SAMOHI — It’s a familiar tune: members of the Santa Monica High School choir are winning big awards again this year.
Not one, but two Samohi seniors, Jennifer Gsell and Quinn D’Andrea, were selected from thousands as YoungArts finalists. They performed in Miami earlier this month.
Sophomore Ben Ross is currently one of 15 semi-finalists, selected from 600 applicants, for the Music Center Spotlight Award. The finals are on Sunday.
On Friday and Saturday, they packed the Humanities Center for Café Samo, a talent showcase.
And if that’s not enough, a documentary is in the works about the Samohi choir and its director, Jeffe Huls.
Director and producer Varda Hardy, with the help of others, raised nearly $45,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 to fund the first stages of “Big Voice,” a film that explores public school art programs and the intensity and unity of the choir.
“What really motivated me was I wanted to find out how Mr. Huls was able to make such extraordinary art at a public school,” she said. “I wanted to know his secret.”
Filmed last school year, the documentary is in post-production, Hardy said. Her team still needs to raise funds for the editing process and she hopes to show it on the festival circuit in 2015.
“I would say that when we finished filming, I still could not believe it,” she said. “I don’t know how he does it. It’s amazing.”
As they sift through the footage and develop a story, Hardy said, one of the driving forces is Huls’ personality.
“He’s a big-hearted person, and his intentions are good, but he also sets a high bar for his students challenging them to achieve more than the think they are capable of,” she said.
In one early clip, posted to the Hardy’s Kickstarter page, Huls flexes his jaw, waiting for the class to quiet down before making subtle alterations to a piece that was performed minutes earlier and, to an untrained ear, sounded perfect.
It’s clear, however, that the students latch on to his intensity.
“He really engages everyone and he really makes you learn the theory, the technical part of the music,” said Gsell, one of the YoungArts finalists. “I know how to sight-sing and rhythmic sight-sing. I know a lot of people who are the same age as me but go to different high schools and know nothing about that. The learning process is faster and it’s just more fun.”
For Hardy, the underlying theme is about unity, which she sees as a larger societal issue.
“What struck me at the time, thematically, was that there was an ongoing dialogue about the importance of the individual and about the importance of the group,” she said. “The discussions happened between the students and with Mr. Huls. And when they sing together the voices blend and you’re literally becoming one voice.”