Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Choral singers turned into winners

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FOREST PARK - Finding Dave Bell, the choir director at Winton Woods High School, isn't difficult.

Simply follow your ears through the main atrium, down a short hallway with so many copper-plated award plaques it takes on a reflected bronze hue.

Seniors Christy Frey, 17 (left) and Ashley Cleveland, 17, sing "See the Conquering Hero Comes" during a rehearsal of the Varsity Ensemble Friday morning.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
Zero in on the harmonized voices that cascade from the choir classroom, where despite the early-morning hour, these youngsters are wide-eyed. Their faces are expressive and aglow.

In front of them stands Bell, his right hand rhythmically keeping time as three dozen boys and girlsserenade him with award-winning warbling. It's this kind of singing from the Varsity Ensemble that that has earned the school national acclaim for more than 20 years.

"They are probably one of the finest high school choirs in the state," says Donna Collins, executive director of the Columbus-based Ohio Alliance for Arts Education.

"The reason is Dave's passion. He is a model teacher for music education, well versed and articulate. He serves beyond the classroom and reaches out to the community."

Students and administrators say Bell's passion has brought more than state and national awards. His is a classroom that works because his teaching style has yielded lessons on hard work, dedication and what it takes to succeed - in life, as well as singing competitions.

Bell, 49, a 1979 graduate of University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, is a former professional choral singer and former president of the Ohio Choral Directors Association.

His expertise and teaching methods are featured in a new choral textbook, Improving Student Learning, which is used in music classes across the United States. His choirs have recorded two CDs with the Cincinnati Pops - Mega-Movies featuring movie themes and Scary Music featuring Halloween music.

They have also performed with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, country music artist Reba McEntire and on national PBS TV programs.

In four of the past 10 years, the choir has been named "Outstanding Choir" in national high school competitions.

Choir is cool

Because of Bell, choir is cool at Winton Woods, says senior Kate Monroe of Springfield Township.

"Unlike most high schools, music comes before football, cheerleading, etc.," says Monroe, one of 42 members of the Varsity Ensemble choir, which includes sophomores, juniors and seniors.

All must pass rigorous tryouts over the course of days that test their vocal abilities and musical aptitude.

"Each year the graduating seniors say that choir is what they will miss the most. It'll be the same with me,'' Monroe says. "We don't just sing in choir. We learn life lessons (from Mr. Bell) such as perseverance, getting along with others and a good work ethic.''

And they earn better grades.

• The median grade-point average of last year's senior class was 2.37. However, the median grade-point average of seniors enrolled in one of Bell's four choral classes was 3.35.

• Nine of the top 10 academically ranked seniors were in choir.

• Fifth-seven percent of the choir's seniors were ranked in the top 25 percent of their class.

"The choir program is one of our shining stars," Winton Woods Principal Anita Williams says.

"Mr. Bell touches on every aspect of learning in their instruction, presentation, preparation and performance. It's not just let's go in a room and sing."

That's the way it should be, says Bell.

"The worst kind of oppression is not to expect enough from children,'' he says. "We have all types of students in choir, the athletes, the academic all-stars and the student leaders and they all work hard."

His philosophy is simple.

"I believe every child has gifts and the process of education should be helping those children to discover those gifts."

Giving a lot

Bell's students appreciate his attitude and invariably describe the good-natured Bell as dishing out generous portions of tough love as he takes them through their daily vocal paces.

Recently, with the help of his longtime associate conductor Robert Hartigan, they practiced "Go Tell It On The Mountain" for a performance at the Taft Theatre with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

"Come on! Be emotional about it!" Bell shouts.

"Don't breathe there.

"Do you think you can get motivated about that line?

"Remember, your strength - from the beginning - is the fun and joy you project," Bell says as he once again starts pumping his right arm.

Later he critiques himself: "I'd describe my style as high expectations but also high student support. I expect a lot but I give a lot."

Bell, a native of Rockford, Ill., remains driven about his work in large part because of what he refers to as "the two longest years of my life" - when he left music teaching to work as an art gallery warehouse manager in Chicago.

He says even though he sang with the Chicago Symphony Chorus at night, "I knew I really belonged in the classroom."

Senior Yutopia Essex agrees. "He demands a lot but he is very caring. Underneath he is a big softy."

Fellow senior Kenetra Mathis is sister of Winton Woods graduate Kenny Mathis (Class of 1995 who earlier this year reached the semifinal round of the American Idol.

"Mr. Bell pushes us to learn,'' she says. "And when you have someone so passionate, who has worked so hard, you can't disappoint him."

Winton Woods Choir Alums Go Far

Over the past 22 years, a number of David Bell's students have gone on to singing or performing careers, including:

• Kenny Mathis (Class of 1995), talent search semi-finalist 2003, American Idol.

• Tara Patrick, now known as Carmen Electra, who sang in the Winton Woods choir her sophomore year before transferring to Princeton High School.

• Brian Williams, gospel singer and recording artist.

• Robyn Walker, jazz vocalist and recording artist.

• Keith Dotson, singer-dancer at the Excalibur Hotel, Las Vegas.

• Leah Owens, jazz vocalist.

• Kashawn Stephens, R&B vocalist.

• Jason Gilbert, now known as Shahied Al-Amin, reggae and hip-hop.

• Eric Ruthman, folk artist.


E-mail mclark@enquirer.com

About this series

This series spotlights classrooms in which teachers are challenging students in bold, innovative ways. To nominate a class, e-mail bcieslewicz@enquirer.com, fax (513) 768-8340 or write Bill Cieslewicz, Education Editor, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. Include your name, home and work phone numbers and school

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