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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!