Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

What we can learn from John Wooden I

First, you need to know that John Wooden was the most successful basketball coach ever . . . but you still might wonder, what does that have to do with me? As head coach at UCLA, he won 10 NCAA championships in a period of 12 years, including a streak of 7 in a row. This was not only an unprecedented record, but he won with different types of players and teams, from his early championships with small, fast teams, to the teams dominated by Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And his success was not just in winning games, but in building the character of his players. He considered himself a teacher above all, it is from his teaching and leadership skills that we can learn, despite the fact that we're in very different fields.
I'll start with one idea that I found very useful (and mentioned in a blog post last year): that of the difference between scrimmage and drills. 
One of the noticeable things about the way Wooden worked his UCLA teams was to spend much more time in drill (focused on specific skills) than scrimmaging (playing a mock game). The advantage was that in drill, he could focus his players' work on skills and techniques that needed work (passing, shooting, defense, etc.), whereas in a scrimmage, only one player had the ball at any one time and less work for each player.

I introduced this idea to my choir last year (and this one, too), equating scrimmage with a run through of a piece or section of a piece--valuable for both me and them to see where they were, what worked well and what didn't (and, of course, to get the experience of singing through the entire piece, which is what they'll do in the concert). However, I explained that we would accomplish most with drill, where we worked the difficult sections of a given piece of music, or focused on pitch, vowel, rhythm, vocal technique, or whatever else needed special attention. Sometimes, I simply said, "scrimmage," so they'd know they were doing a run-through, and to work towards what the performance would be (and to note what was and wasn't ready yet).
In drill on the other hand, they knew they were going to do multiple repetitions of something, perhaps only a few notes, but with great focus on whatever elements were brought to their attention.
They got the concept very quickly, which has meant a much greater rehearsal density for my choir. There are other elements in building this, but I hope you get the idea as well.
on September 26, 2013 7:07am
I love it. In my situation, we had issues with people participating in warm-ups - my fix was to stop calling them warm-ups, which implies a passive tone, and call them "drills". Along with this I made sure to explain the exact reason as to "why" we were engaged in these activities, and made the warm-ups as specific to the music that we were rehearsing as possible.
It made quite a difference after a few weeks. 
Applauded by an audience of 2
on September 26, 2013 11:01am
Few leaders take time to focus their practice on the most important things the way Wooden did. I have translated his pyramid of success into choral leadership terms, and it works very well. Skill building is at the heart of his pyramid--and at the heart of great leadership, whether its in the rehearsal hall or on the basketball court. I have found that his principles of teamwork, which sometimes have more to do with human values and less to do with playing basketball (or making music), are also an excellent guide for many aspects of ensemble leadership. Wooden even turns simple chores like mopping the floor (which he did for years at UCLA) into a meaningful experience.
on September 26, 2013 4:16pm
Thanks to both of you for great comments. If you'd like to do a guest post sometime, let me now.
I admire Wooden greatly--I've always been interested in questions of leadership and Wooden exemplifies the very best of this--as you said, Chuck, more from human values than from just sport or music or you name it!
on September 27, 2013 12:06am
Thank you so much for posting this. My voice teacher in grad school, the late James McDonald, bought each of us a book with quotes and stories by Wooden. Each time we sang in studio class, we were supposed to read a quote from that book.