Wooden Wednesdays: Alertness

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

John Wooden’s second block in the second tier of his Pyramid of Success is ALERTNESS.

Wooden says, “Perfection doesn’t exist. Thus, actively be alert and looking for imperfections in your team and your competition. It is there. Find it.

Music must be reactive. Unless we remain alert in the ensemble, we can succumb to rote performances, sloppy mistakes, missed opportunities. The finest ensembles succeed by being constantly alert to what is happening around them.

Humans have a strong motivation to keep their heads down, staying in the path they’re already on. Being alert means staying vigilant to the actual terrain around you, which enables you to react and capitalize to the many changes happening around you. As Wooden says, “‘Heads-up’ leadership is alert to opportunity, threat, trends, and changes.” A friend shared this idea recently, “I believe the most dangerous habit in troubled times is making decisions based on a map, and not the territory.” If you are alert, you are looking at the territory, not just the map.

How do you teach alertness? Foremost, by expectation. We must demand alertness from our students. There are so many distractions competing for the attention of our students, and we have to make it our constant mission to refocus choristers’ attention on the music. (Step One: Banish the Cell Phone.)

Next, by example. Exemplifying alertness means being reactive, in the moment, to things that happen. Among many obvious and routine musical opportunities for alertness, we have to embrace with humility the questions and vision of those around us–even students. As Wooden urges, “Don’t just act like you’re listening. Really listen. Good leaders are good listeners.” Be alert to the needs, ideas, fears, and insights of your singers.

Explain alertness. Convince your students how important it is to not lean into the familiar, and away from honest looks at the world. (This will take a lot of convincing. The whole world is on the opposite side of this one.)

Empower alertness by acknowledging and rewarding alertness in your students. If they do not feel that their alertness is valued, it’s much easier for them to retreat from alertness. If they are empowered because their insights and ideas are received and acted on, they will continue to build the muscle of alertness.