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

What can we 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!
 
 
on November 8, 2013 10:57am
Interesting series.   One thought has come to me repeatedly, reading these:  Wooden (from your description) appears to have given instruction to specific players, and to have planned work for individuals.  In a lifetime of singing I can count on one finger the times a conductor has given me individual instruction:  it is just a difficult thing at both ends: for the director to know to whom to address the instruction, and for the instructed to know to whom it is given.    On the other hand, I have countless times been puzzled to know exactly who is causing the fault which is observed.    So ... a chorus may be a larger communication problem than a team?

William
on November 8, 2013 9:35pm
William, that's something I've been thinking about--Wooden dealt with 12 or so players each season and 7-8 who would do most the playing in games (although the reserves were vital in prepping the regulars). That's not so many that you can't give individual feedback on a regular basis. With 58 or so in one choir and 28 in another (not to speak of the church choir I'm working with on an interim basis this year), it's not so easy.
 
But that may take some re-thinking--I have some thoughts, but they will require a new way of rehearsing (I've done some of this, but not regularly enough) and will take more time to keep track of contacts with singers, feedback, etc. I'd have to try out some of these ideas before sharing them, however!
 
I do sometimes address an issue with a singer directly if I feel they can take criticism in a rehearsal (usually in terms of balance--John, it needs to be a little quieter there), although it's not an issue to give praise . . . although if some get praise and others don't . . .
 
I'll keep thinking about it.