For Mix, CU Denver’s 8-member a cappella group, the past year has been an unexpected series of triumphs, with all the drama of a “Glee” episode. But spring commencement was a bittersweet day, because it meant both the end of the group that created this winning season and the beginning of professional careers for three talented graduates—Kaia Nutting, Luis Sandoval and Vanessa Spear.
A Twitter Explosion
When Mix headed to the SoJam competition in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., last November, the performers didn’t have high expectations.
SoJam brings together the best of the best in the world of collegiate a cappella singers for a weekend of performances, workshops and competitions. In sharp contrast, Mix usually performed for small Denver audiences of politely attentive family and friends.
After Mix finished its first number at SoJam, the singers dashed backstage to change outfits. That’s when they discovered that, while they were performing, their Twitter feed had exploded with tweets.
Where did you come from?
You guys just killed the competition!
Andrews Sisters, Adele and they’re bilingual!
“When people wanted to know where we came from, all I could say was, ‘We were always there,’” said Luis Sandoval, one of Mix’s singers. “A cappella takes really geeky people and makes them into rock stars.”
Mix went on to be crowned the most original group at SoJam, launching a year of triumphant wins on the competitive circuit, including first place at the Mile High Vocal Jam and first place at the prestigious Boston Sings (BOSS) competition, where they beat groups from Syracuse University and the University of Chicago.
But on May 18, 2013, three of Mix’s singers—Vanessa Spear, Kaia Nutting and Luis Sandoval—graduated, leaving behind five singers to rebuild Mix next year.
“We witnessed the evolution of this lean, mean, competing machine,” said Michelle Ghun, one of the remaining members. “It’s a huge loss.”
Ten years ago, the College of Arts and Media (CAM) started looking for someone to teach an a cappella ensemble class. Erin Hackel, DMA, says she was the “second or third choice,” when no one else would take on the assignment.
Even though Hackel heads the commercial voice discipline in CAM’s Department of Music & Entertainment Industry Studies program, her background is in classical music. She has a master’s degree in opera and sings with the Central City Opera Education and Community Programs—so, she had a lot to learn about the world of a cappella groups.
“At the beginning, we were singing choo-choo songs,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
But with each passing year, the class grew. Eventually, Hackel, who also directs a choral group called the Ninth Street Singers, started culling singers from that larger group for a 6-member a cappella performance group called UCD 6. By 2005, UCD 6 started entering competitions.
“We failed miserably,” Hackel said, “but I was learning and learning as we were losing and losing.”
At the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, Hackel decided to “unmarry” herself from having only six singers in the a cappella group and expand the group to eight singers. Adding two new members meant the end of the name “UCD 6.”
“I can’t tell you how many names we cycled through trying to find something,” said Hackel. “‘The missing lynx’ was on the table. We couldn’t agree, and so finally I just did it. I said, ‘The new name is Mix.’”
Hackel thought 2012-13 would be a year of rebuilding. Instead, she got a school year she calls “crazy.”
Early on, she realized that adding the two new voices made the group better, so she decided to apply to SoJam using a video produced by Keith Carpenter at Oneiro Media. Not only was Mix chosen out of hundreds of applicants to compete, but the group ultimately survived a six-group sing-off and made it to the finals before taking second place to Northeastern University.
Even with that outstanding performance under their belts, Mix had no confidence they could win the hometown competition, Mile High Vocal Jam.
“I still identified as the underdog,” said Nutting. “When we got first [at Mile High Vocal Jam], I said ‘What?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
But “winning is addicting” says Sandoval. The group headed to the BOSS competition on a high. In Boston, Hackel sat in the audience, watching as six competitive groups became five, and then three, and then one, the top group: Mix.
“I’m a crazy stage mom,” said Hackel. “I just wanted it so bad for them. I had to have people with me to keep me from leaping to my feet and shrieking.”
BOSS—coming on top of all the 2012-13 successes—taught everyone in the group a life lesson. “Hard work pays off,” said Spear. “It was so gratifying to see that.”
“The thing that sets these kids apart is that they are so mature,” said Hackel. “These are not standard-issue college kids. They are holding full-time jobs, going to school. They have a lot of soul and experience beyond their years.”
Mix’s three graduates are now headed to the world of commercial music. Spear has already made the rounds in Nashville in the hopes she will find work as a performing artist or songwriter. Nutting has had a full-length, 7-song EP commercial release and hopes to carve a career as a songwriter, singer or both. (Both women study privately with Hackel.) Sandoval, who is graduating with a master’s in recording arts, will continue to serve as Mix’s audio engineer and recording producer. He would like to eventually teach audio engineering.
“It’s tough to see them leave,” said Emma Wallingford, a remaining Mix member. “But it’s also good to see them go on their own journey.”
When they accept their diplomas, Sandoval, Nutting and Spear will have mixed emotions— but no ambivalence about one person who helped get them to commencement.
“Erin [Hackel] taught us all how to sing, how to dance, how to move,” said Nutting. “We couldn’t have done it without her.”
Spear nods and adds her own validation. “She was our foundation and support, our rock and our mom. Without her we wouldn’t have survived.”