Gabriella Holter and Dan French shake hands

Dan French, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, presents an award of excellence to Gabriella Holter at the Statehouse in Montpelier.

A singing senior at Harwood Union High School has just received an award from the state for artistic excellence, but she isn’t stopping there.

Gabriella Grace Holter of Warren was one of 25 students recognized for her talent and dedication to her pursuits in music and was recognized by the Vermont Presidential Scholars Program in a ceremony at the Statehouse. Holter was exposed to music throughout her childhood, and plans to pursue her passion in college.

Sound garden

Holter, a senior at Harwood, was born in Burbank, Calif., but moved with her family to Hardwick when she was 5. A year later they moved to Warren, specifically for the schools, Holter said. “They just wanted a better place to raise kids.”

She’s been immersed in music since her youngest years. “My dad’s a musician, and most of my family on my dad’s side are musicians. I’d wake up to piano, go to sleep to piano. Always piano.”

Holter played in a group with her older brother and younger sister called The Holter Kids. Their first public performance was at Vermont Music Fest in Warren in 2012. “It was a big music festival,” she said. “I think I actually performed my first original song there.”

The Holter Kids played together until 2016, disbanding as the kids entered high school.

Since then, she’s been active in high school chorus, school musicals and a social justice band called Soundcheck. The band performs at rallies, including the Rally for Climate Change and Race Against Racism in Montpelier last year, and opened for Kat Wright at the Higher Ground nightclub a couple of years ago.

“We kind of touched on everything,” Holter said, “sexism classism, racism … all the isms.”

Bryan Boyes, musician and teacher, directs Soundcheck, and also founded The Saturn People’s Sound Project, in which Holter is also involved.

“It’s an 18-piece band, so huge, kind of big band, funky vibes,” she said. They played at ZenBarn in Waterbury in December and will perform at the Plainfield Opera House March 14.

Musical mentors

Growing up around talented musicians was a big influence. Holter’s family is always singing at holiday gatherings and she learned piano from watching her dad and brother play on a daily basis.

Stefanie Weigand, music teacher at Harwood Union, has also played a big role in her musical pursuits.

Weigand nominated Holter for the award.

“I was shocked, honestly,” Holter said. “I get good grades,” but said she doesn’t consider herself a scholar.

According to Weigand, she’s just being modest.

“Gabriella is one of our superstar seniors at Harwood and definitely deserves this acknowledgment,” she said. “She is one of the few students I’ve ever taught to be in both the Vermont All State and New England music festivals for all four years of high school.”

The two met when Holter was 7, singing in a kids group called Young Singers Chorus of Vermont, which Weigand helped direct.

“She’s taught me the whole technical side of music. My dad is a musician but he was never traditionally trained,” Holter said. “She taught me the theory side of it, how to read music, how to write music, how to sing a certain way. She’s taught me everything I know.”

As a senior, Holter helps Weigand teach the seventh grade choir. “It’s really cute. I get to see my past self, kind of.”

Going out west

Last month, Holter was thousands of miles away, visiting the University of Denver and University of Southern California. She spent some time with her brother, who attends the University of Denver, and recorded vocal tracks for an album his jazzy, funky band Monk Gyatso is releasing. This summer she plants to start a solo project of her own, the self-titled “Ella Grace.”

In the fall, she’ll be off to college.

“When I was applying for schools, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to focus on music solely,” she said. “After visiting USC, though, if I’m able to get in, I think I’d like to be in LA and pursue a solo career or pick up a band of some sort. It would be really cool to be in LA, immersed in such a diverse culture.”

While excited about the big city, Holter sees herself returning to Vermont when she decides to have a family.

“My parents did that too, because they moved there when they were 18,” she said. “(Vermont) is just such an amazing place.”

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