“I had three aspirations as a kid. One was to teach English. The second was to do something in music, and the third was to go to seminary and become a minister,” says neighborhood resident David Davidson.
He may not have ended up an English teacher or a minister, but he did do something in music.
Davidson is director of the Dallas Symphony Chorus, adjunct instructor of choral conducting at the Perkins School of Theology, and director of music and arts at Highland Park United Methodist Church.
Not too shabby for a guy who grew up on a farm in Ohio.
But what really sets him apart from his musical peers is his expertise in handbells. And that particular skill didn’t come into the picture until nine years after he graduated from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music with degrees in piano and music instruction.
“I was looking for a church job for extra money,” says Davidson, who was working as a band director at the time and had just become engaged to now-wife Judi.
“So I applied to a small church outside Cincinnati that was literally a horse shed converted to a church space. [The application] said ‘can do handbells’ and I thought, ‘Oh, God.’”
Davidson went to the church as its new organist, and Judi became the choral director. Turns out the church had been donated a set of handbells and Davidson became, mostly by default, its new handbell aficionado.
Not long after, he took some junior high students to an American Guild of English Handbell Ringers (AGEHR) festival.
“And that’s when I became involved in that organization,” Davidson says. “One thing led to another. The ‘who’s who’ at that time took me under their wings and sent me out to teach and do festivals.”
He went on to become one of the organization’s youngest presidents, and is now an Honorary Lifetime Member of the AGEHR.
A handbell choir is very similar to a regular choir as far as conducting goes, Davidson says. The number of people or ringers depends on how many octaves of bells are used – three octaves require 11 ringers; four to five requires 12-13 ringers; and six to seven requires 13-16 ringers.
The custom of handbell ringing was adopted from England, where it originated because tower bell ringers needed a way to practice inside. It worked its way to the United States in the 1950s. Davidson says that while handbells are predominately found in churches, they are now becoming recognized as an educational tool, working their way into schools.
“It’s really evolved in the last 50 years,” he says.
“The thing that’s attractive to me is to raise the level of musicianship of hand players and music ensembles. Like all other areas of music, it’s a communicative art,” he says. “It’s pretty thrilling when it all comes together – that sound is pretty exciting.”
Eventually Davidson made it to Dallas, where he became director of music at Highland Park Presbyterian Church in 1985. He remained there until 2003, when accepted his position at HPUMC. In 1995, he became director of the Dallas Symphony Chorus.
Davidson’s career has allowed him to travel the world, conducting choruses and clinics on handbell ringing and handbell conducting. He has been to places such as Hawaii, Scotland and Tokyo. In 2006, he plans to tour South America with the Dallas Symphony Chorus and then head to London for another event. In October, he’ll conduct AGEHR’s “Distinctly Bronze,” a mass event for some of the most advanced handbell ringers in the country. Recently, Davidson also stepped in for Andrew Litton to conduct the Dallas Symphony and the Dallas Symphony Chorus in the performance of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem.”
Davidson says one of his most memorable moments came in 2002, when he was conducting the chorus on an Eastern European tour.
“We were in Stefansdom in Vienna – the big cathedral there – [and] I was conducting Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ with the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra. It was the most amazing thing. The cathedral was packed. There were 200 people standing, and they had to turn 250 people away. That’s etched in my mind forever. To be in that historical place – it was great.”
But the most rewarding aspect of his career, he says, has come from simply being able to teach.
“The most gratifying thing for me, about my life, is that I have taught great musical works to hundreds of people and given them the opportunity to sing pieces like Brahm’s ‘Requiem’ or Bach’s ‘St. Matthew’s Passion.’ There’s no other experience in the world like doing that.”