Santa Monica High School choir teacher Jeffe Huls demands greatness in the new film “Big Voice”
By Brian Welk
The juniors and seniors in Jeffe Huls’ advanced choir class at Santa Monica High School are standing in a circle, watching him like deer in headlights. Moments earlier, Mr. Huls felt the need to inform his class that he will not tolerate any racist, sexist or homophobic remarks. It’s a tense scene. And yet Huls isn’t asking his students to sing a classical European sonata, but instead a more familiar American standard: “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
Huls gives one of them a cue to start singing, and before they’ve even reached the second “row,” he waves his fist and cuts them off.
“You two, switch places,” he orders.
He’s heard enough.
These are high school kids, and yet this moment in the new documentary “Big Voice” almost feels like a scene out of “Whiplash,” the Oscar-winning film about a young drummer’s tutelage under a combative jazz instructor who hurls insults and music books at his students.
Huls isn’t nearly as extreme as the ruthless teacher played by J.K. Simmons in that film, but he does demand perfection, and he pushes his students to achieve greatness.
His methods may at first feel scary, unconventional and appear to put too much pressure on such young singers, but the message of “Big Voice” is that this behavior should be encouraged — that we need more teachers like him.
“I’m a tough cookie,” he says in the film.
Huls teaches students how to read sheet music, avoids popular music in performances and, before auditions for the top choir, he lays down a strict rule of “no crying.”
The need for this documentary, he said, stems from a misunderstanding of what goes on in choir class.
“When we think about music education, we think about the orchestras and marching bands. And there’s a number of people who still think what I do in my class is singing around the campfire,” said Huls, a Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District of 18 years, 12 of them at the high school. “Partly, I need other people to see that we’re taking ourselves seriously. That allows the students to take it seriously themselves.”
GOOD TEACHERS EMPOWER
When “Big Voice” director Varda Bar-Kar, a Santa Monica resident, first approached Huls with the idea to make a movie, he was skeptical.
“It’s not the first time a parent has come to me with a hair-brained idea out of nowhere,” Huls said, not knowing at the time whether the effort would materialize into anything — let alone a shooting process that lasted more than a year.
What’s more, Huls wasn’t sure how his tough, uncompromising teaching methods would come across on film.
“You get to the point that you forget that the cameras are rolling after you’ve been doing it for a while. And then I would say something or do something and see the cameras and say, ‘I wish I could take that back,’” Huls said. “But I had a trust in Varda that I knew she wanted to bring forth a piece of art that was uplifting and engaging. So I had to take a leap of faith and trust that she needed to put in some of those stronger passages to make this story compelling.”
At the center of “Big Voice,” which is now available for streaming on Netflix, is a story about what it takes to be a great teacher, but also the work that goes into creating great art that moves people. “Big Voice” follows Huls and the kids of Samohi through over a year of classes on their road to a choir competition and their annual concerts for the community.
Bar-Kar first became inspired to approach Huls after seeing the choir’s winter program, in which students move around the venue and into the audience in order to create a more intimate and engaging experience.
“Through that performance, I literally felt transported. I was brought to tears,” Bar-Kar said. “And what moved me, it was primarily the commitment and conviction of these students singing these ancient songs in all these different languages that seemed so incongruous of our image of contemporary youth and teens. It was just so beautiful.”
Despite knowing nothing about choir or about music in particular, Bar-Kar was curious to learn the process behind achieving any sort of artistry with people so young. She felt at the time there was a great deal of criticism toward teachers, and after meeting Mr. Huls, she knew her next film had to be a tribute to those who had inspired her.
“I was nurtured by my teachers. My artistry and my tendency to be creative was always encouraged and nurtured,” Bar-Kar said. “They empowered me, and I still carry that power they gave me.”
“Big Voice” documents not just in-class rehearsals, but also an overnight retreat in which Huls earns the trust of his students, as well as the many behind-the-scenes moments of students struggling to succeed both on and off stage.
That trust manifests itself in one scene in which Huls pulls out a random piece of music that his students have never seen, tells a live audience they’ll have
10 minutes to learn it, and then watches them nail it.
“What I came to realize is that he was holding a high bar for them that they didn’t even realize they could achieve; that’s what good teachers do,” Bar-Kar said. “It was uncomfortable because I didn’t know and understand that the students could achieve what he was wanting of them, and they didn’t know, but he knew they could because he’s seen these breakthroughs.”
GREATNESS OR BUST
Both Huls and Bar-Kar hope “Big Voice” serves as an argument for keeping arts programs funded in public schools.
At Samohi, only Huls’ salary is paid by taxpayers; everything else the students need comes from fundraising.
But arts education, he said, is a fundamental part of kids’ development.
“We have to acknowledge that students learn in different ways. Having students play on a basketball team is part of an education. Being involved in an arts program is part of educating our whole being,” Huls said. “We’re really fortunate in Santa Monica to have a community that has come out time and time again and said, ‘You will not cut our arts programs.’”
The truth is that Santa Monica High School may not have an exceptional choir (Spoiler Alert: In the film, the choir places fifth in a competition), but they do have an exceptional teacher.
Shortly after filming wrapped in 2012, Huls won a BRAVO award from The Music Center, one of the highest possible honors for arts teachers in Los Angeles.
He shouldn’t be alone, argues Bar-Kar. “Big Voice,” she said, is about the need for more teachers who expect the most of their students.
“In our society we spend too much time trying to get comfortable,” Bar-Kar said. “Sometimes when you’re aspiring to greatness, you’re going to be uncomfortable. You’re going to go through struggle. That’s when some of the biggest breakthroughs occur. So if you don’t push your students or yourself to work through these discomforts, you won’t get through to the other side. You will not innovate, and greatness and excellence will not be achieved. It takes being willing to be uncomfortable.”
“Life is fuller when you experience it on the fullest level,” Huls said. “Music is more uplifting when it is the absolute best you can make it. Settling for just good enough doesn’t allow us to experience things on that level.”
“Big Voice” begins streaming on Netflix in November. The choir’s winter program returns on Dec. 16 and is still seeking sponsors. Visit samohichoir.org for more information.