What we can learn from John Wooden II
Date: October 3, 2013
Even though I knew about and admired John Wooden earlier in my life (I was an undergrad at the University of Washington, so watched a number of UW/UCLA games in person -- and after one of the games Kareem and several other players came to my dorm for a dance -- to say he "stood out" on the dance floor is no exaggeration!), this article in Psychology Today from 1976 really made me think about Wooden's teaching methods (I still have the original article, but was happy to see that Gallimore makes a pdf copy available on his website).
Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore, two psychologists and educational researchers, did a study of John Wooden's teaching techniques during the 1974-75 season, Wooden's last at UCLA. There's enough in this article that I'll do more than one post using parts of it, but I'll focus on a part of the study for this one.
Their method of research is a familiar one: first, enough observation was done to catalogue the different actions that the teacher/coach takes (and work to make sure that the observers agreed often enough on categorizing that there's validity to the observations), and then they spent time recording what Wooden actually did in practices, coding his actions and eventually calculating what percentage of the practice time were spent doing which activies.
I'd encourage you to read the article (short and not difficult), but a few notes from it and implications for conductors:
There are similarities between what the team has to do and what a choir does, of course. Note this description from Tharp and Gallimore: "Teaching basketball is difficult, and a piecemeal description of these teaching techniques does not tell the complexity of the process. . . The options have to be learned so thoroughly that they become automatic. There's no time for thought to become conscious. Teaching the players to perform these patterns with precision . . . is a task for a virtuoso teacher."
It's that as much for an ensemble/conductor as for a team/coach--a friend of mine has often said that running a rehearsal is the ultimate in multi-tasking. You have to follow a rehearsal plan, but be open to adjust it (or even throw it out!) as you react to what the ensemble does. You're the "driver" of the rehearsal, but also have to have ears (and eyes!) open at all times. You're constantly comparing the "ideal" version of the music in your head to what you're actually hearing. Every time the choir sings you have make decisions on the fly as to when to stop (what do you ignore for now, what do you stop for?) and be ready to give instructions immediately and precisely. You communicate not only verbally, but non-verbally through your gesture, facial expression and body language. It's an improvised dance. I've always felt that there is an enormous amount of craft (that can be taught and learned) to rehearsal technique. But at the same time, there is art as well. In mathematics, it is said that while there are many possible proofs to a problem, some are more "elegant" than others. Therein lies the art. And Wooden was a superb technician of teaching basketball teams, but an artist as well.
I'll discuss other aspects of the article next time. Feel free to share your own thoughts!