A cappella has been blessed with the dulcet tones of Paloma Zavala, third-year IAML and ECON minor. Since Fall of 2014, she has been a member of Tech’s all-female a cappella group, Nothin’ But Treble (NBT). Interested in the arts and sciences, her dream is to apply biology and genetics in her field in developing countries. The Technique sat down with her to talk about her start in singing, NBT behind the scenes and, of course, “Pitch Perfect.”
Zavala: I love being really busy. If I’m not busy, I’m not happy. I also really enjoy watching Netflix, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy spending copious amounts of time on Netflix instead of doing what I need to do. I really like “Orange is the New Black”; I think I watched it in an unhealthily quick manner. I literally watched the whole thing in two weeks while I was in Argentina, which is not good — I should have been actually traveling.
Technique: How did you get started with singing?
Zavala: In my family, music is really important. My parents aren’t much of singers, but my mom was classically trained in a bunch of instruments growing up, and my dad just loves music. He really likes classical and opera … and classical Mexican music, and my mom really loves Canadian folk since she’s from there. I grew up with all these different sounds from around the world and started singing really young. I gave very embarrassing Britney Spears-esque performances in my living room, nasally voice and all. I loved Celine Dion, obsessed with Celine Dion as a kid. So I tried to sing like these women that I admired who could actually sing, and I was horrible. Then I sang in choruses and choirs all through secondary school. I took voice lessons and … did a lot of musical theatre … and was like, “I can’t live without this.”
This is the first time I’ve ever been in an a cappella group, … and now those girls are my best friends. We spend so much time together working on stuff we’re passionate about. I love that I have an outlet at this school, … and I also love that I have such good company while doing it.
Technique: How did your audition go?
Zavala: I actually auditioned twice to get into NBT; the first time I had a really bad cold, and I didn’t get in. I have really horrible stage fright. It takes me practicing something hours and hours and hours to feel comfortable enough performing it. For me, auditions are painful, and it took a lot of encouraging my own self to be able to audition the second time. For a lot of girls, it’s just a piece of cake. I envy those girls.
Technique: What is the audition process like to join NBT?
Zavala: Auditions to get into the group are interesting. We ask girls to solo a verse and chorus, not the whole song. We’ll play some scales and ask them to sing them back, or we’ll test their range … to see where they fit in the group. Sometimes it happens: we lost a bunch of altos because they all graduated; now we need a bunch of altos, and we don’t need any sopranos.
With an audition song, you don’t normally show your full range, so we want to test it, and we also want to test to see if they can match pitch. There’s a sight reading portion. We do work from music, it’s not like “Pitch Perfect” where we improvise and come up with something beautiful. That’s not realistic. They sing their solo, and then there’s callbacks. At callbacks, … we know that they can sing, so we assign them a song [that we already sing] and have them learn it on the spot. We’ll have them go with a veteran member, learn the part really quickly and come back and sing it all together to see how everybody sounds together.
Technique: How much time do you spend on NBT per week?
Zavala: We’ll have only between four and six hours of practice per week, and that’s a light load. When it gets closer to performances, we can be practicing for up to 12 hours per week. We also have to learn songs outside of rehearsal time, and a lot of girls arrange the songs too.
Technique: How do you take a song that already exists, take the instruments out and put voices in to make an arrangement?
Zavala: That’s the art behind it. Some people just have an ear for that, and sometimes what you can do is look at the actual sheet music that includes the instruments and adapt what is already written. When it’s vocalized properly, you can imitate the sound, or at least the feel of it. It’s basically trying to take the sounds as they are and trying to imitate them as best possible to create a feel. A lot of times, we don’t try to imitate songs exactly; we try to do our own take on it, our own little spin. We might change the tempo and make it faster or slower or more jazzy. I love jazz. We do try and create the actual sounds in the song, and sometimes we’ll just have fun with it and make different fun sounds vocally.
Technique: Do people have specific roles in an arrangement?
Zavala: There are normal voiced parts: Soprano I and II, Alto I and II. We have some girls who have a tenor range. Generally, the girls who can sing Soprano I are going to stay on the higher end, and the girls who can sing as low as a guy are going to stay on the lower end, but we do switch it up. The sounds we make are not necessarily what you would find in a classical arrangement.
Two things considered roles are soloist — we go through a voting system: we vote on who we think would sound best in the solo — and vocal percussionist. It’s something I’ve never done before a cappella, and I love it. It’s basically beatboxing. There are two girls in the group who are particularly good at it, and they try to help the rest of us so that we can all get a chance to do it. The vocal percussionist for any given song is the one who’s keeping the tempo. They have to make sure the soloist is comfortable in her solo … at a tempo that’s good for her and good for the rest of the group. It’s not singing, so sometimes it’s nice to get a little break and do the vocal percussion. My big, Jenna Robinson, is a really good vocal percussionist. She was in the group before me, and she has taught me a lot. I’m still not as good as her, but it’s really fun to do.
Technique: Do you want to beatbox now?
Zavala: Please, tell me how you’re going to write down the beatbox. I have lipstick on, so it’s going to be difficult. This is so embarrassing. I’ll try it. [beatboxes] … I feel like people are looking now. But yeah, it’s pretty cool to make different sounds like a kick drum or a snare or cymbals. Pretty fun.
Technique: You looked like you were having fun. How do you choose the songs and compositions?
Zavala: The arranger chooses the songs. If a girl really loves the song “Alive” by Sia, she’s just going to arrange it. We usually ask each other first, like, “Hey, is this a good song? Do we feel comfortable doing the song?” We don’t choose the group; the person who’s arranging has full creative freedom in doing that. It’s funny because you’ll look at certain girls’ arrangements and see their personalities in the songs they arrange. But yeah, it’s essentially up to the discretion of the girl who arranged the song.
Technique: Who arranges the songs?
Zavala: We have several girls who like to arrange: Jenna Robinson, Emma Pitts, Marguerite Murrell and Morgan Ooten. They’re the ones who have songs in our group right now. Also Hannah Pryor, she just did her first arrangement, and she’s the solo on it. Hannah’s very southern, and the first song she arranged was a country song, and that’s what we’re singing this semester. Emma has a very broad range of stuff she likes to listen too: she’s got a Beach Boys arrangement, … Adele, … “Africa” by Toto. Very broad, but more classic sounding, not so pop-y, really. Jenna really likes ethereal, really light-sounding music that’s very twinkly. She’s done “Geronimo” … like very delicate and pretty. It’s funny to see the type of thing people tend to arrange.
I have already started a couple of arrangements, but I haven’t been happy with them. Now, I’m arranging “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, “Marry You” by Bruno Mars and “Feeling Good,” the version by Jennifer Hudson. That’s what I’m in the process of trying to complete.
Technique: How long does it take to fully arrange a piece?
Zavala: It depends on how complex the song is. It took Morgan weeks to arrange “Alive” by Sia. Emma tends to choose songs with very upbeat, melodic sounds, and she tends to keep the voice parts similar to the way the instruments sound, so they tend to be easier for her to arrange. Not only that, but she’s also really good at music theory. She can arrange a song in a couple of hours if she sits down and focuses on it.
The first page of “Crazy” took me like three hours. It was ridiculous; it took so long. It really depends on the song, on how complex it is, how many voiced parts it has, if there’s existing sheet music out there or if there isn’t. If not, you have to sit at a piano and tap it out yourself.
Technique: What has been your favorite song to perform, in your current set and in past sets?
Zavala: One of my favorite songs ever was “Settle Down” by Kimbra. That one is really fun because I love the weird sounds in it. It didn’t have just normal-sounding vocals, it was very jazzy, spaced-out sounds. It was never a solid sound — everyone had their own thing going on. There wasn’t a lot of blend, but it was a good thing. I loved that one because it was so unique, and I think we might bring it back next semester because it’s an older arrangement.
Right now, I really like “Africa” by Toto. It’s such an 80s corny rock/pop type of thing going. Everyone has a really fun time doing it, and that makes the song more fun to perform as well. When everybody likes it and puts even more of an effort, that’s what makes it fun to perform.
Technique: Do you have any opinions on “Pitch Perfect”?
Zavala: When I first auditioned, I didn’t know what to expect because I had seen the movie, but I had never been in an a cappella group at all. It’s funny because when I give tours to high school students and tell them my involvements and mention a cappella, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, it is like ‘Pitch Perfect’?” It’s not as dramatic as “Pitch Perfect.” You don’t get kicked out of the group and have to drag your chair across the room, but we do joke about that.
The whole girl group thing … we are really close, and we do hang out outside of a cappella. I just went on spring break with a bunch of them. That definitely rings true, and the fact that we can be so goofy, … that’s definitely like “Pitch Perfect.” But the drama and the cattiness, none of that is there. There’s also no Rebel Wilson. I wish there were, but there’s not.
Technique: Do you have any funny behind the scenes stories?
Zavala: That I’m willing to share? Last January, we performed in the ICCAs [International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella] at UGA. It was a really long process: the whole performance part was several hours, and we had to wait for results, and we were all cramped into a room with all the other a cappella groups. We look outside randomly — there was a little commotion going on — and there’s a guy carrying the biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen in my life. Just a rabbit, in downtown Athens, in his arms. He’s just cradling it, and all of these girls are going up and going, “Oh, what a cute rabbit.” So we go out, and we’re like, “Can we pet your rabbit?”
He let us pet his rabbit for 20 minutes. This guy was loving the attention. I could tell that he did not expect bringing his rabbit out would cause such a commotion and such a fuss. So yeah, we went out and pet a rabbit for like 20 minutes while waiting for the scores to come out, and it was one of the weirdest things that’s ever happened to me. It was probably a 20-pound rabbit. It was huge.
Technique: You’re involved in GTSA, SHPE, Alpha Xi, among other things, plus classes, plus Netflix. Do you have free time?
Zavala: I would like to say that I fill my free time by going to the gym or doing something productive. But if I do have any free time, I try to spend it with friends that I don’t see as often. The free time is little and far between. Like I said before, I love staying busy. It’s painful, and I don’t sleep often. But I do like it.
Ambassadors is something I’ve been passionate about for a while, and I’m so happy to have gotten in. I’m campaign managing right now. I love doing that type of work: graphic design, … delegating responsibilities, … organization and making sure everyone is on top of their stuff and punctual. I’m artsy, so the photography and design stuff is what I like to do. I’m the photographer for NBT right now, and one of the photographers for Alpha Xi.
So to answer your free time question: no, not very much. I don’t sleep a lot. But that’s ok. I have lots of energy.
Technique: When are your upcoming concerts?
Zavala: Our next concerts are April 15 and 16 at LeCraw Auditorium in Scheller College of Business at 7:30 p.m.