Wooden Wednesdays: Enthusiasm

Note: this is the second of a series of posts investigating the leadership style of John Wooden and its applicability to choral music education.

John Wooden made ENTHUSIASM the second of two cornerstones of his Pyramid of Success.

Here is where John Wooden differentiates hard work from INDUSTRIOUSNESS.

Wooden says, “Hard work is transformed into Industriousness when joined with Enthusiasm.”


Enthusiasm is excitement about the hard work you’re about to do. For me personally, it’s the joy I wake with on Monday mornings, knowing I have a two-hour rehearsal to prepare and run that evening.

Hard work can be enjoyable, but only if your heart is in it. Progress from that hard work can go through the roof if you are enthusiastic about the work being done.

What can be sources of enthusiasm in a choral rehearsal?

  • The music you’re rehearsing. (Don’t program it if you don’t love it.)
  • The people you’re rehearsing with. (Don’t conduct if you can’t see the innate worth of your choristers.)
  • The process. (Don’t tackle a huge challenge if you don’t enjoy being in the weeds, struggling).

In addition to holding yourself to the personal standard of enthusiasm, it’s important to teach enthusiasm to your students. Here’s the lowdown:

EXAMPLE: Be enthusiastic. It can seem “uncool” to show enthusiasm, particularly to teenagers. Show it anyway. Make it cool to have passions, at least in the safe space of your rehearsal space.

EXPECTATIONS: Provide ample opportunities for students to show their enthusiasm. At first, make it wide enough to share all enthusiasms, whether musical or not. Eventually, they will be comfortable enough to be enthusiastic about the music they’re doing.

EXPLANATION: I don’t think it’s as important to define ENTHUSIASM as it is to define INDUSTRIOUSNESS. Students know what enthusiasm feels like, even if they’re aren’t used to showing it in public. Your challenge is to create a safe space for them to be enthusiastic.

One more challenge that Wooden might not have experienced in his particular circumstance. Every basketball game is, at its core, the same: the same rules, the same court, the same players from game to game. Creativity exists within those structures.

In choral music, profound differences might exist from one concert to the next – the particular repertoire programmed, the exact makeup of the choir. It can be hard, in the face of this, to remain universally enthusiastic. If a chorister doesn’t respond to a particular piece, that can turn into two months of flagging enthusiasm. In the face of this, it’s important to draw attention to the big-picture items of the choral process: harmony, intonation, camaraderie, process. If you can encourage enthusiasm in these things, the day-to-day repertoire takes a lower prominence, and students will remain more consistently enthusiastic about their work.

John Wooden is right: day-to-day enthusiasm for my work is what makes it a consistently joyful process that transcends work into industriousness. Our lockstep schooling is almost perfectly designed to disregard enthusiasm as a human trait, making it all the more important that we teach, encourage, and exemplify it in our choral rehearsals.

Three Specific, Concrete, Attainable Goals

Our resistance to change and growth is strong. A natural desire for security gets confused with a desire for stasis – for no change. This can cause us to actively resist even the changes we desire.

I’m sitting down today to write out three work habits I’d like to adopt between now and Christmas (roughly three months away). I’ll post them where I can see them every day to remind me.

It’s my hope that making them specific, concrete, and attainable will enable me to tackle them every day and build some positive momentum in overcoming my innate resistance.

(For more on the Resistance, I highly recommend this book by Steven Pressfield.)

Meet Gene Puerling

Saturday night I got to introduce about 28 high school students to Gene Puerling.

Mandy asked me to help introduce “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” arranged by Gene for The Manhattan Transfer, during the Rockford High School Chamber Singers retreat.

I told them that, just as Alice Parker is my metaphorical mother as an arranger and composer, Gene Puerling is my father. His approach to writing profoundly influenced me as a young writer, and I still visualize vocal music through the lens of his harmonic language.

Listening to Gene’s “London By Night” through the ears of two dozen uninitiated singers, I was struck by how fresh his music still sounds. And pointing out an accented Soprano/Alto half-step dissonance in “Nightingale” that closely parallels a cadence in Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep” reminded me of how wide his influence is.


Some concepts covered in 30 minutes and 2 pages:

  • Musical quotes as jazz vernacular [*]
  • Tertiary vs. quartal harmonic voicings
  • Strict parallelism to create harmonic ambiguity
  • Unison as a necessary balance to rich harmony
  • Vernacular pronunciation in contemporary music
  • Elimination of the traditional bass line as
    • A tool for harmonic sophistication
    • A potential pitfall for basses used to traditional tonic-dominant singing.
  • The idea of vertical vs. horizontal vocal writing (driven home immediately when they next looked at the 6-part polyphony of Byrd’s “Haec Dies.”

Now, here’s the sublime original, winner of the Grammy for Best Vocal Arrangement in 1982.


[*] A favorite moment: I played “London By Night” so I could point out the musical reference a little later. When I played the soprano line in the intro and asked the choir to place it, all recognized it as familiar, but couldn’t quite place it!

Make It Matter

Tomorrow is the last Monday in September, 2016. Your last September Monday with these students. Your last week of writing in September.

The months only pick up steam from here, and you’ll be conducting at commencement before you know it.

How can you make tomorrow matter?

You’ve had great days and crummy days in September. Days where you accomplished nothing of note and days where you were legendarily productive.

Tomorrow, make it count. Write down your most important goal for the week, and tackle it first tomorrow. Don’t let fear about quality keep you from starting. Take on your goals and get to work.

Make tomorrow count. Make it matter.

Changing Up Vocal Warmups

The other day I tried a little change-up in my vocal warmups that yielded great results.

I was thinking over how one of my most important priorities in vocalizing is to get the ensemble to hear each other and sync up, particularly with regard to vowel placement.

As we sang one of my regular exercises, I repeatedly asked them to take 10 seconds and find someone they don’t usually stand near. They sang in close proximity, focusing on listening and matching.

Within three switches, their vowels became much more in sync and the resultant ensemble sound was more mature, focused, and lovely.

We tend to adjust standing arrangements only after we’ve learned the music (for obvious reasons), but why not find opportunities to have cross pollination as early as possible in the rehearsal process?

Bored In Rehearsal

You’ve seen it in your smarter–a slow slip towards disengagement. They master things more quickly, and then they’re “bored.”

I will admit that an ensemble can’t move together as quickly as every individual might be able to, for lots of reasons. However, there’s no reason to be bored in rehearsal. Here are a few suggestions to give those poor bored students.

  1. Analyze. When I turned in scores at the end of a year in Gold Company, they were covered in chordal analysis. I learned to write by observing the masters, and I did that observation when the basses, sopranos, and altos were having 2 minute mini-sectionals in rehearsal.
  2. Predict. Make it a game to predict what your conductor is going to say next. Tone, vowel, cutoff, articulation, note accuracy, intonation…can you anticipate what she’s going to do? If you can’t, listen harder. Alice Parker told me that when she did her Masters degree in conducting with Robert Shaw at Juilliard, the coursework was a shambles – but traveling around Manhattan watching Shaw work was a nonstop masterclass in rehearsal technique just by trying to hear what he heard.
  3. Memorize. Memorizing music ahead of schedule is a great way to help push the ensemble faster, and challenge your mind to work more quickly.
  4. Lead. You simply can’t act bored and be a leader. Leadership requires engagement, assistance, and all sorts of other behaviors that can’t coexist with boredom. By behaving as if you’re bored, you are abrogating your responsibility as a leader.

Are there times when a singer has the potential for boredom in rehearsal? Yes.

The important thing is that no human being can remain bored if their personality leads with curiosity. There is always more to learn. There are always more steps to climb.

What Do You Think?

There is a place for conductor control of musical decisions.

But it is not the only viable option. Next time a singer asks how they should interpret something, don’t demonstrate, don’t decide, don’t decree.

Ask, “What do you think?”

Let the ensemble debate, think, decide for themselves.

Your knowledge of performance practice is impressive. Student ownership of their own music-making is worth far more.

Wooden Wednesdays: Industriousness

Note: this is the first of a series of posts investigating the leadership style of John Wooden and its applicability to choral music education.

John Wooden made INDUSTRIOUSNESS the first cornerstone of his Pyramid of Success.

Call it hard work if you want, but “work” in Wooden’s mind had lost its meaning by the time he completed the Pyramid in 1948. For too many, work means the routine exertion of assembly-line jobs, assembly-line education. Mindless labor.

Wooden defines industriousness as high-capacity work: engaged, focused, absorbed. He writes “You can work without industriousness, but there is no industriousness without work.”

We might define it as “mindful work” rather than “mindless work.”

Industriousness is indeed a cornerstone of success in the choral classroom just as completely as on the basketball court. It is our challenge to cultivate this industriousness – a pervasive work ethic – in the face of an industrial education system that increasingly rewards mindless work.

How many times have you been in a choral rehearsal that hums along with no significant progress being made? That is work without industriousness. On the other hand, can you remember a rehearsal where everyone is eager to continue, to get better? I watched a tenor 1 sectional last week that defined mindful work: all four singers engaged and eager to address issues and make improvements as a team. This is industriousness.

The ways to develop industriousness in your students are as clear as they are challenging:

EXAMPLE: Let them see your industriousness in preparation for rehearsal, in your energy during rehearsal, and in the way you behave between rehearsals.

EXPECTATIONS: Be clear in rewarding industriousness and in not accepting mindless labor during your choral rehearsal.

EXPLANATION: Communicate with your students about industriousness, about how it feels, what it looks like, and why it’s important.

I agree with John Wooden that mindful work–INDUSTRIOUSNESS–is at the heart of success. As my own mentor Steve Zegree often said:

The shortcut to success is hard work.

The Groove

When you’re in the groove, you feel like you’ll be there forever.

Remind yourself you won’t. Enjoy it while you’ve got it.


When you’re out of the groove, you feel like you’ll be there forever.

Remind yourself you won’t. Just keep moving forward.

Andrea Ramsey Interview

Composer/Conductor Andrea Ramsey was kind enough to grant me an interview for ACDA-Michigan, on the subject of her new piece, But a Flint Holds Fire. Set to the poetry of Christina Rossetti and words from Flint and Flint Township students, it addresses the Flint Water crisis head on with candor and beauty.

Read it here.