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What we can learn from John Wooden V

Following up on last week's post, based on the 2004 study that re-evaluated Gallimore and Tharp's earlier study of John Wooden's methods, we move to a different topic, that of Wooden's preparation for his practices (or for our rehearsals).
As I mentioned last week, Gallimore and Tharp's 1976 study was based on observation of practices, but they didn't interview Wooden at that time. As they note in the later study,
In the meantime, we learned from his published accounts and those of his players and from our own conversations and interviews with him in the intervening years. It is now clear Coach Wooden's economical teaching that we observed was the product of extensive, detailed, and daily planning based on continuous evaluation of individual and team development and performance. . . He made decisions "on the fly" at a pace equal to his players, in response to the details of his players' actions. Yet his teaching was in no sense ad hoc. Down to the specific words he used, his planning included specific goals for both team and individuals. Thus he could pack into a practice a rich basketball curriculum and deliver information at precisely the moments it would help his students learn the most. It was, he always said, the teaching in practices he valued, more than the games and the winning, and it was practices he was so reluctant to leave when he retired.
They then quote Wooden, from his 1997 book (with Steve Jamison), Wooden: a lifetime of observations and reflections on and off the court:
Everything was planned out each day. In fact, in my later years at UCLA I would spend two hours every morning with my assistants organizing that day's practice (even though the practice itself might be less than two hours long). I kept a record of every practice session in a loose-leaf notebook for future reference.
I would spend almost as much time planning a practice as conducting it. Everything was listed on three-by-five cards down to the very last detail.
Every 5-15 minutes of each practice was organized with the specific activity and each assistant also had a copy of the cards, so they could keep the players constantly on task, with the players literally running from one drill to another.
And from the same book and then a 2002 interview they did with Wooden:
I kept notes with the specifics of every minute of every practice we ever had at UCLA. I looked back to see what we'd done on the corresponding day the previous year and the year before that.
By the time I came to UCLA, I'd already been coaching for 13 years. . . could tell you what we did in every practice in my twenty-seven years at UCLA. I could go back to the 48-49 year and tell you what we did on November the 15th--minute by minute what we did--and I think that helped me tremendously by doing those [plans] and I can refer back to them always. I would always make little notations after practice, maybe . . . too long, a couple of minutes or five minutes too long on this, or [we] need a little more attention to this.
Where did he evolve the kind of planning he did?
I felt running a practice was like teaching an English class [he'd done this earlier in his career]. . . I knew a detailed plan was necessary for teaching English, but it took a while before I realized the same thing was necessary in sports. Otherwise you waste an enormous amount of time, effort, and talent.
I think most of us can agree that proper planning is important to a good rehearsal--but I'm doubtful that many (any?) of us have been as thorough as John Wooden!
Wasting an enormous amount of time, effort, and talent is, however, what happens without good rehearsal planning.
So, where do we start?
First, do you do a detailed rehearsal plan each day?
Margaret Hillis told me and a group of others in a workshop that she planned each minute of every rehearsal--she said if you asked her what she'd be doing that evening at 8:35 PM, she could tell you.
I did similarly detailed planning earlier in my career (later, a bit more about what I do now). And absolutely, after every rehearsal I did a postmortem, asking what worked, what didn't, and what could be improved. I did not keep plans and refer back to them in the way Wooden did (and perhaps should have). But the process of thinking (and sometimes agonizing) about why something didn't work was enormously valuable in my learning process as a young conductor (and is still important today). I know that early in my career I had many more "bad" rehearsals--when things just didn't go as I expected--but that gradually improved as I figured out what worked and what didn't. And I grew to enjoy rehearsing more and more as I got better at it . . . and of course, we spend much more time rehearsing than we do performing--if you don't love the process, you're missing many of the joys of conducting.
With young conducting students I want to see them do the following as they plan:
  • know exactly what pieces (and what sections of those pieces) they will rehearse and in what order (the sequence of the pieces and what you plan to accomplish will have a big effect on how well the rehearsal goes)
  • know what they're going to accomplish with each piece (this can range from run through this section, be secure with the notes and rhythms from b. 22-35, learn to sing this particular passage in tune, to work on the German pronunciation, etc.)
  • have completely thought through what are the potential problem spots (whether with notes, rhythms, intonation, sound, etc.)
  • and, as importantly, how will you solve those problem spots? what are the techniques or methods you'll use to accomplish this?
There are lots of other things to think about as well (and this is all a part of your total preparation--learning the music and understanding it to the best of your ability): what's the best sequence for learning a particular piece or section of it? What should you do first? In any given section, what vocal parts should be rehearsed together? Sometimes it can be male and female sections which belong together, but it can be any combination--and that has to be determined by your study of the score (if it isn't immediately obvious I'll often jot in the margin of the score: SA/TB, SB/AT, SAT/B as a shorthand of what parts to rehearse together). How do the singers find their pitches? Is it from another part? Is it from a chord? How do you teach it to them? Where are  dissonances between parts? Sometimes you can simply make the singers aware of it, but at other times it takes isolating those parts so they can hear how it should work. All transitions need to be thoroughly rehearsed, of course (that's like basketball players practicing transitions after a basket).
The more that is planned in advance, the more solutions that are at the ready, the better the chances for success.
Back to what I do now, I always work from a written plan, and do think thoroughly through all of the elements above, but don't always write them down. I don't normally plan the specific times that a piece will be rehearsed, but I always have an idea about how long each section will take in my rehearsal. I want to work reacting (or perhaps better, interacting with) to what I hear and see--while I have to think about all the potential problem spots, I need to be sensitive to what actually happens in the rehearsal. In this sense it's more like good jazz, where there's a structure everyone understands, but the specific development of the performance evolves as the players listen and interact with each other. I want my rehearsals to cover everything that needs to be done, but have the sense that it flows naturally, and be willing to change the plan if the mood and inspiration call for it.
However, I may have to re-think that, given what a great coach did right through to the end of his career!
There's more about Wooden's preparation that I'll discuss next time, particularly about long-term planning--and know that there's still more in Swen Nater and Ronald Gallimore's book I've already mentioned, You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden's Teaching Principles and Practices.
That's enough for now, but for a quick note: for those who followed my intonation series, I'm doing a performance of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers which will be live-streamed (8 PM Central Time, this Saturday--translate that to your time zone, e.g. 6 PM on the West Coast), and we're using quarter-comma meantone tuning, which calls for very pure thirds. I've worked hard with my singers (and instrumentalists) to tune this way. So, if you're interested in an example, you can tune in here on Saturday.
on October 29, 2013 1:42pm
Dr. Sparks,
This is an excellent article to reflect upon! Just wanted to know if you could elaborate a little more on the philosophy of having an extremely detailed vs. general outline. To preface this comment, I am a young conductor, but I had a similar experience as you when doing extremely detailed plans.  
I find that I tend to almost close my ears on the sections I do not have notes for, and that I am less reactive to the sound.  For instance, I recently recorded myself teaching with a very detailed plan, and the choir made mistakes in areas I would have never guessed. The problem was that I did not hear most of these errors while I was teaching because I was so intently focused on hearing the mistakes I ASSUMED would happen.  I feel that if I would have been less presumptuous, I would have done a better job at detecting those simple mistakes.  However, it's great to have that plan because I find my rehearsals have more direction, even though it may not appear as natural.  Once again, for being a young conductor, which method do you think would be the most success to my rehearsals, both now and as a I continue to become more experienced? Thanks in advance for your thoughts and advice!
on October 29, 2013 5:27pm
Dear Shawn,
This is difficult for any young conductor! I think one of the hardest things to learn to do is to multi-task and listen, listen, listen, while still running the rehearsal, conducting, dealing (sometimes) with discipline issues, etc.
The simple answer (but not so simple to do!) is that you have to get the sound of the music so clearly in your inner ear that you can compare what you hear in your mind with the sound coming to your ear and catch the differences. That means more prep time/score study. All the usual things: play through all parts, sing all parts, sing a part and play another, analyse the phrase structure, figure out the harmony and how it sounds, look at the text (or translation) for understanding, memorize the text, figure out the structure of the piece, think through the written dynamics and articulation markings, figure out (based on all of the previous) how fast it should go, where breaths should be . . . and I'm certain I've left lots of things out since I'm doing this off the top of my head!
As you do these reductive exercises (taking just a part of the music), then sit back and try to hear the music inside yourself. There will be clear places and fuzzy places. With each new part of study it should become clearer. Gradually you begin to hear the whole, rather than just focusing on the parts.
Now, when I say this is hard to do, I mean you have years of learning ahead of you! The point is not to be able to do this right now, but to do it regularly enough that you improve in your ability to learn a score and form a secure mental/aural image of the sound in your mind. You may only have time to do this kind of thorough score study on a few of the pieces you're doing--that's OK, do what you can! With each time, it'll get easier and better.
There is no end . . . certainly not for me and I've been at this for a long time! I can still improve in the area of having a complete aural image of a score in my head.
In terms of your prep beforehand--anticipating potential mistakes--you need to throw some of your focus and attention on those spots when you rehearse--just enough to notice, "Did the altos get that F# or not?" But not to throw all of it there!
In a sense, you are two people when you rehearse -- part of you (or part of your brain) is just intently listening to what the choir (or orchestra) sings/plays. Another part is very active, because it's running the rehearsal, having to figure out whether to stop or not, what to say when you do, remember that you're only taking 5 minutes on this piece with a specific goal (that's why your rehearsal plan is important), etc. And, of course, you're conducting the music, too. For the young conductor, when gestures are not automatic, it takes considerable brain power to conduct a ritard well, deal with fermatas, give a clear prep beat or cue, and conduct expressively (with your left hand as well!). In this sense, too, the more practice you do for difficult sections, the better, because it takes less of your conscious brain power to deal with it.
In so many cases when I've dealt with a beginning conductor their first time rehearsing, you can ask them, "Who made the mistake on page 5?" or "What happened in the bass part in bar 25?", and get the response, "I have no idea!" It's not surprising!
I do say some more in Thursday's blog post about Wooden and the application to conducting -- see if it helps.
I know there's more to say on this, too! Maybe I need a series on the young conductor . . .
on October 30, 2013 10:06am
Yes! A series for the young conductor would be great! And thank you for your response, I appreciate the detail!  It's good to know I'm just experiencing typical "growing pains." I will definitely go through all those steps you listed.  Most of them are ones I include already, but there are some that I have yet to do, such as singing one part while playing another.  
One other question, this one regarding the role of recordings in the process of aquiring an aural image of the piece.  My understanding is that listening to one particular performance can cause you to fall into the trap of making other's mistakes, but this can also give you a sound to strive towards.  Do you have rules/recommendations to your students of how exactly to use recordings appropriately?  I apologize if I'm getting you off topic!
on November 2, 2013 9:03pm
Hi Shawn, I've never had rules either for my students or myself on listening to recordings . . . but I do have thoughts! A potential problem is that if you listen to one recording over and over, you're likely to absorb many of the aspects of the interpretation of the other conductor without thinking about it yourself. On the other hand, particularly when working in an unfamiliar style (anything from period performance to doing Russian Orthodox music), it can be helpful to listen to various good interpreters and compare what they do with each other. It's one of the ways to learn style (as an example, here's a blog post about my working on the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil for the first time--although I have to admit, in some movements I was also influenced by Valery Polyansky's recording--which does show my being influenced by another conductor's interpretation).
Of course, recordings may not help resolve some performance practice issues! I remember early in my career doing Bach's Christ lag in Todesbanden and there's a performance issue in the duet--there are both triplets and eighths and one question is whether you should assimilate the eighths to the triplets. This was the same time when the first issues of the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Bach cantata series came out and I thought, "Now I can find out which way it's supposed to be done!" When I got the first set, which included Harnoncourt's recording of Cantata 4, I listened and the alto sang one way and the tenor another! Some definitive answer!
And, since early music interpretation (to take one example) changes over time, either as new knowledge comes available OR as styles and fashions change, you have to be careful about accepting even the opinion of those known as "experts."
Not too long after that Bach experience I started a group called the Bach Ensemble in Seattle, which did Bach cantatas once a month (actually twice a month when we started, which I quickly realized was insane!). Since many Bach cantatas hadn't been recorded at that time (long before the complete series were done by Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, Rilling, Gardiner, Koopman, etc.) I conducted a fair number of cantatas that I'd never heard before, either live or on recording--and this was great for me, since I had to try to imagine what the music sounded like, what the tempi should be, how to interpret it from nothing but the notes on the page (there were also other issues in getting scores and parts--some were borrowed from the Drinker Library in Philadelphia and there were frequently mistakes in these handwritten parts, or Breitkopf parts edited before WWII with horrible dynamic markings added, or having to write out parts by hand when the score and parts had, for example, been transposed from d minor to c minor--a Chorton/Kammerton issue--and that key didn't work for the baroque oboe)--but I learned a huge amount from all of this.
So, I would say, use recordings sparingly if possible. Make sure that you work hard to develop your own musical imagination. If you're going to listen to recordings, at least try first to learn to hear it as best as possible without their help, and then see how close you were.