A cappella group builds community within Honors College


“Ee-ee-ee-ee-ah-ah-ah-ah-ahhh.”

Practice begins with arpeggios up and down the scales to warm up the vocal chords.

“Sssssssssss.”

Ten counts of hissing sounds follow—breathing exercises to improve lung power.

Thirteen amateur singers from the Honors College, none of whom are music majors and some of whom cannot read music, stand in a semi-circle in a practice room at Everglades Hall. They’re warming up for their regular, Friday-evening a cappella rehearsal.

A cappella is music sung without the accompaniment of any instruments—it’s the hardest kind of singing there is, even for professionals.

“When singers have accompaniment, they have something there to help them stay on pitch or, rather, ‘in-tune.’  When a group of singers have only each other, they have to listen and focus better,” said the group’s faculty advisor, Honors College Professor Janet McDaniel, who has a degree in music. “It requires a lot of concentration and personal connectivity that surpasses traditional singing groups.”

For the members of HEARTbeats, singing a cappella gives them a chance to wind down on Fridays after a long week and express themselves through music.

The singers circle up for a song next: a soothing, mellow, beatbox rendition of Pentatonix’s “Run to You,” a piece that is both vocally and harmonically challenging. But the serious song ends with satisfied grins on the singers’ faces and the room’s atmosphere quickly dissolves into playful jokes and warm laughter.

“There was attitude in that,” comments tenor-singer Juan Brizuela, a mass communications graduate student.

The members of HEARTbeats, most of whom have been involved since the group began in January 2014, have chemistry. Chemistry that is evident in the loving way they interact between songs, as well as the way their voices blend seamlessly together, even when improvising.

Circle arrangements are up next: They mash-up “Love the Way You Lie,” by Eminem, with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,’” Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved,” and “Where is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas, turning the four songs into one continuous, impromptu medley by blending and layering the melodies on top of one another. It only works because they chose songs that have similar melodies and can be sung in the same key.

“It’s very experimental,” says Brizuela, “like improv.”

Circle arrangements help the group come up with medleys to sing for shows, which is no easy task.

Kamila Manzueta, HEARTbeats’ student director and a double-major in political science and international relations, and her assistant director, sophomore English major Gabriel Coto, the group’s beatboxer, arrange songs for voice using the musical composition program Finale, dissecting the tunes by ear into individual vocal parts.

Manzueta is in charge of vocal training and records each individual part of the arrangement so that if members can’t read music, they can learn their part by ear.

Manzueta and McDaniel work together to find events where the group can perform, which have included singing for World War II veterans receiving the French Legion of Honor Award at the Frost Museum last year and charity events, like raising money for children with autism to learn horseback riding.

While many a cappella groups sing for profit, the members of HEARTbeats try to volunteer at events that support causes close to their hearts. Next year, they’re considering singing at Relay for Life and breast cancer walks.

The group travelled to Orlando for their first competition in February.

“We were all scared to death,” said Manzueta, “but they left their hearts out on that stage, and that’s all I care about.”

Despite the nerves and not knowing quite what to expect from competition, the pre-performance warm-up in Orlando left HEARTbeats’ members with a common favorite memory.

They were in the dressing room, singing the first full run-through of their performance they’d done in days.

Manzueta described that warm-up as the group’s “aha moment,” where everything really fell into place for the first time.

“We would look at each other as we were singing, and it was as if we had all transformed into something else,” she said. “We were connected on a primal level and were feeding off each other’s energy. I actually got chills because they just had so much emotion in their voices.”

“It was one of the best musical moments of my life,” said Brizuela. “It was very exhilarating—a natural musical high.”

Senior psychology major Jessica Perez added, “We let our hearts out. It was amazing.”