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Bringing Passion to Work

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David BellThe choral department at Winton Woods High School in Cincinnati, Ohio has garnered awards and accolades to rival any program in the country. But one recognition that longtime director David Bell received this past May was truly remarkable.

Every spring, Winton Woods holds an awards ceremony to honor the top 16 scholars in the graduating class, known as the “Sweet 16.” This year’s honorees were asked to name their most influential teacher: fully half of them chose Mr. Bell. That’s right, eight of the high school’s top 16 students said the choral director was their most influential teacher.

In a recent CD interview, Dave Bell talks about his musical background, using technology in his teaching, and the passion behind his success.

Choral Director: Tell me about your musical background?
David Bell: My father was a minister and I found my niche in the church through music. I’ve always loved music because of its inclusive aspect – it’s a platform for building community, bridging differences, and bringing people together. I was in a wonderful high school program. We did all kinds of things including major masterworks – for example, we did the Brahms Requiem in its entirety.

CD: At what point did decide that you wanted to make a career out of singing?
DB: During my senior year of high school, I went to a local junior college to take a music theory course, trying to figure out which direction I wanted to go in. For me it was either theater or music, and I decided on music. I’d always really enjoyed working with young people, so for me it was a logical connection to bring together the two passions of my life.

CD: Did you immediately know that your focus was going to be conducting, not performing?
DB: Yes. I received my undergraduate degree from Northern Illinois University in 1975 and sang with the Chicago Symphony Chorus for two years, which was a great time. I was there when George Schulty was the music director and I sang under Margaret Hillis. Then I went back to school to the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati and got my Master’s degree in choral conducting. I graduated in 1979 and my first teaching job was in an urban school in Dayton, Ohio. Then I moved to this school, where I’ve been since 1982. So I’ve been here for 25 years now.

CD: Tell me about how you ended up at Winton Woods High School.
DB: When I was teaching in Dayton, about a week before school was to start, there was a job that opened up down here in Cincinnati. A friend of mine called and told me about it, saying it was a really strong program, which it was: it was well funded and many of the symphony players from the Cincinnati area lived in the neighborhood. Music has always been valued by the community for as long as I’ve been here.

Now we have around 200 students (grades 9-12) and two fulltime choral staff. There are about 1,300 students in the high school, total. We have four curricular choirs – a freshman chorus, a women’s choir, a concert choir, and a chamber ensemble – and, outside of the school day, we have a contemporary a capella men’s group, a vocal jazz group, and a gospel choir.

CD: Where do these groups typically perform?
DB: We’re all over the map. On New Year’s Eve this year, we sang with the Cincinnati Pops, which was a very high profile performance with lots of musical finesse, and then, three months later, we sang at the kick-off of the parade for the Cincinnati Reds’ opening day in downtown Cincinnati. We really cover the gamut.

CD: Do you also participate in competitions and festivals?
DB: We do. As a matter of fact, this school has qualified for the state level every year for the past 30-plus years, which, in Ohio, means getting a superior rating at district level at an adjudicated festival. At districts, there are three judges on the stage and one in a sight-reading room, and you have to receive a composite rating of 6 or less. It’s rated on a 1-5 scale – a score of “1” is best – so if you receive a 1-1-2 from the judges on stage, you’d need a 2 or less from the sight-reading judge to get a superior rating. The choral director selects the difficulty of the music – it’s not determined by the size of the school, as it is in some of the national competitions. We frequently do AA literature, which is collegiate-level.

We’ve also won several Grand Champion awards at national festivals and we’ve traveled to New York, Toronto, Orlando, Chicago, and Williamsburg, among other places.

CD: All of your groups attend these festivals?
DB: We are a middle class community where not everyone has the financial resources to travel. For national festivals, we do a lot of fundraising to take as many students as we can, and then I combine the students who are able to go from my top two ensembles, the chamber choir and the concert choir.

CD: Let’s talk a little about fundraising.
DB: We do everything from selling dollar-booster-bars to catalog sales, and we’re going to head down some different directions this year: we’re going to have a rummage sale where graduating students can sell old school uniforms, backpacks, used athletic equipment, and other things like that to incoming students.

CD: Can you tell me about the repertoire that you choose?
DB: We have a real affinity for spirituals and my students do them well, because many of them come out of the gospel tradition, so they have an intuitive understanding of some of the expressive gestures in the music. I’ve enjoyed working with people like Andre Thomas and Moses Hogan a great deal and so for us that’s almost become a signature in terms of our repertoire. This last contest we also did a piece called, “Amor De Mi Alma,” by Z. Randall Stroope.

CD: How do you select music for competition?
DB: One of the people who does the best job presenting what to look for in material is David Brunner, from the University of Central Florida. Something that David talks about when selecting literature, and something I always look for, is a quality text and music that will resonate with the text – I always love to find a unique aspect about the piece. Passion is a huge part of our art, so it has to be a piece that the students, as well as the director, can get their teeth into – something they feel passionately about.

If there’s any cant to what we do in a certain direction, it’s that we do a lot of world music. My students would rather do a quality piece of world music than they would a show tune. We have a diverse student population and they find it really eye opening to learn more about the world – you can really get a flavor for what it must be like to live in a particular culture through exploring their music.

CD: Do you ever perform new pieces?
DB: Yes. In fact, we’ve done a lot of commissioning of new works. We’ve had pieces written for us by Cynthia Gray, Sherry Porter Fields, and David Brunner. We’ve premiered at least eight new pieces in the last 15 years that were written specifically for our group.

CD: When you commission someone to write a piece of music for you, what parameters do you provide?
DB: What I usually like to do is give the composer a thumbnail sketch of the strengths and weaknesses of my students, both vocally and aesthetically – where their passions lie. Then I like to provide a recording so they can hear what the group sounds like first-hand, which I think helps their imagination take flight.

CD: The classic image of a choral group rehearsing is a row of students standing in front of the conductor, who’s sitting at the piano. Is that what your rehearsals are like?
DB: No, I actually use a lot of technology in the classroom. First of all, my entire department has iPods, and I have much of my library on my iPod, so I’m able to give my students musical examples of whatever I’m trying to demonstrate on the spur of the moment. I use a digital recorder in the classroom all the time, so the students are able hear the music, hear the way they’re singing it, and then do an instant cue against a comparative performance. We’ll sing it through twice and the students will be able to hear what it sounded like each time. And when you’re recording digitally, there’s no wait time for the tape to rewind. The clarity of the recording is cleaner and you’re able to do it all faster.

CD: This is all in your classroom?
DB: Yes. We also have a computer lab that has Finale on each of the computers, where students can do work on their own. We have some drill software for musical skills, such as the Music Ace series. I have a Roland digital keyboard from which I can save MIDI files to a USB drive. I can download a MIDI file off of the Internet onto my thumb drive, and then walk into my classroom, plug it into my Roland keyboard, and play the MIDI file back through the keyboard.

CD: That sounds handy. Do you also use technology for administrative work?
DB: When I’m doing auditions for each school year, I use a very sophisticated program on FileMakerPro where I track the students’ performance throughout the year, be it their work sight reading and ear training, singing quizzes in the classroom, daily attendance, rehearsal habits, or attendance at concerts, et cetera. I’ve come up with a weighted formula, so when I do auditions the following year, I base the results not upon a one-day snapshot at an audition, but rather a student’s performance throughout the year. I keep a huge amount of data. As a result of that, the program is set up so that if a student’s results fall within a certain range, I can convert that to a Word output. For example, each student is marked “high performing,” “medium,” or “low-performing” in each area.

I give each student a feedback letter at the end of the year that says specifically which areas of strength and weakness they need to work on for the following year. That letter gives them their choir assignment for the next year, as well. This system is pretty time-intensive, but it also gives the students a lot of good, hard data and feedback on their performance throughout the year. Also, it’s no longer a snapshot, subjective decision, which is something choir directors get accused of a lot. For example, a student could think, “He doesn’t like me, so he didn’t put me in that class,” but that doesn’t even come onto the radar here at Winton Woods.

CD: How long has this system been in place?
DB: It’s been at least seven or eight years since I’ve been doing it at this level of sophistication. Another great tool I’ve just started using is Google Docs, which is a free Google service where you can sign up and type things into a document – like a word document – but then share the document with a group of people, who can also edit it, so it becomes a collaborative piece of work. I’ve been using that this year for things like scheduling musical rehearsals and scheduling our departmental calendar for next year. That’s about the neatest thing I’ve run into in a long time because, as you know, bringing all these people together to meet for that sort of thing is getting increasingly difficult and sometimes, when you send a document by email from person to person to person it falls through the cracks or it doesn’t get forwarded properly. But this software not only keeps track of what everybody’s collaborating on, it keeps track of revisions and who revised it when.

CD: That goes back to something you said earlier, that you were drawn to choral music by its capacity to bring people together.
DB: Right, but it can be a challenge.

CD: Do you also incorporate this idea of collaboration into your teaching?
DB: I’ve always patterned myself after the adage by the educator Harry Wong, “high expectations, high support.” In other words, I expect a lot out of my students, but I will also support them to get there. The analogy that he uses is an Asian family, where students are expected to produce at a high level by the family, but then, after dinner, the children take out their schoolbooks and everyone works together to complete the tasks. I don’t mean to be stereotyping, but this is simply an example of an environment where you’re expecting a lot out of a student and then your giving them a lot of love and support to achieve those high levels of expectations. I think that’s a real plus because it helps the students function at their highest possible level. It helps provide them with a safety net so they can take chances, but you’re also expecting more from them than they might expect from themselves.

CD: So you work hard, but the results validate your efforts.
DB: I went back after my masters degree and continued to do some work at the college conservatory with a women named Liz Wing. Dr. Wing helped me to get my teeth into research and the impact of research on the classroom. One of the articles that I came across had to do with what makes a choral director effective – or any teacher effective, for that matter: the students put more emphasis on the passion and emotional involvement of the teacher than they do in the teacher’s expertise in the material. The world has always been full of Mozarts, to whom it came easily, and Beethovens, who had to work at it. I’m not a Mozart; I’m a Beethoven – I have to work hard at it, but it’s the passion that connects me with the music and the students: that is what has made our program so successful.

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