Have you seen CODA yet? How many tissues had you gone through by the end?
CODA, the AppleTV movie, was a massive success at the Academy Awards this year, winning Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. The movie focuses on Ruby Rossi (played by Emilia Jones), the only hearing person in her deaf family with a deep love of music and singing, and her dream to pursue her musical ambitions. The movie is reminiscent of similar 1980’s style movies, with a frustrated teen working towards what seems to be an unachievable goal in a coming-of-age film.
What makes CODA particularly meaningful for music teachers is that it is a music teacher who changes Ruby’s life. So many of us in this community have experienced the power of music teachers – either as a student or as a teacher ourself. We know what it feels like to have someone who believes in you and champions you, even when things get tough. Mr. Villalobos is that teacher for Ruby.
Mr. Villalobos Seems Mean at First
Throughout the movie, Bernardo Villalobos, aka Mr. V to his students, is a tough-love music teacher. When Ruby first joins the choir class for Mr. V, he seems like a complete jerk, almost like a prima donna. But, he has one of the most significant impacts on Ruby’s pursuit of her dreams. For all musicians, it can be very challenging to accept criticism to improve, but the movie makes it very apparent that his unorthodox techniques coax Ruby out of her shell and give her the strength to follow her chosen path.
Vincent Reina, the founder of the music school Music to Your Home in New York City, states, “Many singers don’t like to be told they are singing incorrectly or need to improve. But, unfortunately, that inaptitude for constructive criticism can distinguish the great singers from the so-so ones. The movie CODA demonstrates that being criticized and pushed hard in your craft is meant more as a tool to help build a singer up instead of to discourage.”
The demands and commands that come from Mr. V sometimes stir up emotions of irritation and even hatred from students and from Ruby in particular. But his tough love shapes Ruby into what she can become.
Mr. V Was No-Nonsense
There is pressure from Ruby’s family to follow in line with the family business, which was far from music: Her father and brother are fishermen. The family is having problems with money, which weighs heavily even on the younger family members, and at one point Ruby feels that she has to set aside her dreams to step up and help the family.
We know how tough it is for teachers to be fully aware of what’s going on with a student’s family at home. Sometimes there are parts of a student’s life that we simply don’t see or understand. In CODA, Ruby admits to Mr.V that she is nervous about singing in front of everyone else because she used to be made fun of for talking “funny” at school since she came from a deaf family.
Stage fright is not uncommon with performers since we all feel vulnerable and have a fear of our own self-doubt. Mr.V gave Ruby very “no-nonsense” advice that being a singer is about having something to say and not worrying about what others say or think about you. Mr. V’s insight makes a massive impact on how Ruby starts to think of herself and get over her fear of singing in front of her classmates.
Mr. V Was Helpful and Encouraging
However, as the story unfolds, Mr. V’s pushing and demanding personality helps Ruby embrace her talents and learn to go her own way. In an interview with the LA Times, the actor Eugenio Derbez, who played Mr. V. in the film, states, “A lot of people struggle with their passion for what they want to do — and what their parents want them to be or become.”
Mr. V intentionally calls out Ruby to sing in front of her class and does a breathing exercise to help her bring out her singing personality. Next, he works with her and another student on a duet and helps her build upon her music skills. He later tells Ruby that he’d like her to audition for the Berklee College of Music – a prestigious and well-known music conservatory.
When she practices her audition song, Ruby is frequently frustrated, but Mr. V persists and Ruby remains dedicated to the process despite lots of setbacks and challenges with her family. She eventually catches on that he is giving her the technical skills she needs to really make the song her own and communicate through her voice.
Teacher Becomes Mentor
Mr. V provides Ruby with great advice and inspiration regarding her singing and life. There is a point in the movie where she is consistently late to her lessons with him, and he points out that he also has a life outside of teaching. It’s crucial for a student and even an artist to respect others’ time and not waste others’ time.
Mr. V emphasizes that the student/teacher bond is a two way relationship. He gives a lot of himself, and in return he asks a lot of her. However, in a touching scene at the end of the movie, Mr. V quietly puts his own pride aside so that Ruby can succeed at her audition: he steps away from his demands and instead embraces his role as her supportive accompanist when she needs it most. He shows an extraordinary gift as a teacher by knowing when to push and when to support.
By doing this, Mr. V gives Ruby an example that she uses in interacting with her own family: she asks them to be respectful of her time, of her potential, and not demand that she take on the family business. She pushes them to let her go, while also letting them know that she will always support them and love them. It’s a delicate balance that plays out in many aspects of Ruby’s life and which she learns to master throughout the course of the film.
There are many inspiring movies about the power of music teachers, but because of its high profile, multiple awards and particularly touching portrayal of a deaf family, CODA is sure to endure longer than most. It offers a moving testimony to the power we have as music teachers to change the lives of our students even away from the instrument.