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Thursday, December 19, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden XIV

It's been fun to look into John Wooden's career, techniques, and writing about him and his methods--and how it might apply to us as conductors. This final post summarizes the series and also suggests reading for those of you who wish to explore further on your own. I hope you've enjoyed it and gotten something worthwhile from it.
 
The first book I'd go to is Gallimore and Nater's You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned--much of what I wrote in the series draws upon this book or the earlier research by Gallimore and Tharp (which is included in the book). I think the next one I'd get is Wooden on Leadership, by John Wooden and Steve Jamison (Jamison was closely associated with Wooden and co-authored a number of books with him). It tells much of Wooden's journey, early life, and coaching philosophy, and is as complete a look at all of this as you'll find from Wooden. An additional bonus are actual excerpts (copied directly) from Wooden's journals, practice plans, etc.--they're sometimes hard to read, but are a great first-hand look at his life's source material. A shorter book, but still worthwhile, is Wooden and Jamison's The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership.
 
I've listed the whole series below in order:
  1. Introduction - the difference between scrimmage and drill
  2. Efficiency of Wooden's practice--incredibly instruction-dense
  3. More about instruction dense practice (rehearsal) -- positive vs. negative feedback
  4. More on Wooden's methods for correcting mistakes
  5. Wooden's planning for practices (rehearsals)
  6. How Wooden made his verbal instructions clearer and shorter
  7. Wooden's pedagogy and how he uses drill
  8. More about pedagogy and drill
  9. Teacher/student relationships -- use of individual feedback
  10. Wooden's definition of success -- his "pyramid of success"
  11. Conditioning: moral, mental, and physical -- and how that relates to singers
  12. Wooden's off-season intensive research projects
  13. What great teachers have in common
I hope you'll take what you find valuable from the example of a great coach and teacher--and apply it to your own teaching. I know I have more work to do.
 
Time to take a break, so I'll begin again sometime in January. If you have suggestions for topics, please write!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden XIII

The title of the book by Gallmore and Nater comes from the seventh chapter: You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned.

I've talked about that topic already, but the element in this chapter we'll speak of today is that of favorite teachers. We've all had them and their influence is often huge. So, what can we learn from them?

Gallimore and Nater write about what those teachers have in common:
  • They make learning engaging
  • They have a passion for the material
  • They have deep subject knowledge
  • They are extremely organized
  • They are intense
  • They know students need to be recognized for even small progress
  • They treat everyone with respect
  • They are fair
  • They believe all students are natural learners
  • They make it implicitly known they like being with their students
  • They place priority on individualized instruction
Some of these things are common with all of my favorite teachers, but not all. Not all have been extremely organized (although all have managed, some with the help of others), some weren't free with compliments about progress, and not all placed priority on individualized instruction. But all shared the other characteristics.

Please share stories of your favorite teachers--is your list similar to the one above? Are there other characteristics left out? Let us know.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden XII

One of the most interesting chapters for me in Gallimore and Nater's You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned is the third chapter, "It's What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts the Most."
 
Given Wooden's great skill and knowledge, it was fascinating to read that right after taking the UCLA job in 1948, he embarked on a systematic program to increase his knowledge during the off-season. From Nater and Gallimore:
At the conclusion of each basketball season, during the off-season his self-improvement research began. He chose only one topic for each off-season study (e.g. defensive rebounding, free-throw shooting, etc.). The goal was to uncover all he could learn about a specific subject, draw conclusions, and apply it to his teaching.
 
Coach Wooden's premise was the assumption that all the essential truths about each topic existed "somewhere," but scattered across many sources. Some of these truths were in books, some in the thoughts of successful coaches and athletes, and others were, perhaps, in places he never considered. Some ideas were his own (e.g. many of his ideas on free-throw shooting--as a player he once made more than 130 in succession), but needed testing, refinement, and elaboration, just as any researcher tests the theories that guide investigations. Thus, Coach's approach was essentially similar to empirical investigations in all fields of inquiry.
They then follow Wooden's process through one research topic, that of free-throw shooting. The process went as follows:
  • Define a research question - quoting Wooden: "There are many possible questions and topics to consider, but it's important to choose the right one. When making my choice, I kept the following things in mind. Was it a team weakness last season? Will I need it next year? Is it too broad of a subject? . . . I also believe in pre-determining what you're looking for. For example, when studying free-throw shooting, one of the things I wanted to find out was the percentage of practice time successful coaches provided for the practice of it. I also was interested in finding out if there was a better way to make free-throw shooting more practice-like."
  • He'd review everything he could find that was written: books, articles in magazines and journals
  • To select a sample of successful coaches he'd check statistics: which coaches had a great free-throw shooting record?
  • He'd then design a written survey instrument based on his research, asking open-ended questions. Example, quoting an actual example of a survey question: "What particular routine do you teach your players? How much practice time do you set aside for free-throw shooting? To what do you attribute your team's success? Please list, and explain, what you believe to be the fundamentals of free-throw shooting?"
  • He'd then call the selected coaches, explain what he was doing and if they'd be willing to fill out the survey. Most participated, in part because Wooden offered to share the results with them.
  • He then thanked everyone and began to analyze the data. This was a deep and thorough analysis. He compared approaches to see what the coaches had in common. He also looked for outliers. He discovered one coach whose team had an outstanding free-throw record and who spent more time than anyone else on practice . . . but on further examination discovered that team didn't have such a great win-loss record . . . which led him to try to figure out what was the point of diminishing returns on amount of time spent in free-throw practice. This led him to divide up the approaches into those who practiced free-throw shooting separately and those who integrated it into the practice to make it more "game-like."
  • He then drew his conclusions (the book has a table with his actual results, divided into team and individual fundamentals)
There are obvious possibilities for any of us to investigate in this manner--and improve what we and our choirs do. One could research all kinds of topics, from choral sound (what are your choir's weaknesses? whose choirs--of the same type as your choir--make a sound you like?), intonation, rhythm, diction, phrasing, expression, etc. Or you could explore style: performance practices in Bach, renaissance music, etc.
 
Don't be surprised if you get a call from me at the beginning of the summer!

Friday, December 6, 2013

What do you demand of your students?

On Facebook I'd re-posted this:
This got quite a few responses (as you might imagine!), but Brian Dohe, a former student at PLU said, "For students who fail to memorize the German text of Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes . . . "

That got me thinking about how much I asked of students at that time. The Brahms happened because two wonderful pianists (sisters: Robin and Rochelle McCabe) were booked to do the Artist Series at PLU. I contacted Robin and asked if they'd be willing to do the Brahms on the program with the Choir of the West. Robin said yes, so we programmed that . . . and I thought the music would make the best impact if we sang from memory . . . so we did.

That same semester (1985, so a big anniversary year for Bach, Handel, Schütz) we did the Bach Mass in B Minor with the professional NW Chamber Orchestra. And in January we did our tour program, which we also did at the PNW Bach Festival in Spokane, along with Bach's cantata #50.

And that fall on the Christmas program we sang the Poulenc Gloria.

So the rep that year was:
- usual carols plus Poulenc Gloria
- a tour program:
-->
Die mit tränen säen................................................................................................. Schütz

Der Zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel

Komm, Jesu, Komm............................................................................................ J.S. Bach

Come Mighty Father............................................................................................ Handel

Draw the Tear

How Excellent Thy Name

(each of the Handel anthems with a student chamber orchestra)

Libera me...................................................................................................... Lajos Bardos

Schaffe in mir, Gott (Op. 29, no. 2)..................................................................... Brahms

Trois Chansons.................................................................................................... Debussy
- Brahms - Liebeslieder Walzer
- Bach - Mass in B Minor

And the tour program would have been sung from memory as well.

After posting this on Facebook, another former student, Joe Pettit, replied, "We were students. We thought it was normal. Looking back . . .  sheesh."


Thursday, December 5, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden XI

Early in his career (mostly in place with a few later adjustments by 1932), John Wooden developed his "Pyramid of Success" This was meant to be a guide to how one builds success--a road map, if you will, including not only short-term goals along the way, but character traits important to success. Remember Wooden's definition: "Success is the peace of mind which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction in knowing you have made the effort to become the best of which you are capable."
 
As Nater says, "With his definition of success at the top, the structure consists of 15 blocks and several additional traits placed on the outside of each side of the triangle. . . . Each block in the Pyramid of Success is a milestone, providing students/players with a succession of achieveable goals."
 
Again, I'd recommend you read Gallimore and Nater's book, along with some of Wooden's.
 
As Nater says, "Condition, skill, and team spirit are he heart of the Pyramid of Success." For us as choral conductors, this is true as well.
 
Nater mentions that there are several aspects of conditioning: moral, mental, and physical.
 
Moral conditioning is learning to resist those things (staying up late, not getting sleep, drinking too much) that will undermine one's ability. If music students are to achieve success and make true progress they have to be able to practice regularly and effectively. One's voice is directly dependent on physical health. This is something we can work on with our choirs, but might be more important if we notice destructive behaviors in our individual students. Outside of that, we can look for alternatives when temptations are present (on tour, for example--what kinds of rules/enforcements do you use?).
 
When I first came to PLU I inherited a program on the first orchestra concert in October celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's birth: Bach's Cantata 80 and a commissioned piece by faculty composer Cindy McTee on the Frau musica text (which Paul Hindemith also set). This was a difficult assignment to come in to a new job and have to immediately do this challenging a program! But it was made more difficult in that the program took place the day after the re-establishment of a football game with the cross-town University of Puget Sound. The two university choirs were to sing the National Anthem and all would attend the game. Clearly, I didn't want them to do any yelling, screaming, or any other abuse of their voices! So I bought a large number of noise-makers of all kinds and passed them out to the singers with the instruction that the could blow their brains out blowing on the noise-makers, but they weren't to yell or scream. This was to give them an alternative which allowed them to use energy to make noise, but not to abuse their voices. It seemed to work and they sang well in the concert the next day.
 
Mental conditioning is also incredibly important. For us, I think this is building the choir's ability to focus/concentrate and stay on task. As I've said in earlier blog posts, this is part of building much greater rehearsal density. This will depend on the level and age of your choir, but no matter whether they're elementary, high school or college students; a community choir or professional choir, their abilities can be improved. This has to be built gradually, but is important as you build the culture of your choir.
 
Physical conditioning is a part of it, too. Partly this means that you have to make sure you don't blow out voices in rehearsal. I'm just finishing the fantastic new biography of Robert Shaw by Keith Burris (which is well worth several blog posts itself). Shaw emphsized singing at soft dynamics during the learning process and, in fact, restricting the biggest dynamics until very late in the rehearsal process, or even until the concert itself. This was a part of what Shaw called preserving, "vocal gold." This is important and something I need to be more aware of in my rehearsals. In addition, you have to find ways to gradually build the vocal capacity of your students through teaching proper technique.
 
There's much more for us to learn from Wooden's Pyramid of Success, but I'll leave that for you to explore.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden X

The next chapter of Gallimore and Nater's book is about success and is titled, "The Motivation to Learn Comes from Focusing on Reaching Your Own Potential." I'll deal with it in two parts, the second on Wooden's "Pyramid of Success."

But this post speaks to how we measure success, something incredibly important to us as choral conductors.

It's typical to measure our success by comparing ourselves to others, or by comparing what our choirs do with other choirs.

Wooden, while enormously successful in competition with other teams, measured success differently. His definition came from his father, who stressed, "he should never try to be better than someone else, but that he should never cease to try and become the best he could be." This led to his own definition of success: "Success is the peace of mind which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction in knowing you have made the effort to become the best of which you are capable."

As Nater says,
For Coach, the definition of success made sense, not only for talented and gifted students, but for everyone else as well. If all students could be convinced to concentrate on their own progress, every individual should gain and maintain motivation. In other words, if he could somehow get them to think of passing to a higher level of achievement instead of passing another student, they would immediately see the next level of knowledge and go for it. If the reward for hard work was moving ahead, even if it's just little steps, that could be motivating.
This was necessary in Wooden's system, given that he played only 7 or so players regularly, meaning that there were 5 or so who got almost no playing time. He had to find ways to motivate the reserves (one of which was Nater, of course). Reserves were held in high esteem by Wooden, but without working hard for their success, measured by progress, not by playing time, his system wouldn't work as successfully.

This connects up to my previous blog post, where I asked the question about how I should treat my singers as individuals, and in terms of measuring success, how I can give feedback to them as individuals? How do I evaluate my students' work? Are they able to track their progress in skills, in all those fundamentals I think are important to a singer? In this sense, I don't think I've developed a system that does this--and in this sense, my system is a failure in several big aspects. I work with the choir and evaluate how they're doing on development of ensemble fundamentals and, of course, how they're doing on the individual pieces we're working on, but I'm certainly not giving them enough feedback on their individual progress. So, I'll be thinking over the break about how I can improve that.

I'd be very interested in how you deal with evaluating the work of your choral students. Do you do individual evaluation? Do they evaluate themselves? If so, how? How does this fit in with grading (if it does)?

It's clearly more complicated with many singers in a choir (many more than Wooden dealt with on his teams), but all teachers have to evaluate the work of their students. It can be done.

With the current college football season well underway, Alabama, under coach Nick Saban, is again on top, for a possible four national championships in five years (sound like anyone you know?). There are certainly similarities in approach between Saban and Wooden. In this article in Forbes "What Nick Saban Knows About Success", it states:
What Saban preaches day in and day out to his players and staff is the tested and true fundamental known as process focus. Saban teaches his players to stop actually thinking about winning and losing and instead focus on those daily activities that cause success.
He encourages his players to adopt a definition of success defined not by results, but rather by effort. Instead of emphasizing scoring touchdowns, he asks players to define themselves with such things as completing each set in the weight room or completing practices with 100% intensity. Saban states: “Everybody wants to be a success. Not everybody is willing to do what they have to do to achieve it.
According to Saban, process guarantees success. A good process produces good results. Likewise, if the process is off, the results will suffer. Focusing on the outcome is paradoxical. The more one emphasizes winning, the less he or she is able to concentrate on what actually causes success.
Sound familiar? Perhaps we have more to learn from coaches than we think!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thursday, November 21, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden IX

We've met Ronald Gallimore in each of the previous posts. As you saw in the past few weeks, he continued his work studying John Wooden and his methods. But he then co-wrote a book (2010) with Swen Nater, a former player for Wooden at UCLA, You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned, and I can highly recommend it.
 
Nater played at UCLA for three years (he was a community college All-American before that), recruited by Wooden specifically to be a reserve, backing up Bill Walton, who would to on to be a 3-time NCAA player of the year. Wooden was honest about what Nater's role would likely be, telling him that while he'd rarely play, he felt that when he graduated he'd be able to get a pro contract. He did, in fact, get a pro contract (drafted in the first round), rookie of the year in the ABA in 1974, led the league in rebounding in 1975, the same in the NBA in 1980, and in the Italian League in 1985. He subsequently taught algebra, sports psychology, and coached at Christian Heritage College (in 1990 co-coaching them to their first NCAA championship), and co-wrote a book with Wooden. Since 1997 he has worked for Costco.
 
Let me start with something that's much easier to accomplish with a basketball team (where Wooden had 12 players on the squad) than a choir, where we typically have more singers (sometimes many more) . . . and many of us conduct more than one choir. That has to do with ability to individualize what we do with our singers and how we treat them. William Copper, in a comment a few posts ago, mentioned how much it seemed Wooden was able to individualize instruction, and that he'd never gotten individual feedback from a conductor. So, while I have some ideas, I'm more interested in what kinds of things you've done to give feedback to your singers.
 
Chapter One of the book is titled, "They are all Different: Teacher-Student Relationships are the Foundation of Effective Teaching." They quote Wooden from a personal communication in 2002:
They are all different. There is no formula. I could name players, all who were spirited, but in a different way. You can't work with them exactly the same way. You've got to analyze and study each individual and find out what makes them tick. Some you may have to put on the bench more. Others you've got to pat on the back more. I wish there was a formula. The same thing won't work with every team. It depends on the personnel. The same thing was true in my English classes. So you have to know the individuals you are working with.
Nater describes the development of his own relationship with Wooden, how he dealt with his frustrations at lack of playing time, and how Wooden was honest with him. Coach Wooden explained how he needed him to push Walton to be his best--so that Walton would find that the toughest center he played against all season was in practice every day. Swen accepted this and then found that Wooden, instead of backing off, pushed him even harder to improve his play.
 
This is not something that most of us can do with every one of our students. I have around 70 different students in my two choirs at UNT (a few sing in both) and I know many of you have more, some many more.
 
But this does make me think about how I can do more.
 
I wrote earlier about the change at UNT for me last year from a smaller choir to a larger one. One of the things I did was have individuals sing quite a bit in rehearsals. I've moved away from that this year and think it was a mistake. If I do that more often, I know much more about what the singers are doing, where their skill level is, how they respond, and it does give me the opportunity to give feedback, sometimes in the rehearsal itself, and sometimes outside and individually. It also motivates them in a different way. I know I will do more of this next semester and experiment with other ideas as well (I'll report after I've done it).
 
If any of you have ways you develop relationships with your students and know them better as individuals, and give them feedback, please comment or write me privately.
 
Wooden was also concerned with respect and fairness. Once again, however, fairness didn't mean everyone is treated the same. A quote from Wooden explains this (this and the next one are again from private communications with the coach): "I believe, in order to be fair to all students, a teacher must give each individual student the treatment he earns and deserves. The most unfair thing to do is to treat them all the same."
 
And they also give an example of his pre-season speech to the team about this so the players understood how the system worked:
I am not going to treat you players all the same. Giving you the same treatment does not make sense because you're all different. The good Lord, in his infinite wisdom, did not make us all the same. Goodness gracious, if he had, this would be a boring world, don't you think? You are different from each other in height, weight, background, intelligence, talent, and many other ways. For that reason, each one of you deserves individual treatment that is best for you. I will decide what that treatment will be. It may take the form of gentle encouragement or something a little stronger. That depends on you. It may also take the form of discipline. But remember, all discipline will be earned by you based on what you have done prior. So, I'm not going to treat you all the same, but I will give you the treatment you earn and deserve.
This is a challenging statement, particularly in implementing it in a choral situation.
 
Nater then gives examples of how Wooden treated his players differently. I can't summarize this (again, I'd encourage you to get the book), but it makes sense, and I need to sort out how to best make sense of this given my situation and the rules I want to enforce.
 
The final section of the chapter is titled, "Relationship are the Ends, not the Means." In it, Nater explains how demanding Wooden was, using the example of talking with someone at an airport who asked what it was like to work with the coach. He tells the person how demanding the coach was, not only in terms of playing, but in behavior outside practice and games as well. Shocked, they then say, "I had no idea John Wooden was like that. I always thought you guys liked him."
 
And Swen responds, "But we do! We love him. We loved him then and we love him now. I don't know how to explain it, but it's true."
 
Most of us have experiences with extraordinarily demanding teachers and, if you're like me, they're the teachers we remember most and who may have been among our favorites. The question is, will we be that demanding teacher, expecting the best out of every student, or will we simply be forgotten as a so-so teacher who didn't expect very much? Nater also mentions that Wooden never tried to build a personal relationship with him his first year, but that:
The relationship was born in his commitment to and steadfastness in teaching me, in responding to my concerns, and in careful tracking of my progress. Our relationship was forged slowly over time, and strengthened by the combination of the intense fire of his high expectations and my determination to learn.
 
These ideas can be applied to good use by teachers and school administrators. Rather than beginning with relationship-building, relationships evolve out of getting something done that everyone agrees is important to accomplish. . . . Productive relationships and powerful learning communities are found in those situations where teachers and administrators set realistic goals to work toward, track their progress, and don't give up until they have found a way to help students learn better.
I think these last quotes summarize what it is to build relationships between conductor and members of the choir--it isn't something we do directly and initially, but those relationships will come out of our caring for the progress our students make, the standards we set, and the oftimes demanding expectations we enforce.
 
Please let us know what teachers inspired you and how they did it! Or speak to how you treat your singers in the way they "earn and deserve."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden VIII

Last week I addressed a number of John Wooden's ideas about pedagogy, taken from Gallimore and Tharp's 2004 article.
 
So now it's time to see what his pedagogical ideas can offer us as conductors. Part of the last post deals with our responsibility as teachers--is it our responsibility just to present material, or is it to find a way for our students learn the material, learn the skills involved, and learn those materials in a broader context that lead to their mastery of both skills and ideas so that they can apply them on their own? I'll begin to explore that next week as we look at Gallimore and Swen Nater's book, You Haven't Taught Them Until They Have Learned.
 
This week I'll focus on drill, which was a part of the first post in this series. Here's the relevant section from Gallimore and Tharp's 2004 article:
One debate turns on the relative value of drilling students to strengthen skills and habits. The controversy plays out in many areas, including reading, science, and mathematics. For many, "drill is a way to kill" student interest and learning. For others, it is fundamental to learning.
Coach Wooden is unabashedly an advocate of drill when it is used properly within a balanced approach that also attends to developing understanding and initiative . . . Repetition, or drill, is one of his four laws of learning:
"The 4 laws are explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition. The goal is to create a correct habit that can be produced instinctively under great pressure. To make sure this goal was achieved, I created 8 laws of learning, namely,  explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition."
However, drill for Coach Wooden is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Drilling is intended to achieve an automaticity or mastery of fundamentals that opens up opportunities for individual creativity and initiative. To make certain the drills were understood by his students to be part of a larger more meaningful whole, he tried to show the context in which a skill or habit would operate:
"I tried to teach according to the whole-part method. I would show them the whole thing to begin with. Then I'm going to break it down into the parts and work on the individual parts and then eventually bring them together. [I wanted to teach] within the framework of the whole, but don't take away from the individuality because different ones are going to have different things at which they excel. I never wanted to take away from their individuality but I wanted that effort to put forth to the welfare of the group as a whole. I don't want to take away their thinking. I wanted options."
Let's unpack this and apply to conductors.
 
His initial four laws are explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition. These are somewhat self-explanatory, but we can expand upon them.
 
We often need to explain concepts. Concepts can be grasped fairly quickly and understood intellectually--in a sense this is like the cliche of the light bulb going on--if it's explained well enough the individual can immediately understand what is meant. For example, in working with my Collegium Singers on the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers, we were tuning to quarter-comma meantone where the major thirds are "pure" (come directly from the natural harmonic series) and are lower than the tempered thirds most of us are used to hearing. My singers could understand the concept quite quickly. However, understanding the concept and being able to apply it consistently and accurately are different things. We're talking about a skill that needs to be developed.
 
So we come to demonstration, imitation, and repetition. I chose the hymn Ave maris stella as one of the first movements in the Vespers to work on, since it has fairly regular phrases, is mostly homophonic, and has regular major cadences. This allowed me to work on the sound I wanted them to make, sense of phrase, what parts to bring out, and most importantly, tuning. Demonstration was sometimes done by me (having them sing the chord minus the third--I'd sing the third, then whatever part sang the third would imitate my tuning). This is what I most often do in rehearsal because normally I have a piano tuned in equal temperament. But in this case, we had our portative organ tuned to quarter-comma meantone (you can get an app now, by the way, with lots of historic tunings!), so most of the time our accompanist would play the chord and they would then sing, matching (imitating) the tuning.
 
But the skill to do this regularly, accurately, and immediately is something that takes time . . . and drill . . . to develop. I had a fairly large number of new students in the choir this year who were not accustomed to singing pure thirds. So it took a considerable number of repetitions in every rehearsal at the beginning--stopping after a cadence, letting them know the 3rd was too high, having the organ play the chord, then the choir singing again. After a while we began to get close each time--in this case I still had to stop, but now could ask them to sing better in tune without hearing the organ first, which they could do, but often took a second or two to get it really well in tune. The task was then to get to the point where they could sing the thirds in tune first time, every time. (I will fairly soon have the Monteverdi on YouTube so you can hear and judge this for yourself--watch for an announcement on Choralist)
 
This repetition--drill--is why Wooden created his eight laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition. Drill can be tedious, of course, but it's also the way to mastery of the music we perform and the skills our singers need to learn. I feel it's important that my singers learn how to hear and do these kinds of things themselves so they can carry these skills onward without me. But drills can't be all we do, and drills (which of necessity focus on a relatively narrow set of things) have to be combined with "scrimmage," running through larger sections or the entire piece. It's the same thing as Wooden's players doing many drills, but also needing to scrimmage regularly--because it's only there, where the various skills are combined in the way they will be in a real game (or for us, a real concert).
 
I also think Wooden's emphasis on the whole-part method is important. This can be seen in two ways: first, when learning a very specific skill that's made up of several parts, we can demostrate the full skill, break down into the component parts for drill, then combine the separate elements into the full skill. This why demonstration can be so important--it gives a larger picture and context of the particular skill being drilled before it's broken down into its component parts.
 
Second, when possible, it's important to give our singers a sense of the whole piece they're going to sing, before working on the individual sections, phrases, and challenges they have to master (through drill), then gradually bring it back to an ability to perform whole sections and ultimately, the whole piece.
 
When my group's capable of it, I want them to sightread as much of the piece as possible at first. That gives them an overview. Of course, sometimes that isn't possible--the music's too difficult, perhaps. I can play a recording of it for them, for example. But I may also explain the context/meaning of the music as well early on.
 
With a large work, I often need to find a way to introduce it that gives a sense of the whole before they begin to work on it. As an example, I did the Britten War Requiem with my PLU Choirs (three choirs combined, including our community-based Choral Union). The Britten is an extraordinarily difficult piece for them to imagine at first and, of course, the choir only plays a part in the whole since the tenor and baritone sing the moving poetry of Wilfrid Owen. I opened with all three choirs together, showing them pictures of Coventry Cathedral where it was premiered (the ruins of the old cathedral visible from the new one), explaining the symbolism of the English, Russian, and German soloists of the premiere (actually Galina Vishnevskaya wasn't allowed to leave Russia for the premiere, so an English soprano had to substitute), reading the poetry of Wilfed Owen and showing the connections Britten makes between the Latin text (from the Requiem) and Owen's poetry (using Owen's chilling re-telling of the Abraham and Isaac story, for example), etc. We then worked on the end of the first movement, with the choir and bells (which toll the C-F# tritone), the choir itself finally slipping into a magical F major. All this was to help them understand the whole and, frankly, give them the motivation, the why, to do the drill and rehearsal necessary to master such a complex work.
 
I certainly feel Wooden's concepts and understanding of pedagogy can help us understand how we can achieve more with our choirs.
 
Next, on to Swen Nater!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden VII

This will be a final two-part post based on Gallimore and Tharp's 2004 article, but not the last on what we can learn from John Wooden--he still has much more to teach us!

One of the sections in the article is titled, "Some Wooden Views on Pedagogy" (as always, read the article for yourself if you have the time). They include a great quote from a 2002 interview:
You don't just throw material out for someone to get, as I've heard some college professors say. I had a discussion with an English professor at UCLA. We were both asked to go to Sacramento by Dr. Murray, the Chancellor at UCLA at the time. When we began to discuss teaching, [the professor] indicated that he was there to dispense material and students were to get it. And I said, "I thought you were there to teach them." He said, "No, no, college students should be getting it themselves. Maybe in the lower levels they're taught, [but not when they get to university]." And I said, "Well I think you're always teaching." I can still remember having that discussion. We just differed a little bit on our philosophy.
By the way, this goes to the heart of the next source for the discussion of Wooden, the book by Swen Nater and Ronald Gallimore titled, You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned. The title says it all. As we saw in earlier posts and the original 1976 study, most of Wooden's time in practice was spent in instruction. This is incredibly important to us in terms of our responsibility as a teacher--and for me, good rehearsing is good teaching. And you can hardly claim to have taught them, until they have learned. For today's purpose, that goes back to my first post on the topic, on the value of drill.
From Gallimore and Tharp:
One debate turns on the relative value of drilling students to strengthen skills and habits. The controversy plays out in many areas, including reading, science, and mathematics. For many, "drill is a way to kill" student interest and learning. For others, it is fundamental to learning.
Coach Wooden is unabashedly an advocate of drill when it is used properly within a balanced approach that also attends to developing understanding and initiative . . . Repetition, or drill, is one of his four laws of learning:
"The 4 laws are explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition. The goal is to create a correct habit that can be produced instinctively under great pressure. To make sure this goal was achieved, I created 8 laws of learning, namely,  explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition."
However, drill for Coach Wooden is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Drilling is intended to achieve an automaticity or mastery of fundamentals that opens up opportunities for individual creativity and initiative. To make certain the drills were understood by his students to be part of a larger more meaningful whole, he tried to show the context in which a skill or habit would operate:
"I tried to teach according to the whole-part method. I would show them the whole thing to begin with. Then I'm going to break it down into the parts and work on the individual parts and then eventually bring them together. [I wanted to teach] within the framework of the whole, but don't take away from the individuality because different ones are going to have different things at which they excel. I never wanted to take away from their individuality but I wanted that effort to put forth to the welfare of the group as a whole. I don't want to take away their thinking. I wanted options."
I think this is incredibly relevant to what we do as conductors/teachers. For the next post I'll write about some of the ways I try to do this with my choirs. I'll draw on some of the things I've been doing this fall in preparing two different programs with two different choirs: The Collegium Singers, which just did two performances of the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers and the University Singers, who have a program on Tuesday, November 12. If you want to watch/hear it to see what we're doing, you can watch live online at 8 PM Central time. I'll speak to some of the repertoire on the program and what kinds of drill went into preparing the performance.

And then I hope you'll add to the discussion!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden VI

This continues last week's post about Wooden's preparation and what we can learn from it. Remember, we're referencing Gallimore and Tharp's 2004 article, which looked back at their earlier 1976 study.

Last week we heard how Wooden spent 2 hours each morning planning the afternoon's practice. All the drills were written out on 3x5 cards and every assistant and manager had his own copy, since they assisted with the practice and needed to know the plan as well as Wooden did. Gallimore and Tharp also note how this was used for individuals as well as the group:
"Pass to someone short" was a byproduct of the detailed practice plans. Coach Wooden went to practices armed with cards that helped him attend to the fine details of a player's performance and development and focus his instructions accordingly. This included what parts of the offense the player needed to work on, moves for his particular position, the number of consecutive free-throws required of an individual before he could return to the scrimmage, and many other areas.
Speaking to the need to keep spoken instructions brief, they again quote Wooden from a 2002 interview:
John Bunn, one of the brightest, most erudite coaches I've ever known, made the statement one time, "Give a coach the opportunity to say in 15 minutes what he should say in 15 seconds--he will." I learned to be concise and quick and didn't string things out. . . . I never had a lot of meetings or things of that sort. I wanted short things during the practice session.
This is directly relevant to the work we do. To teach more, to make your rehearsals more instruction dense, you have to have a very clear idea of what you're planning to do in the rehearsal and how you're going to do it. I spoke of that in the last post. But it's as important to make sure that your instructions are clear, brief, communicate what's necessary (but no more), and immediately get your choir singing again. It's a quick back and forth from the choir singing, stopping for a quick instruction, to singing again . . . and, you hope, showing improvement.

Wooden's 3x5 cards helped with this process, because he could work out those brief instructions in advance. When I worked with young conductors, I asked them to have a detailed rehearsal plan worked out in advance, which included not only what they were going to rehearse, but all potential problems (at least those they could anticipate) and the specific techniques that would be used to solve them. This is where analysis of your rehearsals (and what worked or not) can help greatly. Best is a recording (audio or video), which allow you to listen back to your instructions: are they clear? Are they concise? Were they as short as they could be and still communicate what you want? If you want to go further, do your own little (scary!) study, and log how much time you talk versus the time they sing--we'll hope you aren't surprised at how much and how long you talk.

With young conductors (and frankly, with much more experienced ones as well) practice in advance of what you're planning (or likely) to say can be enormously helpful. If you wish, use Wooden's 3x5 cards and write out what you're going to say. Or simply practice, in the privacy of your room, giving instructions out loud. It's a way of practicing ("acting as if") through anticipated situations and what you'll say and do. The more often you do this, the more readily quick and accurate instructions will come "naturally."

You will find it difficult to write down every potential correction and statement on your rehearsal plan, but you could include some (or at least in a shorthand).

This takes practice!

It's also important to understand that there is no end to improvement (and, therefore, practice). Again, from Gallimore and Tharp's 2002 interview with Wooden:
I hope I was learning the very last year [I coached]. I don't think I learned as much the last year as I did the first year but I hope I learned a little bit each and every year.
And from the 1997 book with Steve Jamison:
When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. . . . Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don't look for the big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That's the only way it happens, and when it happens, it lasts.
I think this is incredibly important. What you can ultimately be--how far you can improve--can't be seen early in your career, even though you may know a lot about where you are now. If you can keep learning, rehearsal by rehearsal and concert by concert, you can make enormous progress over what I hope will be a long career.

The work you do on preparation for each day, the time you spend practicing what you're going to say and how you're going to say it, the evaluation you do after rehearsals (which then shape what you change or improve next)--all these things will be the small improvements that ultimately make you very skilled.

To go back to Wooden, we know now that he had the best record in coaching college basketball. He had a great background (3 time All-American at Purdue as a player), but his ultimate success as a coach didn't come overnight. He started coaching at UCLA in 1948, yet his first conference title wasn't until 1955-56, they lost in the semi-finals of the NCAA's in 1962, and finally won their first title in 1964-65. And it's acknowledged that his first NCAA title came after his assistant coach Jerry Norman convinced him, with a relatively small team, to adopt a zone defense to go with their fast-paced offense.

So, in the same way, it's a long process to improve your skills as a conductor . . . and that's as important a thing to learn from John Wooden as anything else.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden V

Following up on last week's post, based on the 2004 study that re-evaluated Gallimore and Tharp's earlier study of John Wooden's methods, we move to a different topic, that of Wooden's preparation for his practices (or for our rehearsals).
 
As I mentioned last week, Gallimore and Tharp's 1976 study was based on observation of practices, but they didn't interview Wooden at that time. As they note in the later study,
In the meantime, we learned from his published accounts and those of his players and from our own conversations and interviews with him in the intervening years. It is now clear Coach Wooden's economical teaching that we observed was the product of extensive, detailed, and daily planning based on continuous evaluation of individual and team development and performance. . . He made decisions "on the fly" at a pace equal to his players, in response to the details of his players' actions. Yet his teaching was in no sense ad hoc. Down to the specific words he used, his planning included specific goals for both team and individuals. Thus he could pack into a practice a rich basketball curriculum and deliver information at precisely the moments it would help his students learn the most. It was, he always said, the teaching in practices he valued, more than the games and the winning, and it was practices he was so reluctant to leave when he retired.
They then quote Wooden, from his 1997 book (with Steve Jamison), Wooden: a lifetime of observations and reflections on and off the court:
Everything was planned out each day. In fact, in my later years at UCLA I would spend two hours every morning with my assistants organizing that day's practice (even though the practice itself might be less than two hours long). I kept a record of every practice session in a loose-leaf notebook for future reference.
 
I would spend almost as much time planning a practice as conducting it. Everything was listed on three-by-five cards down to the very last detail.
Every 5-15 minutes of each practice was organized with the specific activity and each assistant also had a copy of the cards, so they could keep the players constantly on task, with the players literally running from one drill to another.
 
And from the same book and then a 2002 interview they did with Wooden:
I kept notes with the specifics of every minute of every practice we ever had at UCLA. I looked back to see what we'd done on the corresponding day the previous year and the year before that.
 
By the time I came to UCLA, I'd already been coaching for 13 years. . . could tell you what we did in every practice in my twenty-seven years at UCLA. I could go back to the 48-49 year and tell you what we did on November the 15th--minute by minute what we did--and I think that helped me tremendously by doing those [plans] and I can refer back to them always. I would always make little notations after practice, maybe . . . too long, a couple of minutes or five minutes too long on this, or [we] need a little more attention to this.
Where did he evolve the kind of planning he did?
I felt running a practice was like teaching an English class [he'd done this earlier in his career]. . . I knew a detailed plan was necessary for teaching English, but it took a while before I realized the same thing was necessary in sports. Otherwise you waste an enormous amount of time, effort, and talent.
I think most of us can agree that proper planning is important to a good rehearsal--but I'm doubtful that many (any?) of us have been as thorough as John Wooden!
 
Wasting an enormous amount of time, effort, and talent is, however, what happens without good rehearsal planning.
 
So, where do we start?
 
First, do you do a detailed rehearsal plan each day?
 
Margaret Hillis told me and a group of others in a workshop that she planned each minute of every rehearsal--she said if you asked her what she'd be doing that evening at 8:35 PM, she could tell you.
 
I did similarly detailed planning earlier in my career (later, a bit more about what I do now). And absolutely, after every rehearsal I did a postmortem, asking what worked, what didn't, and what could be improved. I did not keep plans and refer back to them in the way Wooden did (and perhaps should have). But the process of thinking (and sometimes agonizing) about why something didn't work was enormously valuable in my learning process as a young conductor (and is still important today). I know that early in my career I had many more "bad" rehearsals--when things just didn't go as I expected--but that gradually improved as I figured out what worked and what didn't. And I grew to enjoy rehearsing more and more as I got better at it . . . and of course, we spend much more time rehearsing than we do performing--if you don't love the process, you're missing many of the joys of conducting.
 
With young conducting students I want to see them do the following as they plan:
  • know exactly what pieces (and what sections of those pieces) they will rehearse and in what order (the sequence of the pieces and what you plan to accomplish will have a big effect on how well the rehearsal goes)
  • know what they're going to accomplish with each piece (this can range from run through this section, be secure with the notes and rhythms from b. 22-35, learn to sing this particular passage in tune, to work on the German pronunciation, etc.)
  • have completely thought through what are the potential problem spots (whether with notes, rhythms, intonation, sound, etc.)
  • and, as importantly, how will you solve those problem spots? what are the techniques or methods you'll use to accomplish this?
There are lots of other things to think about as well (and this is all a part of your total preparation--learning the music and understanding it to the best of your ability): what's the best sequence for learning a particular piece or section of it? What should you do first? In any given section, what vocal parts should be rehearsed together? Sometimes it can be male and female sections which belong together, but it can be any combination--and that has to be determined by your study of the score (if it isn't immediately obvious I'll often jot in the margin of the score: SA/TB, SB/AT, SAT/B as a shorthand of what parts to rehearse together). How do the singers find their pitches? Is it from another part? Is it from a chord? How do you teach it to them? Where are  dissonances between parts? Sometimes you can simply make the singers aware of it, but at other times it takes isolating those parts so they can hear how it should work. All transitions need to be thoroughly rehearsed, of course (that's like basketball players practicing transitions after a basket).
 
The more that is planned in advance, the more solutions that are at the ready, the better the chances for success.
 
Back to what I do now, I always work from a written plan, and do think thoroughly through all of the elements above, but don't always write them down. I don't normally plan the specific times that a piece will be rehearsed, but I always have an idea about how long each section will take in my rehearsal. I want to work reacting (or perhaps better, interacting with) to what I hear and see--while I have to think about all the potential problem spots, I need to be sensitive to what actually happens in the rehearsal. In this sense it's more like good jazz, where there's a structure everyone understands, but the specific development of the performance evolves as the players listen and interact with each other. I want my rehearsals to cover everything that needs to be done, but have the sense that it flows naturally, and be willing to change the plan if the mood and inspiration call for it.
 
However, I may have to re-think that, given what a great coach did right through to the end of his career!
 
There's more about Wooden's preparation that I'll discuss next time, particularly about long-term planning--and know that there's still more in Swen Nater and Ronald Gallimore's book I've already mentioned, You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden's Teaching Principles and Practices.
 
That's enough for now, but for a quick note: for those who followed my intonation series, I'm doing a performance of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers which will be live-streamed (8 PM Central Time, this Saturday--translate that to your time zone, e.g. 6 PM on the West Coast), and we're using quarter-comma meantone tuning, which calls for very pure thirds. I've worked hard with my singers (and instrumentalists) to tune this way. So, if you're interested in an example, you can tune in here on Saturday.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden IV

I based the previous two blog posts on a 1974 study by Professors Ronald Gallimore and Roland Tharp published in Psychology Today in 1976. In 2004 they re-visited the research and re-evaluated the data, resulting in the following study (as always, I recommend reading it for yourself--it's not long).

They note that, "much of the earlier study was verified. But much can be modified, enriched, and corrected." Evaluating their earlier study, they state that their coding of the various teaching acts was formed by the prevailing "'objectivity' Zeitgeist of the 1970s." They also said that they didn't have the nerve to ask Wooden for an interview at the time. In the intervening years, however, they were able to interview Wooden and others, filling out the picture with more information.

There's much of interest in the article and I'll speak of Wooden's (extraordinary) preparation in the next post. But for today, let's look at what was characterized as the ratio of positive to negative reinforcements, "total positive social reinforcements, verbals and non-verbals, constitute less than 7% of total acts. But scolds add up to 15.6% . . . Wooden scolds more than twice as much as he rewards."

As Gallimore and Tharp say in the 2004 study, "In 1974-75, teacher-praise was a major topic of classroom research . . . Thus we were surprised that Coach Wooden so seldom praised or reproved his players. This was at odds with the view held by many in the early '70s that the effective teacher signals, by praise and reproof, what student behaviors do and do not match expectations."

In a 2002 interview with Wooden, they told him that, "the thing we were most struck about was that you didn't do either of those things [reproofs or praise] so much. Most the things you said were just plain information about how to play basketball. I think we calculated that 75% of everything you said was information about the proper way to . . . do something in a particular context." To which Wooden replied, "I believe that is the positive approach. I believe in the positive approach. I always have."

Then Gallimore and Tharp say, "The positive approach in Coach's practice was to focus players' attention on specific, fine points of how to properly play basketball."

They quote Swen Nater (a former UCLA player, who'll reappear soon in the blog series because of the fantastic book about Wooden's teaching co-authored with Ronald Gallimore) about this kind of positive approach:
As a former student who committed many errors during practice and therefore having been the recipient of plenty of corrections, it was the "information" I received, during the correction, that I needed most. Having received it, I could make the adjustments and changes needed. It ws the information that promoted change. Had the majority of Coach Wooden's corrective strategies been positive ("Good job") or negative ("No, that's not the way"), I would have been left with an evaluation, not a solution. Also, corrections in the form of information did not address, or attack me as a person. New information was aimed at the act, not the actor.
I think this is significant, but something that needs more thought (from me, at least!) in terms of how to apply in a choral context.

With a basketball team there are a limited number of players--Wooden carried 12 with 7 that were in the primary rotation and therefore received the vast majority of the playing time in games. This means that much of the instruction can be individual. With a choir of (in my case for my undergraduate choir at UNT) 55 singers, that's much more difficult. I strive to make much of what I say "information dense" so that I do impart information, not just (as Nater noted), "an evaluation, not a solution." But this still isn't easy.

I'd be very interested in hearing what approaches you've used in this regard. As I've mentioned before, my frequent use of quartet seating forces (although forced is a funny word here--most singers love to be in quartets) the singers to be much more independent. I also realize I haven't had my singers do nearly as much individual singing in the rehearsal (or a quartet) this year as last. I need to re-evaluate that as my rehearsals go forward.

Certainly, however, we can all work harder as conductors to make sure that we don't just, as Nater says, give an "evaluation, not a solution." We have to think much more carefully about how we can teach our choir to sing better, to sing more musically, to read better, to sing better in tune, to sing with a better sense of ensemble, to be expressive. Only in doing that can our choirs reach their potential. But more importantly, only in this way can our individual singers gain the skills that will serve them well in their musical lives beyond the time they sing with us.

And a postscript: Ron Gallimore once again responded, having sent the earlier post to Swen Nater, referenced above:

"Here's what Swen had to say about this statement in your blog:

"It is clear to the players that Wooden is truly concerned about them. He takes a group of young men, many with superstar potential, and convinces them that they can best serve their self-interest by subordinating personal pride to team effort. Fairness, almost an obsession in his autobiography, has unquestionably helped players accept Wooden's decisions they did not like."
I'm going to disagree with something in the paragraph. It's almost correct, but not quite. Coach Wooden didn't convince us that we can best serve our self-interest by subordinating personal pride to team effort. You see, the self interest we had was to go professional. When we gave up what we could really do out there on the floor if given free reign (e.g., score 35 points), we knew our chances for going pro would reduce. It did for many UCLA players like Andre McCarter. So, when we gave up all those points, our self interest wasn't served unless you believe, being a part of a champion increases your stock more than being a star on an average or bad team. That's a huge gamble. Some of us knew we were sacrificing much money by becoming subordinate.
And Coach didn't really "convince" us to do it his way. It was his way or the highway or bench as we called it. That's how he convinced us.
What a great leader.
Swen
Many thanks to Ron Gallimore, Ronald Tharp, and Swen Nater for taking the time to add to this discussion!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden III

One never knows who will respond to a blog post--imagine my surprise when Ronald Gallimore commented on the last post and then Roland Tharp emailed me yesterday, having heard about the post from a friend! A very nice surprise, indeed! Dr. Gallimore mentioned his continuing research and referenced his website (from which I got the link to the Psychology Today article--reminder, it is here). His website can be found here and if you're interested in this series, you'll want to explore it further.
 
As I said in my response to his comment, I've looked at most of the articles and plan more posts based on the book he wrote with Swen Nater, which is very interesting. Dr. Tharp mentioned his further research and some work he'd done with a horn player on the topic of Wooden's techniques and philosophies and I'll follow up on that as well.
 
But enough of that, back to the topic at hand!
 
Another interesting result of the 1976 study was the amount of negative feedback vs. positive. To quote from the article again:
The aspect of Wooden's teaching with the most theoretical value is his unexpected mix of social reinforcement and punishment. In direct contrast to the techniques advocated by most behavior modifiers, praise is a minor feature of Wooden's teaching methods. Total positive social reinforcements, verbals and non-verbals, constitute less than 7% of total acts. But scolds add up to 15.6% . . . Wooden scolds more than twice as much as he rewards.
 
Withering reproofs: Since this finding deserves explanation, we should be clear about the phenomenon itself. In no sense is Wooden mean or punitive. He almost always leaves practice with a light touch, a joke, an affectionate pat on the back for players on the tired trek to the locker room. He never uses physical punishment such as lap-running. He prefers to keep practice a desired activity. But between the whistles that open and close practice, he is a dead-serious teacher whose reproofs can be so withering that observing psychologists shrink in their seats. Example, "No. No. No. Some of you are just standing around watching. Play your man tight before he gets the ball. Goodness gracious sakes, use the head the good Lord gave you."
 
I'm not sure that today those comments would be seen as quite as withering as they did in 1976, but the overall point is interesting--how much praise is necessary and desirable? What's the best way to get results? And, the theme of this series, "what can we learn from John Wooden?"
 
Of course, Gallimore and Tharp also mention Wooden's almost fatherly relationship with his players. More from the article:
It is clear to the players that Wooden is truly concerned about them. He takes a group of young men, many with superstar potential, and convinces them that they can best serve their self-interest by subordinating personal pride to team effort. Fairness, almost an obsession in his autobiography, has unquestionably helped players accept Wooden's decisions they did not like.
 
Wooden's negligible use of praise is particularly instructive when you consider the motivational level of his students. There may be no more highly motivated groups trying to learn something than these young athletes for whom success can mean fame and fortune, plus more immediate social benefits. Under such conditions of maximum incentive, praise becomes virtually unnecessary. For students less motivated than Wooden's, social rewards may be necessary as incentive to keep them in reach of instructions, modeling, feedback, and other activities that do produce learning. . .
 
The majority of Wooden's scolds are loaded with information. His complex statements both simultaneously scold and specifically reinstruct. . . These scold/reinstructions are often shouted during a group activity when no one can be sure who is the offending member, and consequently everyone tries to put himself in order.
 
I find this fascinating. While Wooden was working with a group that is intrinsically highly motivated (more so than most of us do!), I think there's much that's instructive for us.
 
I use plenty of positive statements/praise in rehearsal, but there is a time for honest criticism as well. I've been known to tell my choir, "Well, that sucked!" at the end of a particularly mediocre or bad run-through. Now, it's said with a little smile, and the choir will usually laugh at my use of the term, "sucked," but they usually know just as well as I do that it did, in fact, suck. Honest feedback (not said in an angry manner) about what the choir's just done can be enormously helpful. I think that saying positive things when the effort wasn't great can often be seen though by the choir--and then that puts all your positive statements in doubt--they aren't trustworthy.
 
And the final statement in the quoted paragraph above is an important one: by making a general statement, not identifying who you're speaking to, no one in the choir knows if they were late, early, out of tune (or whatever), and may all work harder to make sure they've got it right. This assumes that your group already is motivated to do better--which is dependent on the relationship you have with them and the kind of work ethic and practices you've built into the way they work together (see here for more on that). By the same token, if the problem is clearly with an individual, sometimes it's best to be direct (but then you have to decide if a student can handle saying something in front of the choir or if it's best to speak to them privately).
 
I believe another important statement from the article is, "Such Wooden techniques have already influenced our classroom work. His scold/reinstruction device, which we think of as a "Wooden," has turned out to be very useful in teaching children at our experimental school in Hawaii. We get the best results from a rich mix of praise and Woodens."
 
We need to find ways to make our rehearsals more "instruction dense," and use a similar "rich mix" of praise, scolds, and feedback that keep our choirs on a steep learning curve. The nature of your choir will change the mix--for some groups almost everything may need to be positive.
 
And please understand me, none of this is to say that anger has an effective place in our rehearsals (perhaps on extraordinarily rare occasions). I've had teachers (not necessarily conductors) who "go off" every so often. After the first few times (when it's shocking), you learn to tune it out or wait out the tantrum (and I use that word deliberately--it's rare that this is effective and is most often self-indulgent . . . because the person doesn't have a better and more positive way to effect change). The model Wooden presents is of someone genuinely concerned about his students (and they know this), with extraordinary knowledge of his subject matter, supremely well organized and sequenced practices (rehearsals), great teaching skills (ability to model, and the ability to give instruction-dense feedback--an important part of which is the "Wooden," a scold/reinstruction). All of this combined can be a model for us as conductors to accomplish more.
 
Let me know what you think--I'm interested in how this fits with your own experience . . . or how it might change the way you teach/rehearse.
 
Much more ahead, including a re-evaluation of their 1974-75 research by Gallimore and Tharp in 2004--what lessons did they learn after the original study and what would they do differently?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden II

Even though I knew about and admired John Wooden earlier in my life (I was an undergrad at the University of Washington, so watched a number of UW/UCLA games in person -- and after one of the games Kareem and several other players came to my dorm for a dance -- to say he "stood out" on the dance floor is no exaggeration!), this article in Psychology Today from 1976 really made me think about Wooden's teaching methods (I still have the original article, but was happy to see that Gallimore makes a pdf copy available on his website).

Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore, two psychologists and educational researchers, did a study of John Wooden's teaching techniques during the 1974-75 season, Wooden's last at UCLA. There's enough in this article that I'll do more than one post using parts of it, but I'll focus on a part of the study for this one.

Their method of research is a familiar one: first, enough observation was done to catalogue the different actions that the teacher/coach takes (and work to make sure that the observers agreed often enough on categorizing that there's validity to the observations), and then they spent time recording what Wooden actually did in practices, coding his actions and eventually calculating what percentage of the practice time were spent doing which activities.

I'd encourage you to read the article (short and not difficult), but a few notes from it and implications for conductors:
  • they conclude that fully 75% of Wooden's teaching acts contain instruction -- his practices (rehearsals!) are instruction-dense -- remember, this is not lecturing, but brief, crisp instructions about what the players are doing (or not doing) -- I've long felt that good rehearsing is good teaching -- as I said in the previous post, having my choir better understand the difference between "drill" and "scrimmage" helped make my rehearsals more "dense" and allow us to achieve more -- in the same way, I have to make sure my instructions give information quickly and clearly--my talking has to be "instruction dense."
  • 50% of his acts are verbal instructions, quick statements of what to do or how to do it -- for us, this means that when we stop the choir, we need to give an instruction (this isn't all we can do, of course) which will elicit a change in what the choir does
  • As Tharp and Gallimore then say, "Even this statistic doesn't reflect the heavy freight of information Wooden communicates." They note other categories, such as "scold/reinstruction ('Don't do X, do Y')," "modeling-negative and modeling-positive," praise, "scolds," and a category they called a "Wooden," which was a scold/reinstruction (scold + how to do it right)
  • There are obviously differences between what one can do with a basketball team and a choir, but finding an efficient way to instruct/teach the choir calls for clear and quick communication. When I say "quick," I don't mean that you can't take the time for longer instruction, but most of the time in rehearsal the choir should be singing. If you want to do a simple version of this study (and are brave enough!), record your rehearsal and just measure the time you spend talking, versus the choir singing. I hope you find the choir sings a high percentage of the rehearsal and don't discover you're talking for much of the time! To add to that, observe every time you talk: do you ramble, or are you concise? do you repeat unnecessarily? are your instructions clear? and, of course, does your choir seem to understand it (i.e., did they do it better the next time)?
  • Wooden's usual modeling pattern (for us, that's most often a sung demonstration) is model-correct, model-incorrect (what they just did), model-correct. For a simple musical problem, this is enormously effective: the choir hears how it's supposed to be done, how they just did it (which helps them discriminate what they did), and then again how to do it correctly. I use lots of demonstrations/models in my own rehearsals and it can teach very effectively (but be careful--if you sing it out of tune, they will, too!). I've noted earlier that Eric Ericson, a very skilled pianist, also modeled from the keyboard, which he did with a "singing/vocal" tone (not so easy to do!). If you have a skilled accompanist, they can do this for you as well. It's also possible to have singers in your choir demonstrate and I know a number of conductors who use this effectively.
There are similarities between what the team has to do and what a choir does, of course. Note this description from Tharp and Gallimore: "Teaching basketball is difficult, and a piecemeal description of these teaching techniques does not tell the complexity of the process. . . The options have to be learned so thoroughly that they become automatic. There's no time for thought to become conscious. Teaching the players to perform these patterns with precision . . . is a task for a virtuoso teacher."

It's that as much for an ensemble/conductor as for a team/coach--a friend of mine has often said that running a rehearsal is the ultimate in multi-tasking. You have to follow a rehearsal plan, but be open to adjust it (or even throw it out!) as you react to what the ensemble does. You're the "driver" of the rehearsal, but also have to have ears (and eyes!) open at all times. You're constantly comparing the "ideal" version of the music in your head to what you're actually hearing. Every time the choir sings you have make decisions on the fly as to when to stop (what do you ignore for now, what do you stop for?) and be ready to give instructions immediately and precisely. You communicate not only verbally, but non-verbally through your gesture, facial expression and body language. It's an improvised dance. I've always felt that there is an enormous amount of craft (that can be taught and learned) to rehearsal technique. But at the same time, there is art as well. In mathematics, it is said that while there are many possible proofs to a problem, some are more "elegant" than others. Therein lies the art. And Wooden was a superb technician of teaching basketball teams, but an artist as well.

I'll discuss other aspects of the article next time. Feel free to share your own thoughts!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden I

First, you need to know that John Wooden was the most successful basketball coach ever . . . but you still might wonder, what does that have to do with me? As head coach at UCLA, he won 10 NCAA championships in a period of 12 years, including a streak of 7 in a row. This was not only an unprecedented record, but he won with different types of players and teams, from his early championships with small, fast teams, to the teams dominated by Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And his success was not just in winning games, but in building the character of his players. He considered himself a teacher above all, it is from his teaching and leadership skills that we can learn, despite the fact that we're in very different fields.


I'll start with one idea that I found very useful (and mentioned in a blog post last year): that of the difference between scrimmage and drills. 


One of the noticeable things about the way Wooden worked his UCLA teams was to spend much more time in drill (focused on specific skills) than scrimmaging (playing a mock game). The advantage was that in drill, he could focus his players' work on skills and techniques that needed work (passing, shooting, defense, etc.), whereas in a scrimmage, only one player had the ball at any one time and less work for each player.

I introduced this idea to my choir last year (and this one, too), equating scrimmage with a run through of a piece or section of a piece--valuable for both me and them to see where they were, what worked well and what didn't (and, of course, to get the experience of singing through the entire piece, which is what they'll do in the concert). However, I explained that we would accomplish most with drill, where we worked the difficult sections of a given piece of music, or focused on pitch, vowel, rhythm, vocal technique, or whatever else needed special attention. Sometimes, I simply said, "scrimmage," so they'd know they were doing a run-through, and to work towards what the performance would be (and to note what was and wasn't ready yet).

In drill on the other hand, they knew they were going to do multiple repetitions of something, perhaps only a few notes, but with great focus on whatever elements were brought to their attention.

They got the concept very quickly, which has meant a much greater rehearsal density for my choir. There are other elements in building this, but I hope you get the idea as well.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Great new blog

It's always nice to discover a great new blog. I follow quite a few (and not all musical . . . hey, I have other interests, too!) and it's fun to find one with some fresh ideas.
 
J.D. Frizell is a candidate for the DMA at the University of Kentucky and Director of Fine Arts and Vocal Music at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, TN.
 
His blog can be found here. A recent post deals with the idea that practice does not always make perfect, using the idea of neuromuscular pathways. Here's a sample:
 
Musicians can benefit from them, too.  The understanding of neuromuscular pathways strongly informs my approach to teaching private voice lessons.  New students coming into my studio often are confused as to why we don't:
  • Learn a lot of new songs often
  • Learn a lot of songs they want to sing
  • Work on much more than a phrase at a time per lesson
I explain to them how neuromuscular pathways work and how, at their age, it is imperative to develop proper habits for singing, since their instrument IS their body.  It is especially important to focus on the repetitive element of building these pathways since singers often have bad habits that have been reinforced for their entire singing life! 

 This concept also applies to my ensembles, whom I often ask while sight-reading, "When does tone (or vowel shape/blend/dynamic contrast/etc.) matter?"  and they answer "Always!"
 
I highly recommend introducing the concept of neuromuscular pathways in your lessons or rehearsals.  To further the impression for my students, I make an analogy of the pathways being like roads.  When you practice something the first few times, you carve a dirt path.  A few more times, it becomes a gravel drive.  Months of repetition and consistency later, you'll have a paved road.  Eventually, you build superhighways with 10 lanes on each side.

 So no, practice does not make perfect.  Practice makes whatever you do within that time more engrained.  If you consistently play piano with straight fingers, you'll find it difficult to curve them appropriately in your lessons.  If you ignore intonation while practicing scales, you'll always play scalar passages out of tune. 
 
Explore his blog!
 
By the way, the best way to follow blogs (especially if you follow a fair number of them) is to use a reader. Many of us lamented Google's deciding not to support their reader, but Feedly's reader is a good replacement. You can find it here.
 
Up next: what can conductors/teachers learn from Coach John Wooden?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Beautiful interview and music by Peter Hallock

The Byrd Ensemble, led by Markdavin Obenza, has a CD of music by Peter Hallock coming out soon and have produced this video, an interview with Peter along with excerpts from the recording sessions at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle.



Peter's music has long interested me and I loved going to the Compline services at St. Mark's Cathedral. My first CD with Choral Arts was of Peter's music. I've continued doing Peter's music, most recently with my University Singers at UNT last fall.

The music on the video sounds wonderful and I look forward to the CD.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Auditions V - What do you prioritize?

After the long audition process you've gone through (well, long enough, anyway!), you have to make decisions as to who's in your choir(s). Difficult choices will always be a part of this if you have an auditioned choir. What do you prioritize? How do you make these choices?
 
The comments here are for those who have relatively advanced singers, so this (as with much of this series) might not speak to as large a number of conductors. But I hope it's still helpful and of interest.
 
First, how do you treat returning members of the ensemble? Are they automatically in? Do they have any "skin in the game" during auditions? I've almost always required re-auditions, but it's been incredibly rare for me not to take a previous member of the choir. Loyalty (assuming they've been a responsible member of the choir) goes both ways!
 
However, I've known of a few conductors who rate their singers on a scale and take the top rated singers, without regard to previous membership. A legitimate choice--but what do you think? Do you do this? Could you do this?
 
Second, one can prioritize (this is broadly stated!) either vocal sound or musicianship/ear. What's most important to you? The very best voices? The best sightreaders?
 
Obviously, this is a vast oversimplification, but there is an element here that is important--your choices will have consequences. If you find yourself frustrated with the speed with which your choir can work, did you prioritze quality of voice too highly? Or, if you're unhappy with the sound of your choir, did you leave some really fine singers with great instruments out of your choir because their reading was poor?
 
If we all had the perfect situation, we'd have fantastic voices connected with unbelievable musicianship and experience--but then we probably wouldn't be a good enough conductor to work with them!
 
In reality, choices are a balance--one looks for the combination of voice/musicianship which will create the best choir. The real choices are at the margins--with the majority of the singers it'll be pretty clear whether they belong in the choir or not. But decisions for the last few singers in each section can be difficult (even agonizing) and here's where the needs of the ensemble can help with the decision. Do you need a particular voice type (a high soprano? soprano with a warm lower voice?)? Have you already chosen some beautiful voices for the section, but some whose reading is poor? In that case, you might choose a fantastic reader (without a great voice) who can help that section learn more quickly and give musical leadership. On the other hand, you might need a voice that other voices can use as a model of the kind of sound you need--even if their musicianship isn't of the highest level.
 
And what about the intangibles (perhaps not so intangible!)--personality, leadership qualities--those things we might put into the overall term, "character." Is the singer committed, enthusiastic, energetic, a good leader? These are elements we also should consider.
 
If you have thoughts about how you make your final choices, please share them!
 
All the best with your choirs this year--may your audition choices turn out to be wonderful ones.