Seniors Eli Parrish and Jacob Stauff awarded the Sudler Prize in the Arts for music and film

Students Eli Parrish 24C and Jacob Stauff 24C are Emory’s 2024 recipients of the Louis B. Sudler Prize in the Arts. The award honors graduating seniors who have demonstrated the highest standard of proficiency in the performing or creative arts.

The Sudler Prize, given annually at Emory and at a select group of colleges across the nation, is accompanied by a $6,000 award and is bestowed at the Emory College Honors Program each Commencement.

Eli Parrish

He couldn’t coax any music out of the first clarinet he was given. 

Now, Eli Parrish remembers that day with a smile, having gone on to an extraordinary musical career. A music composition major and environmental sciences minor, he is graduating with the Sudler Prize as one among a host of honors for his talent as a performer, conductor and composer.

Parrish also won the Blumenthal Award from the Department of Music in 2023 and was named a Fellow of the John H. Gordon Stipe Society.

A versatile instrument and performer

“For the first couple months in middle school band, I couldn’t make a single sound on my instrument. Once my director realized my instrument was broken and gave me a functional one, I fell in love with playing almost immediately. As I listened, I would think about all the changes I would make if I were writing the pieces we performed,” says Parrish. 

A native of Bremen, a small west Georgia city, Parrish would listen to band pieces on YouTube, trying to learn by ear because he couldn’t read music that well at the time. Given his evolution as a composer and conductor, Parrish says, “I actually think it was formative for me to learn parts by ear. It made me listen to all the other instruments playing at the same time.”

Progressing by leaps and bounds, Parrish was accepted to the Philadelphia International Music Festival the summer of his sophomore year in high school — a program offering students of all ages and skill levels the opportunity to be immersed in music education and performance training with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

“I got to play clarinet in an orchestra for the first time, which was terrifying,” Parrish recalls. “That environment really shaped my trajectory as a musician. There was now more to the world of music than band music.”

He describes a steep learning curve: as the least-experienced member of his ensemble, he was playing the hardest music he had ever attempted. In addition to learning from members of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the festival, Parrish worked with the principal clarinet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 

Before his high school graduation, Parrish participated in the Georgia All-State and District Honor Bands as well as took lessons with University of West Georgia faculty.

Stars aligning for Emory 

When it came time to consider colleges, Emory checked a number of boxes for Parrish. He saw the name of Laura Ardan, who served as principal clarinet with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1982-22, on the list of Department of Music faculty.

Parrish also knew that many music majors at Emory are double majors; at the time, he wanted to pursue a career as an environmental epidemiologist or environmental lawyer. Music, in his words, was “just for fun.”

As he did his college calculus, Parrish concluded, “Emory is close by, has a beautiful campus, I can study what I want and Laura Ardan teaches there. I am set.”

He would go on to study with Ardan until her retirement.

Among the admission materials he submitted was a piece of music —“Orchidaceae” — he had written as a critique of climate change. Performing it had raised money for environmental initiatives in his hometown. The piece has since been arranged for Emory’s Vega Quartet. 

“This music was so important to my work as an activist, but I am delighted that even for those who resist the notion of climate change, the music draws them in. It is a way to connect people who have differing opinions without debating,” Parrish says. 

Not just ‘set’ at Emory, but soaring 

In his first semester, Parrish enrolled in the chamber music program and played in a trio with piano and cello. As concerns about COVID-19 transmission became heightened in spring 2020, Emory’s orchestra allowed only string instruments, so Parrish enrolled in the Wind Ensemble. 

He flourished, not only playing but providing support as a work-study student, and both roles enabled him to form close relationships with three of the conductors. The ensemble has performed Parrish’s compositions every year since he was a sophomore. “That is incredibly unique, especially with an ensemble as highly regarded as Emory’s,” says Parrish.

Performance of one of those compositions, “Jaded Adoration,” came last spring and was a high point in Parrish’s musical life. For that concert, the Wind Ensemble played alongside the U.S. Army Band Brass. “The military bands of the various service arms all perform at the highest level. To be with those musicians was absolutely incredible, and I don’t think I could have had this experience anywhere else,” Parrish notes. 

He has an individual style as a composer, bypassing the outlines that most composers use. “I sit down at a piano or my computer and start from measure one and basically write from the beginning to the end,” he says. “I don’t have either a form or length in mind. I write what feels correct until I get to the end.” 

Then, as with any careful writer, the remaining steps are revise, revise, revise. Occasionally, Parrish’s professors or his conductors note that some of the music might be too difficult for student musicians. While open to this feedback, Parrish knows firsthand the high caliber of his fellow musicians and welcomes helping them to even higher levels of achievement.

So much pep

A joyful endeavor for Parrish has been his involvement with the Young People’s Concerts Orchestra, which draws its musicians from Emory students who give their time to expose Atlanta schoolchildren — some at Title I schools — to music, individual instruments and an introductory education about how orchestras work.

Asked to conduct the orchestra three weeks before a performance in fall 2022, Parrish laughs, recalling, “I got through it with one semester of conducting and watching lots of Leonard Bernstein videos on YouTube.” It was, he says, a big step along his desired path of becoming an assistant conductor of a city orchestra.

YouTube videos show Parrish conducting his original compositions — “Cirrus” and “Prometheus’ Prelude” — with the orchestra.

Having watched the pleasure that the young students derived from the concerts — some of them screaming with excitement when instruments they play were introduced — as well as the satisfaction it provides Emory students, Parrish concludes: “This orchestra has touched the lives of elementary, middle and high school students from all over the state, showing them the world of classical music.”

Parrish also invited high school students from his hometown to a concert at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts in March of this year, believing “it is important that students interested in music have the chance to be in a concert hall.”

Throughout his Emory career, Parrish has had deep, productive relationships with music faculty, including Paul Bhasin, director of undergraduate research and orchestral studies. As director of the Emory Youth Symphony Orchestra, one of the finest precollege programs in the region, Bhasin invited Parrish to take the baton before this group, which Parrish categorizes as “the best of the best high school students.” He conducted as they played “Jupiter” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite.

“Through Dr. Bhasin’s belief in me, I have gotten opportunities that many students my age wouldn’t necessarily get,” Parrish observes.

Another example was being chosen as a soloist for Bhasin’s 2022 film score to “Sister Carrie,” which was not only recorded but premiered at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago. “Eli has distinguished himself as a leader, amassing considerable success on Emory’s campus, in the greater Atlanta region, nationally and internationally,” says Bhasin.

Despite the myriad ways Parrish was exploring music at Emory, he missed marching band. Believing that there was an appetite among students to sing along with “Sweet Caroline” as well as the “Emory Fight Song,” Parrish took steps to establish a pep band.

It took two years of hard work to get the band off the ground, but it received enthusiastic support as it played for basketball games starting in December 2022 and then added performances for soccer and volleyball games in August 2023. “For some students at Emory, who had put their instruments down when they came here, this was a way to get started with music again,” Parrish says.

‘Scary good’

Parrish’s future plans — what he terms “the scary part” — include taking a gap year to apply for a Fulbright scholarship in the hope of studying in Europe and earning master’s degrees in conducting and composition.

In the interim, he has several promising paths staked out: he is interviewing with the Wynton Marsalis Band, which performs at Lincoln Center in New York; applying for an opening at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; conducting the Bohuslava Martinů Philharmonic in the Czech Republic; attending the Mostly Modern festival for composition in New York; and assistant-conducting the orchestra in Carrollton, Georgia. 

Meanwhile, his obsession with Leonard Bernstein continues. An admirer of the legendary conductor’s “intensity and emotional vulnerability,” Parrish has seen the film “Maestro” five times. “You can perfect technique, but if you are not communicating your desires effectively to the musicians in front of you, then you are not really conducting,” Parrish says.

Lucky audiences in Carrollton will soon meet a “maestro” of their own.

Jacob Stauff

“I always have been attracted to things larger than life — projects that require an investment to create.”

Those are the words of Jacob Stauff, who has pursued “larger-than-life things” via a filmmaking career that dates back to when he was 12 years old growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Stauff’s earliest loves were writing and reading; the prowess with film production would come later.

As he nears the close of a distinguished four years at Emory, that prowess is expressed in several ways.

In addition to winning the Sudler Prize, Stauff earned Highest Honors from the Department of Film and Media for his honors thesis film. Moreover, a film he made about his father has been accepted and screened at an Oscar Award-qualifying festival, AmDocs, or the American Documentary and Animation Film Festival.

In December 2023, Stauff became the first Emory recipient of the Business of Entertainment Georgia Power Rising Star Student Scholarship. The $500 he received was to be used to further his education and prepare for a career in the film industry.


“I was a big reader of physical books as a kid. I love all the tools of filmmaking, but at its core, filmmaking is about narrative, which has its roots in reading and literature,” says Stauff. 

In the third grade, he wrote plays and had his fellow students act in them. By the fifth grade, Stauff and his brother were recruited to be in an older classmate’s video. There was no looking back; the fix was in. 

“After that, I begged and borrowed cameras,” Stauff says. “I was doing weddings when I was way too young. I got hired by the Wisconsin Home School Association to film their production of ‘Little Orphan Annie.’”

Getting in shipshape

If this sounds like the story of a self-taught filmmaker eventually coming to Emory to further his education, it is — but not before a four-year tour on a nuclear-powered Navy carrier.

He was, he says, “off to the races,” enlisting just days after his high school graduation. He joined a long line of family service members, including his father and the first Stauff to come to America, who enrolled in the Union Army six months after arriving in his new country.

“I love my country and would have regretted not serving,” says Stauff, though he concedes that “being part of operating a nuclear reactor at sea in a combat theater was stressful,” having moved through the Mediterranean Sea, then to the Suez Canal and later to a location near Bahrain.

There were also the cramped quarters with which the 6’4” Stauff had to contend.

“There are things that are fun when you do them and things that are fun when you remember them. Most things military-related fall into that second bucket,” he says. 

Once out of the Navy, Stauff bought a house in his hometown, was making good money working for a trucking company and got comfortable.

“If I blink, I will be 45,” Stauff remembers thinking. So, he got back to what he loved: making short films.

He briefly entertained the “westward-ho” call that many filmmakers answer, but after getting a taste for housing prices in Los Angeles, Stauff settled on Atlanta. “The Atlanta filmmaking community is a bit younger. In Los Angeles, the system is monolithic and multigenerational; it is hard to break in,” he notes. 

The Google search that led to Emory 

Thank goodness for the university’s search engine optimization. After deciding on Atlanta and knowing he wanted to pursue an undergraduate degree, Stauff admits he did what any Navy veteran who never knew about the college-admissions process would do: hastily search online.

“Emory was the first school that popped up for someone interested in film. I never applied to another school. At the time, I had no knowledge of how hard it was to get in here,” Stauff says.

Not only did he get into a top school, he proved to be a top student.

Admitted into the Film and Media honors program in his junior year, Stauff says that he “already had the wheels turning beforehand” about the film he wanted to make. By making it his honors thesis, he was able to seek “outstanding advice from so many members of the department. Professor Schreiber, in particular, has been fantastic, bending over backward for me.”

Michele Schreiber, associate professor of film and media as well as departmental chair, comments: “Jacob has been a stand-out student from day one in both his film and media studies and production courses. His talent, maturity and professionalism have made him a valued member of the Film and Media community and will serve him well as he pursues a career as a filmmaker.”

Stauff’s honors film is 25 minutes long, shot in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in subzero temperatures, and the cast and crew are all active or prior military. It centers on two soldiers — one a staunch atheist, the other a staunch Catholic — who must choose between saving themselves or saving a friend. 

“Something about working on set mimics what it is like to work in the military,” Stauff says. “You have a hierarchy of responsibility, the pressure of time and a crew working toward a goal.”

In addition to directing, he pushes himself to be competent in the things he asks of others. For instance, he does stunt work, is trained in the use of firearms and is certified as a drone pilot and underwater photographer. 

“I trained in stunt work to be better able to communicate with my performers. I am taking gymnastics now. In my class are little girls doing triple flips while I try to do a somersault. I don’t want to ask people to do things that I haven’t done myself or at least tried to do,” Stauff says.   

‘Neither rain nor snow …’

Stauff describes growing up in an atmosphere of “absolute love” created by both parents. Realizing that his father was going to be retiring from the Postal Service soon, Stauff wanted to make a film about him.

“My dad’s work ethic makes me feel so small in comparison. He didn’t miss a single basketball or soccer game that I was in. He would run to complete his mail route in order to make my games, despite massive snowdrifts and terrible weather. I had a crystal-clear understanding of my father’s character and how unique that was.”

The result was the film “The Mailman,” which was covered in this story from his hometown press. Stauff’s dad saw the film for the first time when his son debuted it at a local Green Bay theater and invited 100 family and friends. (Spoiler alert: Watch with tissues.) Now, that film is advancing through award channels.

Stauff plans to explore two postgraduation avenues to market his films: one is to go for online success, the “lots-of-views” path; the other is to seek festival acceptance. This summer, to bone up on the business side of his industry, he might do the Summer Accelerator program at The Hatchery, Center for Innovation. Stauff is currently working as a production assistant on the Netflix series “Cedar Lodge,” which is being filmed in Georgia. 

Armed with his honors film, “Terminus,” as proof of concept for a possible pilot along with a pitch packet and the script for a first episode, Stauff will be actively engaging studios. 

Not yet 45 — far from it, in fact — he has the satisfaction of knowing that, through dedication to his craft, he has improved with each film he has made. 

And, with practice, his somersaults are looking pretty good too.

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