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Santa Monica High School's Got a Really "Big Voice"  

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By Melonie Magruder
Lookout Staff

October 3, 2011-- In an era when public education is facing relentless budget cutting, when arts programs are routinely dismissed from high school curricula and when, as local filmmaker Varda Hardy says in her new documentary, “Big Voice,” ‘good enough’ is epidemic in public schools, Santa Monica High School boasts a teacher who demands – and inspires – excellence.

Jeffe Huls is Samohi’s chair of the performing arts program and choir director several years running, taking an often-marginalized class and turning it into a 175-member strong performance program. Huls oversees eight choral groups in ten national and international performances yearly and, as defined by Albert Einstein, is a teacher with “the supreme art to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge,” Hardy says.

Mr. Huls with his students at this past weekend's
Madrigal Retreat. Photos by Varda Hardy.

Hardy, whose documentary features and short films have won numerous awards, was so taken with Huls as an inspiration and motivation to high school choral students that she decided to make a documentary feature about him. Principal photography has already started and she will travel with the choral students this year, tracking their preparation, rehearsals, disappointments and triumphs as part of her film.

“Jeffe models the possibility of greatness,” Hardy said. “He wants them to see that when they are as good as they think they can get, they can push through, work harder and achieve things they never expected of themselves. I was well into adulthood before I learned that lesson.”

Another lesson Hardy has learned is the difficulty of funding such projects independently. Accordingly, she is seeking sponsors through an innovative, grassroots-style campaign being utilized by more and more arts groups nationwide – direct marketing in an online web program called Kickstarter.

Potential arts supporters can read about the proposed project, the principals involved and view trailers, and pledge whatever they can during the funding drive – a limited period of time in which to raise, in Hardy’s case, $40,000. The project is currently funded at more than 50 percent of its goal.

“I was just so moved by the quality of the music Jeffe’s students were creating,” said Hardy, whose daughter Raven Bennett sings in the choir. “You hear so much negative news about horrible teachers and waste in public schools. I wanted to show with “Big Voice” that it’s possible to get beyond that and find a teacher that gives something invaluable to his students. Something magical.”

Huls attended California State University, Long Beach before getting his masters degree at Western Michigan University. He acknowledges that he sets a “very high bar” for his students and then pushes them to move that bar higher.

Mr. Huls auditions Joe Colajezzi.

“And the students always surprise me,” Huls said. “Whether these kids end up pursuing music as a professional career or just singing as a hobby, I think that they will always see music as part of their lives. For me, it’s not just an artistic expression, it’s opened all kinds of doors for me and allowed me to travel the world in artistic collaborations I never imagined.”

Though Huls and his students mostly work on classical pieces, Hardy is including some pop music performances, and engaging Grammy-winning composers to work with the students to create new songs for the film.

The artistic lineup includes Siedah Garrett who has worked with Michael Jackson and Jennifer Hudson, Pam Aronoff who has written songs for Emmylou Harris and Kelly Clarkson, and Cliff Goldmacher, whose work has been recorded by Jane Monheit.

Huls said he was especially enthusiastic about working with Lamont Dozier, the pop/soul writing legend, who penned mega-hits for acts like Marvin Gaye, the Supremes and the Four Tops.

“Meeting Lamont Dozier was just amazing,” Huls said. “The way he thinks about art, his songwriting, it just builds a bridge between pop music and choral music. It’s a great opportunity for me to load some more tools into my toolbox.”

The SMHS choral groups compete nationally and internationally, have won several awards, and have local upcoming performances, including one scheduled for December 15 that Huls describes as a “perpetual motion concert.”

Isaac Nemzer is a junior and has been choral singing since eighth grade. Although he started studying instrumental music, he says that Huls is a big part of why he has abandoned that to focus on choral singing.

Isaac Nemzer and choir students audition for SAMOHI's advanced choirs.

“You can tell he is very passionate,” Nemzer said of his teacher. “He’s very serious about excellence and that motivates us to be serious in our rehearsals.”

Meanwhile, Hardy is focused on guiding her small crew through production as efficiently as possible, buoyed by her award of $100,000 worth of post-production recording and editing services from On Location: The Los Angeles Video Project.

“I am sure we will get our funding,” Hardy said. “It should be a fun ride for the audience. A really joyous, engaging experience. Just like Jeffe Huls’ approach to music.”

To find out more about Varda Hardy’s documentary, “Big Voice,” go to:

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