If the three pages of thank yous at the end of the program for Winton Woods High School’s last choir concert are any indication of his level of gratitude, David Bell is one thankful man. As Bell finishes a 35 year teaching career and heads into retirement, he’s making sure to acknowledge as many people as he can. After all, he would tell you, these are the people who helped mold him into the teacher he is. Each and every one has had a part to play in his successful career as the choir director for Winton Woods and Forest Park High Schools for the last 32 years.
“I knew I couldn’t leave without thanking the many people who have contributed so much and shared the journey along the way,” said Bell, whose list of thanks includes his own college teachers, his family, colleagues, board of education and community members, voice teachers, and music boosters…
Bell said the late Dr. John Leman was a friend, mentor and “truly my most influential teacher.” Leman was a member of the choral conducting faculty at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music and a former conductor of the May Festival Chorus. “In many ways, he taught me to use my strengths as a teacher to overcome my challenges as a musician,” said Bell. As a student at Northern Illinois University, Bell’s undergraduate mentor was Dr. Elwood Smith. “As my first conducting teacher, he took an inexperienced high school singer and laid a very solid foundation in the basics of choral conducting. He took a personal interest in my career that helped to nurture my love for many styles of music over the years.” Bell also gives credit to Margaret Hillis, former conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. “I learned an enormous amount watching her in action as she prepared one of the world's finest choirs in a weekly, three-hour rehearsal. She prepared at least three Grammy-winning recordings and two sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall.”
Closer to home, Bell acknowledges the many contributions of his wife Lois, a fellow CCM graduate with a degree in Opera, Oratorio and Art Song. “Lois is both an extraordinary musician and a giving mother, who has been the glue in our family for the past 35 years,” he said. He is also thankful for the talented colleagues who shared his music classroom for the past 23 years: Bob Hartigan, KellyAnn Nelson, Ben Spalding and Lizbee Hannah. “I could not have asked for a more special and talented group of people.”
While Bell is quick to express his gratitude to others, it’s his own talent and hard work that have led to a long list of musical accomplishments. This year marked another rating of “1” at OMEA State Contest for Varsity Ensemble, a streak that Bell has continued unbroken throughout his career at Winton Woods High School. Other achievements include a gold medal win in the Championship Division of the 2012 World Choir Games for mixed choirs ages 12-24; sold out performances in China’s Forbidden City Concert Hall and Shanghai Oriental Performing Arts Center during the choir’s Salute to the 2008 Beijing Olympics trip; and 35 performances and three CD recordings with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra under the direction of Maestros Erich Kunzel, John Morris Russell, Jesus Lopez-Cobos and Keith Lockhart.
It was during the choir’s China trip that Bell experienced the most memorable performance of his career—that of the song "Homeland" at the Forbidden City Concert Hall. “When I selected it, I knew that it would be a special moment,” he said. “I knew the students would be a bit homesick after ten days and would have a new appreciation for their ‘homeland’ at the end of their stay. I wanted to select a piece that would reach for that place in the heart, without being overtly patriotic, as we did not want to musically poke our host country in the eye. When I rehearsed it at school prior to our departure, I would often tear up, because I could envision how the kids would react to performing the piece on the stage of the Forbidden City Concert Hall. In reality, it was a very powerful performance, and the moment was way beyond anything I had imagined, especially after the Chinese government censors had forbidden us from singing other pieces in our repertoire, such as ‘Elijah Rock’ and ‘Prayer of the Children.’"
Over the span of his career Bell has received many accolades, but the ones that seem to mean the most to him involve his classroom and his students. In 2012 Bell received the Virtuoso Award from the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education for his support of and commitment to arts education. In 2008 he was honored by the Hamilton County Education Foundation at its annual Celebrate Excellence Awards for being the outstanding educator in Winton Woods City Schools. In 2007 Bell was named the “most influential teacher” by half of the 16 top scholars at Winton Woods High School. He has been on that list many years since then, including this one.
“At one point I was convinced that I would be teaching at the university level,” Bell said, “but I found out along the way that my real love is working with these kids.” He said he was told early in his teaching career that there isn’t the opportunity to connect emotionally with college students like there is with high school. “When you’re a high school teacher you have a chance to be an integral part of people’s lives,” Bell said.
That has become evident over the last few weeks as former students have been stopping by to let Bell know how big a part he has played in their lives. John Woods, a 2002 Winton Woods High School graduate, now lives in Los Angeles, works as a producer and has a reality show coming out on the "O" Network this fall. He dropped in to thank Bell for the influence he had on his life and for encouraging him to dream big. “John wanted to tell me what a blessing it had been for him, but truly, I am the one who has been blessed by my students.”
In fact, when asked to pick a song that captures his career, Bell chose "For Good" from the musical, Wicked. The members of Varsity Ensemble will sing it as their closing number at this year’s VE Show on May 15. In the song are the lyrics, “I do believe I have been changed for the better. But, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
“Good teaching is a two way street,” said Bell about the song choice. “Good teachers learn as much from their students as the students learn from them. No one is left unchanged. My students have been the focus of my career. They are the ones who breathe the joy into this building and help to make it the special place it is.”
As Bell packs up, he leaves future choir members in the capable hands of Elizabeth Hannah, his associate director for the past four years. “Lizbee is a talented graduate of Indiana University, director of the high school’s contemporary a cappella groups and is primed to assume the reins of the Winton Woods High School choral program in the fall of 2014,” said Bell. “I’ve told her to trust her gut instinct and let her talent lead the way. Going forward the future is in the best of hands.”
So what will Bell be thinking as gathers the last of this things and turns out the lights in his office for the last time? “I have been blessed beyond words, and I leave with a lifetime of happy memories and wonderful friends. I think my reaction will be, ‘I left it all on the field. I always believed in these kids, and they never disappointed me.’”