Follow by Email

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.


Luís Lopes Cardoso said...

Hi! I could't listen to the stream you mention at the end of this post. Is it going to be uploaded to the University Youtube channel? Just checked and it still hasn't.
Thank you for your posts.

Richard said...

Yes, I think the Vespers will be on YouTube--we're waiting on the last couple permissions from our guest players. I'll let everyone know when it's up!