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What we can learn from John Wooden VIII

Last week I addressed a number of John Wooden's ideas about pedagogy, taken from Gallimore and Tharp's 2004 article.
 
So now it's time to see what his pedagogical ideas can offer us as conductors. Part of the last post deals with our responsibility as teachers--is it our responsibility just to present material, or is it to find a way for our students learn the material, learn the skills involved, and learn those materials in a broader context that lead to their mastery of both skills and ideas so that they can apply them on their own? I'll begin to explore that next week as we look at Gallimore and Swen Nater's book, You Haven't Taught Them Until They Have Learned.
 
This week I'll focus on drill, which was a part of the first post in this series. Here's the relevant section from Gallimore and Tharp's 2004 article:

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."

Let's unpack this and apply to conductors.
 
His initial four laws are explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition. These are somewhat self-explanatory, but we can expand upon them.
 
We often need to explain concepts. Concepts can be grasped fairly quickly and understood intellectually--in a sense this is like the cliche of the lightbulb going on--if it's explained well enough the individual can immediately understand what is meant. For example, in working with my Collegium Singers on the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers, we were tuning to quarter-comma meantone where the major thirds are "pure" (come directly from the natural harmonic series) and are lower than the tempered thirds most of us are used to hearing. My singers could understand the concept quite quickly. However, understanding the concept and being able to apply it consistently and accurately are different things. We're talking about a skill that needs to be developed.
 
So we come to demonstration, imitation, and repetition. I chose the hymn Ave maris stella as one of the first movements in the Vespers to work on, since it has fairly regular phrases, is mostly homophonic, and has regular major cadences. This allowed me to work on the sound I wanted them to make, sense of phrase, what parts to bring out, and most importantly, tuning. Demonstration was sometimes done by me (having them sing the chord minus the third--I'd sing the third, then whatever part sang the third would imitate my tuning). This is what I most often do in rehearsal because normally I have a piano tuned in equal temperament. But in this case, we had our portative organ tuned to quarter-comma meantone (you can get an app now, by the way, with lots of historic tunings!), so most of the time our accompanist would play the chord and they would then sing, matching (imitating) the tuning.
 
But the skill to do this regularly, accurately, and immediately is something that takes time . . . and drill . . . to develop. I had a fairly large number of new students in the choir this year who were not accustumed to singing pure thirds. So it took a considerable number of repetitions in every rehearsal at the beginning--stopping after a cadence, letting them know the 3rd was too high, having the organ play the chord, then the choir singing again. After a while we began to get close each time--in this case I still had to stop, but now could ask them to sing better in tune without hearing the organ first, which they could do, but often took a second or two to get it really well in tune. The task was then to get to the point where they could sing the thirds in tune first time, every time. (You can find it on YouTube here. There are chapter headings so you can go to any movement.)
 
This repetition--drill--is why Wooden created his eight laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition. Drill can be tedious, of course, but it's also the way to mastery of the music we perform and the skills our singers need to learn. I feel it's important that my singers learn how to hear and do these kinds of things themselves so they can carry these skills onward without me. But drills can't be all we do, and drills (which of necessity focus on a relatively narrow set of things) have to be combined with "scrimmage," running through larger sections or the entire piece. It's the same thing as Wooden's players doing many drills, but also needing to scrimmage regularly--because it's only there, where the various skills are combined in the way they will be in a real game (or for us, a real concert).
 
I also think Wooden's emphasis on the whole-part method is important. This can be seen in two ways: first, when learning a very specific skill that's made up of several parts, we can demostrate the full skill, break down into the component parts for drill, then combine the separate elements into the full skill. This why demonstration can be so important--it gives a larger picture and context of the particular skill being drilled before it's broken down into its component parts.
 
Second, when possible, it's important to give our singers a sense of the whole piece they're going to sing, before working on the individual sections, phrases, and challenges they have to master (through drill), then gradually bring it back to an ability to perform whole sections and ultimately, the whole piece.
 
When my group's capable of it, I want them to sightread as much of the piece as possible at first. That gives them an overview. Of course, sometimes that isn't possible--the music's too difficult, perhaps. I can play a recording of it for them, for example. But I may also explain the context/meaning of the music as well early on.
 
With a large work, I often need to find a way to introduce it that gives a sense of the whole before they begin to work on it. As an example, I did the Britten War Requiem with my PLU Choirs (three choirs combined, including our community-based Choral Union). The Britten is an extraordinarily difficult piece for them to imagine at first and, of course, the choir only plays a part in the whole since the tenor and baritone sing the moving poetry of Wilfrid Owen. I opened with all three choirs together, showing them pictures of Coventry Cathedral where it was premiered (the ruins of the old cathedral visible from the new one), explaining the symbolism of the English, Russian, and German soloists of the premiere (actually Galina Vishnevskaya wasn't allowed to leave Russia for the premiere, so an English soprano had to substitute), reading the poetry of Wilfed Owen and showing the connections Britten makes between the Latin text (from the Requiem) and Owen's poetry (using Owen's chilling re-telling of the Abraham and Isaac story, for example), etc. We then worked on the end of the first movement, with the choir and bells (which toll the C-F# tritone), the choir itself finally slipping into a magical F major. All this was to help them understand the whole and, frankly, give them the motivation, the why, to do the drill and rehearsal necessary to master such a complex work.
 
I certainly feel Wooden's concepts and understanding of pedagogy can help us understand how we can achieve more with our choirs.
 
Next, on to Swen Nater!
 
on November 15, 2013 4:36pm
In my blog I've been posting about what I've been reading in the book "Primal Leadership" and it talks about why the repetition is needed and what happens in our brains.  The conceptual learning you talk about is done in the neocortex, but the skill learning hapens in the limbic part of the brain.  To quote from my blog:
 
"The limbic center is used in leadership rather than the neocortex. The neocortex is where we process information, but the limbic part of the brain is where our gut impulses, reactions and habits come from. When up in front of the group listening and reacting, the way we react and interact with the choir – our leadership style – is directed from our limbic brain, which takes more to change that hearing some good ideas. The Primal Leadership folks explain:
'The limbic brain [as opposed to the neocortex which learns technical or analytical skills] is a much slower learner – particularly when the challenge is to relearn deeply ingrained habits. This difference matters immensely when trying to improve leadership skills: At their most basic level, those skills come down to habits learned early in life.[…] Reeducating the emotional brain for leadership learning, therefore, requires a different model from what works for the thinking brain: It needs lots of practice and repetition.'”
 
There's a little more detail and brain diagrams on the blog, if it is of interest, in an archived post titled "the conducting brain."  www.choralconductor.org
 
on November 16, 2013 3:50am
Many thanks for the contribution and link, Kenneth.