plays this song for them. He throws out the theory and starts actually playing music in his music class, and their response is enthusiastic.

His conjecture is that the old music he had been teaching bores them because it’s irrelevant to their lives. It comes from a world that no longer exists, speaks to fashions and social mores so distantly removed from present day that they are all but incomprehensible. The new music, conceived by and for the present, can be understood by the young inhabitants of that present.

Take a look at this Yale music course. Watch as the instructor shoehorns in an excruciating reference to the “Macarena” in an attempt to say something or other about melodic construction. It is impossible to sit through this without gagging, and doubly impossible to take the lectures seriously from then on—even if they are otherwise erudite and well presented. Your instinctive response is to throw your shoes at him. I know, I felt the same way.

There is something pathetic about this desperate attempt to be relevant. The “Macarena” was twenty years old at the time the video was uploaded, and it’s likely that many of the students in the audience had never heard it. Ironically, its existence is probably a lot more perplexing to them than the most intricate piece by Bach or Beethoven. Could the point be made effectively with a more aptly chosen pop tune? Probably, but keeping up with musical fashions is a mug’s game.

Pop references are instantly obsolete. Even when they’re not, the identity-defining function of pop music is likely to make a lot of the students sour on you more intensely than if you had stuck with the canon. Even Susan McClary, probably the most with-it of all big-name musicologists, comes off like somebody’s hippie grandma when she writes about Madonna or Iron Maiden, and it absolutely affects the perceived legitimacy of her statements on pop music. If you have the real-deal street cred, you may be able to successfully engage young people on the subject of their music. But more likely than not it’ll backfire and you’ll alienate them.

Returning to Mr. Holland’s music appreciation class, the example he chose is instructive: it comes from a pop band that was formed in the 1960s and did not outlast the decade. It is a pointless little ditty that would be of no interest whatsoever if not for its pseudo-Bach pedigree. It would be almost totally forgotten today, at best a footnote in a rock and roll trivia book, if not for its appearance in this movie. Like the vast majority of pop music, it is disposable.

While I believe that you can learn something valuable by looking closely enough at anything, you cannot teach young people much by playing their pop music at them. They already hear plenty of it; they don’t need to be reminded that it exists. And by examining pop ephemera you are only serving one of the two purposes of a music appreciation class: sure, you are educating their taste, but you are not exposing them to things they would not otherwise have heard.

What about the links between pop music and classical? These much-discussed connections, such as the song linked above, are not very interesting. First of all, it’s only the shittiest pop music that resorts to this tactic. Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” is not proof of the highbrow legitimacy of pop music, it’s just one more telling example of the bankruptcy of 1970s pop culture. Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” is embarrassing. Billy Joel does a little better, making the Pathetique sonata sound like a Billy Joel song. But on the whole, the pop music that is based on classical music is not representative of the kind of pop music you would actually want to listen to.

More importantly, the connection itself is superficial. Mr. Holland follows countless others in taking a trivial truth—that melodies conceived in one style can be more or less seamlessly translated to another—and distorting it into the much stronger and more dubious claim that all styles are equally thoughtful and deserving of serious study.

So Mr. Holland’s method of teaching music appreciation will work temporarily, but it’s not a good solution for the problem. He thinks he has discovered that his students are incapable of paying attention to classical music. What he has actually discovered is that experience must precede theory. If you teach classical music in the least interesting way possible, and then abruptly switch to teaching pop bullshit in a moderately engaging manner, the conclusion you should draw from the students’ more favourable reaction is not that the canon is dead, but that you’re a dickhead.

***

Part of the reason for this essay is the outrage we all feel when our “thing” is inaccurately dramatized. I am by no means an experienced musician or clarinet teacher, but I know enough to know that this is not how you do it. But I think the problem is deeper. Art prescribes and rehearses our emotional responses, and no art is quite as powerful as cinema. Popular movies, especially popular “issue” movies, give us the archetypes and concepts with which we think about our culture.

The inspirational teacher genre has had a tremendous impact on the people who shape our society’s future. Every teacher below a certain age has their favourite one, and Mr. Holland’s Opus is that favourite for a number of music teachers. The stock gestures of the genre become paradigms of education, despite the fact that they never turn out right when the students’ reactions are not in the hands of the film editor. Movies like this tell us how to teach and how to learn, and if they are built on emotional falsehood, reflecting an impoverished view of the human condition, they are doomed to degrade teaching and impede learning.

Perhaps the fundamental sin of the genre is that the teacher is the main character. Education is something an educator does to students. It’s never about the students, even when it is. Their learning and their lives are secondary to the teacher. They are allowed only one arc: going from hating the teacher to loving the teacher. These teachers are all apparently flawless, reliably using trite slogans to turn children’s lives around.

When you look at how they are inevitably received—with effusive gratitude—it is not surprising that young teachers should try to ape these fictional characters. It’s all about being the anonymous “an old teacher of mine” in some successful businessman’s speech fifty years from now. Teachers will deliberately cultivate the sorts of experiences that movies have taught us are inspirational. When the fictional models are inept, as Mr. Holland is, this inspiration will always come at the expense of education.

Roger Ebert put it most succinctly: “At the end of a great teacher’s course in poetry, the students would love poetry; at the end of this teacher’s semester, all they really love is the teacher.”

Mr. Holland teaches his students that life is easier than it is. All you need is a couple of third-rate platitudes and some hard work directed at nothing in particular. They get to go into life “unarmed”, as a character from a much better movie puts it, happy in their total detachment from reality. Some of them will be successful anyway—it’s a numbers game. These ones will—maybe not publicly, but in some part of their hearts—attribute their success to their teacher. Nobody really wins, but everyone involved can do a good job convincing themselves otherwise.

If art educates our emotions, then sentimental art educates them falsely. The result of this particular genre of sentimental art is that teachers encourage mediocrity in their students to feed their grotesque arrogance, while the few students who actually know what they’re doing have a miserable time of it. Society on the whole is worse off, and our cinemas and classrooms are clogged with trash. The next generation of teachers would do well to give these movies a wide berth. To the current generation of students, all I can say is you’re not alone.


Notes:

  1. A “don’t try this at home” moment: while she probably was taking in too much mouthpiece (based on the honky sound she produces), problems with the register break usually have a different cause—they often arise when the student moves the clarinet or her embouchure when reaching for the higher notes. There are a number of other causes and several ways to fix this, but playing the sunset is not one of them.
  2. I don’t mean to impugn the use of artsy metaphors in music education per se, because they can be quite effective in certain situations. But this is not one of those situations. High-minded artsy metaphors are more interesting for the teacher than solid technical workmanship, but they are not always what’s best for the student.
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