David Davidson's Keynote Address at the 2008 National Seminar in Orlando, Florida
It is a deep honor to me to be standing before you today having just done this at the 50th Anniversary Seminar. I hope I can find some different things to say that will be for the better good of each of us here today, some thought for the art form and our organization’s perpetuity. Thousands of people have benefited from this organization, and it is my hope there are thousands yet to know of a dynamic group of people, an opportunity for personal growth, and an expression that can deepen the human experience.
...When Jenny (Cauhorn) called for a title for this keynote, I had just been proofing Bill Payn’s piece “Crossroads,” which was commissioned for the 10th anniversary of Distinctly Bronze. Bill’s focus for this piece was bound up in his wife Ruth’s struggle with cancer this year, my struggle with cancer this year, and the fact that we were celebrating a tenth anniversary—all clearly crossroads in life...I almost immediately replied with the title—“Crossroads.”
I think probably we could all identify with hitting a crossroad this year. I think our country is at crossroad, and certainly many organizations such as our own are at a crossroad. I have been saying this for several years, but our country is so badly in need of a visionary leader, and that is reflected in almost every poll and election gathered. We are 50/50—not a good place to be to make good decisions at crossroads in existence as human beings, societies, or organizations.
Lest we succumb to a depressing pity party, I want to share with you some very positive personal experiences and reflections that I have pondered in recent weeks while thinking about today. I only want to share these because I want you to gather your personal recollections and see if we can tie something together at the end of this little journey.
First let’s think about the unique qualities of this art and unique experiences that have pulled us deeper in love with the art and its possibilities. I go immediately to (my) first massed ringing experience—the sonority ripped off my socks. It was one of the most exciting things I had ever heard, and the conductor was relentless...demanding right notes, rhythms, expression—it was a teaching moment and a captivating moment.
Secondly, the mission statement of “Uniting people through a musical art” has always seemed noble to me. The term “art” is elevating of the idiom, and the cause of bringing people together under this unique umbrella is not only a concept of fellowship, but also a uniting of human spirit of performer and listener.
This is an organization that opened my eyes to the possibility of a career in full-time church music. This country bumpkin knew nothing of full-time church positions and the musical possibilities out there as a church musician.
Two comments that were made to me by pioneers of the organization have haunted me. The first came from Nancy Poore Tufts, standing on the square in Philadelphia. She said, “In my mind, I still feel eighteen.” The second from Elizabeth Bradford: “You are looking for recruits in the wrong pool.”
Connectionally, I have been amazed at how ringers from the Bicentennial Choir in 1976 have re-entered my musical contacts through Distinctly Bronze, visitors to churches where I have served, and even ringers who have joined bell programs in those same churches.
...now let’s take a look at crossroads that are before us musically and perhaps an organizational transition and even renaissance.
I have to tell you that we have one of the greatest matches in knowledge and love of handbells coupled with acute business, organizational and interpersonal savvy in our present executive director, Jenny Cauhorn. We have had excellent executive directors with skills we needed at the time, but now we have an organizational structure that allows our executive director to be creative and really act as a leader on behalf of the organization. The office staff under Jenny’s leadership is now in place, and we have had an outstanding board. And the signs are all good for the new board. How do we capitalize on this good leadership and move forward?
As I visit with board members and Jenny, the paramount issue seems to be our decline in membership and how do we turn that around? There was a “think-tank” held last fall in Dallas with past officers where a lot of good thought was given to this topic. The more I think about this, the more I am convinced we should think less on how to get new members and spend time developing an organization that becomes an irresistible entity using the philosophy “if you build it, they will come.” Maybe we are focusing on the wrong thing.
In June, the choir from the church was invited to sing for the North Texas Annual Conference Ordination service. This fell at a time when I was giving thought to what to say here today. While the preacher’s charge was to new ordinands, it made sense for our future and developing a plan of action.
He quoted from Wes Seeliger’s book Western Theology. While written in the mid-sixties, it has a huge message for today...
The book deals with the church being stuck—losing members and not moving forward. To make his point, Seeliger divided thought into two categories: Settler Theology and Pioneer Theology. Let me give you the contrasts:
Settler: The church was the courthouse, locked unless there was business, signs up not to walk on the grass. Pioneer: The church was on the move, headed somewhere.
Settler: God was the mayor; helping keep order and stability; the Honorable Alpha and Omega. Pioneer: God was the Trail Boss, out checking things out, comes back and enforces order.
Settler: Holy Spirit was Mrs. Dubb, the saloon girl, makes everything feel good. Pioneer: Holy Spirit was Wild Red, buffalo herder, unpredictable, rides a horse named Pentecost.
Settler: Bishop was the bank president, making sure deposits are made. Pioneer: Bishop was the diswasher, a servant of the cook, servant of the pioneers.
Settler: Clergy was the bank tellers, receiving the deposits. Pioneer: Clergy was the cook, takes the meat Wild Red brought, serves so the pioneers can have all they want.
What we have here is tension between the old and new with the traditional becoming the trap. The truth is we need to respect the old—the traditional—and build on it.
What might be good for our organization is to spend some time finding out about why and how the organization was formed, honor it, and let it lead to new thoughts. Every year we need to start something new. A good example of how that is working is the Distinctly Teen event that has been happening during the International Symposium. I know the last time I stood here, I talked about the need for the re-emergence of youth in our organization and young leadership. The 125 youth involved this week will make a difference if we take what is started and build on it. But the truth is it came out of our history; we have to reignite their involvement in new ways. I still think we are in the settler mode on leadership. We need this young leadership represented on our board because the youth are the pioneers—yet they need the connection to the past the settlers provide.
Let me pull in one of my earlier stories. That quote from Elizabeth Bradford was a result of lamenting about the new trend in difficulty of recruiting young people—they were all too busy. The settler wisdom immediately came back that I was going after the young people that were already involved in everything. She intimated there were plenty of young people not doing that myriad of activities spurred on by their parents.
Youth need critical mass. There is the “cool” faction that we must address, but the answer is somewhere in the middle. In developing the reemergence of interest in handbell ringing, we may be unleashing good things and offering deep things in the “cool” crowd, while pulling a new group of people into exciting and, without us, missed opportunities. The Pioneers are always looking for a place to settle and grow. Maybe we haven’t found the place we need to circle the wagons.
Those pioneers are looking for new, exciting and different places to settle. It would do us well to be in pursuit of new and exciting places to settle and grow. It is a good tension with the settler mentality—settled well, content, and growing older in their traditions.
Another pioneering tension for us right now is “high tech” and “high touch.” We have to use technology more—perhaps the improved presence and use of the internet. We have a wonderfully updated web site, but Jenny has lots of hopes for the use of that site. Her biggest challenge is to find $20-30,000 to get some pioneering done in that area. Perhaps there are some of you sitting out there today who could contribute financially to sending out that wagon train, or maybe you know people who would invest in that concept.
I think that pioneer thinking created the Bicentennial Bell Choir—two young people from every state gathering in Washington D.C. in 1976 to rehearse and then celebrate our country’s birth by giving concerts in Washington, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. I have the benefit of that wagon train in my bell choir at home and Distinctly Bronze, and I know some of those people are involved in the leadership of the activities in Orlando this week.
It’s cool to be together as youth from around the country doing something with a purpose. Isn’t it interesting that in 1976 we had youth (pioneers) celebrating the work of the settlers? We had young ringers (pioneers) under the leadership of Bob Ivey (a settler) doing great things.
That brings me to a realization that has developed for me over the past few years. In the church, we are doing everything we can to get young people involved and in pews or chairs, or standing and clapping. The biggest mistake we have made here is throwing out the settlers. We need the settlers to provide a tension with the pioneers so that the depth of the tradition is present in the new synthesis. Our society is old and new and our leadership has to be a synthesis. I know very few 60-year-olds who feel “old.” Let me bring in that quote from Nancy Poore Tufts, “I feel eighteen in my mind. “
Let’s find a way to get the pioneers (the youth and young people) brainstorming with the settlers (all who feel eighteen in their minds.) Let’s not do one new project a year, but perhaps one new project in every area of our organization. And let’s not throw out that which has purpose and is going well. It’s O.K. to say some things are tired, but let’s also celebrate traditions that still grow the art and the people involved in the art. We are alive and well in uniting people. I saw this firsthand as I had the privilege to work with Jason Wells and Michael Kastner at the Area X festival this summer. There is an amazing spirit among all those people and, I think, good progress toward ringing. But I want to take a look at the art side of our organization for a few moments.
I personally think this is the area that needs the greatest refinement. Society in general is wandering around looking for meaning. Most people who sit in churches on Sunday morning are looking for hope and more depth and meaning in their lives. Talk to young people who are tired of trying to find companionship in bars and turning instead to internet services to find companionship. What a pool of possibility there is out there for us who have committed our lives to a depth of expression.
While in Santa Fe this summer, I was reading the Choral Journal and was intrigued by Timothy Sharp’s mention of A Whole New Mind, written by Daniel H. Pink. I was motivated to run down to Borders and buy a copy. I am blown away by this book because it says many of the things I believe in, including that creativity and right brain thinking, according to Daniel Pink, are about to rule the world. The importance of pursuing people with MBAs is going to switch to people with MFAs. This is all because the left brain area of the Informational Era is being outsourced to the international community, and the way to package the benefits of the Informational Era becomes the business of the Conceptual Age. How does this information impact our lives, how might it improve our existence and bring meaning to our existence? Pink defines six senses that need to be developed: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. Let’s compare those six senses to what we do in music or more specifically with handbells and how it might impact our pioneer spirit:
DESIGN: Pink says, “Today it is economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.”
Well, here we are: we are in the business of trying to create something beautiful and emotionally engaging. I suppose a part of that is trying to be whimsical.
STORY: Pink says, “The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative.”
At the bottom of a handout I have for years used for musicianship classes, I have the following statement: By telling stories, people listen in a more profound way! We talk in big musical terms and concepts which often escape our performers and for sure our audiences. By creating a relevant story, we give lasting images which help us experience music at a different level as a performer and project a new meaning to audiences.
SYMPHONY: Pink says, “What is in greatest demand today is not analysis but synthesis—seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole.”
Performing musicians—especially handbell ensembles—are individually contributing to that which only works in relationship with several other people. It is the role of the conductor to assimilate all the parts into a whole. The English really have it right calling handbell ensembles “teams.” The group has to work together or nothing happens aurally or visually. There is no communication to the audience without this symphonic accomplishment.
EMPATHY: Pink writes, “What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.”
I remind you of a mission statement: “Uniting people through a musical art.” This one focuses on the performer—improves and gives hope for the symphonic expression of the ensemble.
PLAY: Pink writes, “Ample evidence points to the enormous health and professional benefits of laughter, lightheartedness, games, and humor. Too much sobriety can be bad for your career and worse for your general well-being.”
I was acutely reminded of this when several of us walked into a restaurant in Yakima, Washington, this summer. Bells of the Sound had given a pioneering conceptual concert the night before, but the night after they were playing hard together, having a great time, and making this conductor smile, because I realized how important those moments can be. I was reminded of some great “playing” the Dallas Handbell Ensemble did and reflected on its benefit to our symphony, our empathy, and our meaning.
MEANING: Pink concludes the six senses by saying, “We live in a world of breathtaking material plenty. That has freed hundreds of millions of people from day-to-day struggles and liberated us to pursue more significant desires: purpose, transcendence, and spiritual fulfillment.”
I am pursuing more meaning in my life every day I open my eyes. I think people are looking for transcendental experiences and spiritual experiences. I always remind people in rehearsals that we are in pursuit of a spiritual experience in every sense of the word as we perform—it is not just about faith. When we reach that level of performing we are telling stories, demonstrating empathy and designing innovations.
My original concept was to use Crossroads for an acronym, but I couldn’t make the letters work. Let me leave you with C.R.E.A.T.E.
COMPELLING: Our performances have to draw in audiences by its music-making with deep meaning. We have to find ways to ignite the creative spirit in the ringer, which will communicate something to the audience. We must have performances which make people feel or do something.
REFLECTIVE: Our performances need to make us look back, inside and deep.
EDUCATE: We cannot be effective in the realm of compelling if our technique is bad or basic issues of musicianship are ignored in rehearsals.
ATTITUDE: Pioneers, let’s keep the good and use the work of the settlers. but Settlers, let’s be open to the energy and ideas of the pioneers.
TEACH: One of the hallmarks of our existence is our massed ringing, which I continue to believe is a viable medium. Look at all the people who have come to ring in the International Symposium and the audience that will come to hear it. We need to use this medium for teaching. We don’t need to focus on entertaining the performers. Certainly we use this to bring people where we want to go, but sometimes we have to bite the nail and do things that are not as fun or received as jovially. The proof will be in the performance.
ENGAGE and ENERGIZE: Let’s keep compelling and reflective performances as our goal, but let’s use the pyrotechnics that make performances viable for the audience.
This is a great organization that is in need of pioneers—but to everyone who is here, keep doing what you do but fresher and better. I suspect our membership issue will evaporate if we CREATE.