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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!


Gary Weidenaar said...

This is gold for the choral conductor!

After reading many coaches phiosophies, my second-most helpful is Mike Krzyzewski (at the helm of the storied Duke basketball dynasty). He literally almost died early in his career, and when he first started he had a couple of horrific seasons where he lost nearly all the games he coached.

Thanks, Richard, for this series!

Richard said...

Many thanks, Gary! Happy to do it--I've always loved the connection between coaching and conducting and have a collection of books on leadership as well.

A former student of mine gave me the newest one by Phil Jackson, which also has a lot of great ideas.