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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.