Wooden Wednesdays: Poise

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

John Wooden has only two blocks in the tier below the peak of his Pyramid of SuccessThe first is POISE.

Wooden says, “Just be yourself. Don’t pretend to be what you are not. Don’t get rattled, thrown off or unbalanced regardless of the circumstance or situation. Leaders with Poise do not panic under pressure.

“Poise means holding fast to your principles and beliefs and acting in accordance with them regardless of how bad (or good) the situation may be. Know who you are and be true to yourself.”

We’ve reached the reflective portion of the pyramid: this block is about embodying the blocks below, regardless of the circumstances. It’s about being so well practiced that nothing can throw you.

How do you teach poise? In part I think that it comes automatically with solidifying the earlier blocks of the pyramid. If you have truly mastered your self-control, skill, alertness, initiative, and the rest, you’ll be able to access them, regardless of the situation.

That said, there are ways to enhance poise on its own. The first is by practicing it. One of the places I think poise is most at risk is related to the performance space. How often do young singers get spooked when they do cannot hear in the space the way they do in rehearsal? So we must practice singing in different spaces, especially unfavorable ones. We all have a favorite reverberant stairwell to sing in; I’d rather spend time singing in the acoustically dead space where you can’t really hear the singer next to you. If you can maintain poise under that kind of difficult condition, you’ll be read for whatever space you have to sing in.

I was also trained in poise, and have practiced with my singers, with curveballs in rehearsal. Whether it’s an unexpected tempo, a first note a half-step off, or even playing something in the wrong key while the choir continues a cappella. All are chances for the singers to practice their poise in rehearsal.

Wooden says, “Those with Poise have a brave heart in all circumstances. Poise is a powerful gift you give yourself when you acquire the qualities of the Pyramid in the supporting tiers beneath it.”

I think a basketball team might get more chances to practice poise than a choir: with 20 games for high school teams, and thirty for college teams, there are many chances to learn from performances and apply to future performances. Many high school and college choirs have vastly fewer real performances than their athletic counterparts; since poise is only developed in performance situations or very specific rehearsal scenarios, we risk turning out students with relatively less poise. We must work hard to intentionally develop poise in our students.

Poise doesn’t happen by accident; like the more concrete skills we’ve already discussed, it can be built with practice. And it should be.