An Inspiring Teacher Turns 32 Talented But Untrained High School Students Into One “Big Voice”

Published January 2017

High school choir director Jeffe Huls does not have an easy job. He has to take charge of 32 teenagers and turn them into “One Big Voice.”

Big Voice is a documentary chronicling a year in the life of Huls, his students and the choir group that he attempts to build. It will not be an easy year. Even though these young people auditioned for their places in the Santa Monica High School choir — and despite the fact that Huls recognizes that this combination of voices may be the most sublime he has ever worked with — teenagers are often not inclined to do anything that feels like work. Or anything that takes time away from the social aspects of their lives. Or anything that other kids might not understand or respect.

And the kids involved in this choir have real life issues that they are dealing with as well — family issues, overwhelming workloads, ego problems, social problems, homelessness — that can sometimes make singing 13th century music in a choir seem unimportant.

But Mr. Huls finds ways to involve them, to keep them showing up, and to inspire them to give up ego-driven pursuits to work with other students as a team — a musical team.

By the time these students are ready to perform their year-end Choral recital, they have learned that their hard work, dedication, commitment and discipline have paid off in ways they could not have anticipated when they signed on.

Big Voice is available on Blu-ray and DVD or you can stream it immediately on Amazon Video.

Big Voice: The Power of Music Education to Transform Lives.

May 2016. 83min. Video Project, DVD, $89.
REVIEW. First published August 9, 2016 (Booklist Online).

Jeffe Huls, choral director at California’s Santa Monica High School, is known for being a demanding instructor who expects excellence from his choral students. This enlightening program follows Huls through the school year as he works with the 32 students in the school ensemble, the Madrigals. The animated teacher believes that the choir will be more successful if the kids share respect and affection, so he organizes a two-day retreat to Big Bear, California, filled with team-building exercises, games, and rehearsals. As the year progresses, choral members and parents are seen helping with fund-raisers because Huls’ salary is the only item in the school budget; everything else—including sheet music, which costs more than $7,000 annually—is funded through donations. We also see the effervescent choir members rehearsing and practicing for the state competition and end-of-the-year concert. But not everything runs smoothly; the kids are sometimes distracted. As one teen observes, “The girls are talkative and the boys are rowdy.” In interviews, the students, who are seen in school and home settings, talk about their lives, schoolwork, and music class. In the state competition and impressive final concert, we are treated to top-notch, meaningful, and moving performances. This thoughtful film shares insights on the power of the arts and the work of a personable, dedicated choir director who teaches five classes daily. The DVD also contains a 53-minute version. The college and university price is $295. — Candace Smith

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/General Interest: Teens interested in music will be intrigued by Huls’ techniques and impressed with the talented singers.  —Candace Smith

Big Voice | School Library Journal DVD Review

redstarBig Voice. 53 min. and 83 min. Dist. by the Video Project. 2015. $89. ISBN unavail.

Gr 6 Up –Jeffe Huls loves music and his job as Santa Monica High School’s choral director. This exceptional documentary chronicles a school year as he uses all of his skills to pull the music out of students who are also dealing with their own teen issues. After finally being able to select a 32-person madrigal choir (a longtime dream), he finds that even students who had to audition for the ensemble are not always motivated to put in the necessary work. A combination of cajoling, encouragement, innovative techniques, sheer force of will, and a deep-held love of music play a role in motivating and teaching his students. The growth over the year is amazing but not without its tensions. Yet it’s obvious that the students recognize the crystal clear moments when everything comes together and their performance rises to a new level. Production values are excellent, with crisp video and audio, and the program comes in both an 83-minute and a 53-minute version, which would be a better fit, time-wise, for classroom use. VERDICT This film is inspiring and thought provoking. Secondary music teachers and students will find much here to appreciate, as will those who love music.–Teresa Bateman, Brigadoon Elementary, Federal Way, WA

Arts in Education | Video Review

Screen Shot 2016-07-03 at 16.15.07 Big Voice. color. 53/83+ min. Varda Bar-Kar, dist. by Video Project, 2015. DVD $89; acad. libs. $295. Public performance; PPR/DSL $350. ED/MUSIC
Jeffe Huls directs the choral arts program at Santa Monica High School, CA, with dedication both to music and the teenagers he trains. Auditioning talented juniors who aim to enter the advanced chamber singers and madrigal ensemble, Huls is shown to be serious about channeling talent into musicianship. He instituted a 48-hour fall camping retreat for these elite groups as a musical team-building exercise. We hear student responses to Huls’s insistence on discipline as well as how Huls himself feels about working with kids who are stressed by academics, or must cope with personal crises such as homelessness. Filmmaker ­Bar-Kar’s editing matches the choirmaster’s meticulous attention to detail. In the end, everyone here thrives in a climate of serious fun, even when perfection remains elusive. With an abundance of bonus material. VERDICT An outstanding chronicle of teaching, learning, and creating high-quality collaborative art.—Bonnie Jo Dopp, Libn. Emerita, Univ. of Maryland, College Park

Uplifting Documentary “Big Voice” Hits All the Right Notes

Published October 15, 2016

Films about high school music concerts, choral groups and choirs have been around for years. “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, starring Richard Dreyfuss, as a music teacher aspiring to compose just one great piece of music, and the TV shows “Glee” and “Fame” come quickly to mind. But documentaries about music departments, teachers, and high school students on the subject vary, depending on the vision of the documentarian and the willingness of real students and adults to participate.

The film “Big Voice”, made by award-winning filmmaker Varda Bar-Kar, receives its World Premiere screening at the Heartland Film Festival of Indianapolis, Indiana on October 18th. It makes its local festival debut at the LA Femme International Film Festival on October 17th in Beverly Hills.

As with many things in life, big events often have small beginnings. Filmmaker Bar-Kar was attending a Santa Monica, California, High School music concert one year and was moved to tears by the beauty of the choir’s ‘voice’. 

“I wanted to find out how Santa Monica High School music teacher and Choir Master Jeffe Huls did it. I realized that a documentary film that told the story of a dedicated teacher who makes a profound difference in his students lives and reveal how valuable arts education can be [in our society]”, became a reality in a year-long filming effort chronicling events that became the film “Big Voice” now playing on America’s film festival circuit.

Huls is not only a charismatic and articulate teacher, he is also a creative, caring, and understanding person. High school teenagers, some feeling their oats from time to time or coming to grips with their real or perceived inadequacies, can be challenging to convince that they all possess talent. Huls is a gifted leader who understands his role as one similar to that of a military drill instructor during basic training. He teaches his raw recruits. He shapes them turning them into a polished unified choral group that gives each student a sense of self-worth and a purpose and a place in the world.

There are several of scenes of Huls either in repose, thinking, or planning that poignantly will resonate with teachers.Teaching is truly a noble profession, but at times one also can sense the feeling of what it must be like to feel the loneliness of the long distance runner/teacher. They can never really be your sons or daughters. They belong to society. But like parents everywhere, we worry and are concerned about their futures.

But it’s all up to these eager youngsters as Huls continually counsels them. The class and a year-end choral presentation by the students demand discipline, hard work, commitment and dedication. That’s the mantra they hear from Huls. To watch the young choir grow in skill and self-confidence is what makes “Big Voice” so compelling a film.
Obviously, the star of the documentary is Jeff Huls, but director Bar-Kar wouldn’t have so compelling a film without the cooperation of the students who feel pretty comfortable being trailed around by a camera crew. Their articulate observations and commentary is most impressive when one considers they’re just high school youngsters. But, on the other hand, it all takes place in Santa Monica, near Hollywood, where the living is easy and laid-back.

“Big Voice” is easy on the eyes and is very technically proficient documentary thanks to the director of photography Keet Daron and editor Robert McFalls, who know how photograph and edit all the footage shot over the course of an entire high school year.

This is a film that needs to be seen on PBS and screens all over America. And by the way, our education system and our society now more than ever needs the Jeffe Huls of this world.