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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.

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