Mr. Holland

I do not like Mr. Holland’s Opus.  Mr. Holland would and should get fired for letting a kid get on a bus to New York.  Mr. Holland is a crappy conductor.  These fundamental problems ruin, for me, any redeeming value the movie might have, but they are not the end of the problems.
Ha!  I’m watching the YouTube video below and my husband just asked from the next room, “What are you watching?”

Mr. Holland’s Opus,” I confessed.

“Why?!” he replied, baffled.

“Because I’m writing about it for my blog.”

“About how stupid it is?  Because the governor of the state couldn’t keep his job?” he groaned.


Look, Richard Dreyfuss is a great actor–amazing and moving and real.  I like him a lot.  But his conducting is crap.

I adjudicate festivals and competitions, and I have seen some bad conducting of school ensembles.  Mostly it’s by art/English/drama teachers who got drafted into teaching music, then into directing the choir because the administration says, “hey, anyone can teach singing!” and the poor teacher doesn’t know enough about it to argue, and they don’t have any training or preparation, so they’re coming at it, like Richard Dreyfuss, with the best of intentions, but a total lack of actual understanding of their job.  Yes, I’ve seen crappy conducting, but I’ve never seen a real band director conduct as badly as poor Mr. Dreyfuss.

There’s the leaning, the knee bouncing, the fact that his hands cross in the middle of his body, the lift of his elbows on every beat four.  A two-minute conversation with anyone who has taken an undergraduate conducting class or even just a week-long summer seminar in conducting would have supplied him with training enough not to make those fundamental mistakes.

If I look a little deeper, I see that this may be an accurate choice by Mr. Dreyfuss.

More than anything else, Mr. Holland irritates me because he is a composer who needed a job and got sucked into teaching band.  He got hired, though he was not actually qualified to do it.  He does the job, even though he has no actual training.  So of course his conducting is crap: he never studied conducting!  Everyone around him just took for granted that because he was a musician, he could conduct.  As if clear communication is taught alongside Roman numeral analysis.  As if expressive gesture is taught alongside the ear training.

So the problems with movies like this aren’t just the surface inaccuracies, but the deep underlying assumptions about the nature of the work of teaching and conducting.  Namely, that conducting is something every musician can do, and that leading music requires no skills different from participating in music.

Where do these assumptions come from?  I believe that people simply don’t know any better.  They observe conductors, so they think they have seen something, but all they have done is make assumptions.  How could they possibly know differently (unless they, like you brilliant people, read my blog)?  And, in ignorance, they make movies where the main character conducts a full instrumental ensemble in front of a cheering crowd, even though you have spent the whole movie telling us he’s not a conductor and was never interested in being a conductor.

I recently told a roomful of people that conducting isn’t just what I do, it’s who I am.  I think that makes me typical for a conductor, and I think it’s why we’re good at it.  Because the work we do isn’t just our job, it’s about using ourselves as expressive vehicles.  That requires your whole self to be engaged in the act; it requires your whole self to be healthy and capable of giving–James Jordan calls it “perpetual emptying of self.”  And that means you can’t just get on the podium and do it, you have to live a life that allows you to do it.   A composer who conducts will conduct poorly.  A violinist or a section leader who gets suckered into leading a rehearsal isn’t going to be as good as someone who is a conductor.

Mr. Holland tries to convince us that conducting is an independent skill that can be whipped out when it’s needed, and tucked away when you’re doing your real job.  Well, I suppose it can be.  But you’ll end up conducting like Mr. Holland.  And… eeeww.


To the filmmakers of the world:
Please keep making touching, moving movies about music teachers.  We love our music teachers, and we want to show the world what they do to benefit our lives.  Please honor them by valuing the training that is required for them to be successful! Thank you very much.


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