The sound of seventeen carefully blended voices fills the room in a swelling crescendo as the cohesive group of UCLA students concentrates on executing the songs they’ve spent more than one hundred hours rehearsing. One soprano with shiny dark hair and a powerful falsetto stands out among the assembly.
Ali Hepps is a 19-year-old student starting her sophomore year at UCLA and acting as business manager of the competitive student-run a cappella group, ScatterTones. Hepps, who has been singing since second grade, entered the university as a music major in the fall of 2015.
“I’d sung before that but my mom told me the first time she ever noticed and said, “Wow, she sings,” was when I had a solo at our second grade assembly in elementary school in front of the entire school,” Hepps says. “I sang Thank Goodness from Wicked.”
Since then, music has always been a big influence in her life. Hepps started taking piano lessons at age 5, then started participating in musicals in elementary and middle school. But the thing that really changed everything for Hepps was the a cappella program at Calabasas High School, which has won several national awards since its inception in 2004.
Hepps auditioned for an a cappella group called Bare Rhythm during her freshman year and says that getting accepted helped to build her confidence.
“It made me feel like I can actually do this, not even for a living, but for my life,” Hepps says. “I could sing and do something with it.”
Though Hepps enjoyed being a part of Bare Rhythm, the group she wanted to get into most was another ensemble at her high school, which went by the name of Unstrumental. Hepps wasn’t accepted as a freshman and then faced rejection once more as a sophomore.
“So you can either take the ‘I’m done trying, I’m not going to do this anymore, it’s so frustrating’ approach or you can take the other route, meaning ‘I’m going to work even harder to get in next year,’” Hepps says. “And what the a cappella program did for me is it always faced me towards that latter direction.”
Hepps was accepted into Unstrumental as a junior. Another member of Unstrumental that year was Ameet Kanon, who later made it to the Top 51 round on the final season of American Idol. During Hepps’ first year in Unstrumental, the group decided to compete in the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival’s 2014 Scholastic Competition.
The weekend festival, which has been held in Los Angeles every January since 2009, only accepts groups for competition that are made up entirely of full-time students or that are a recognized student group affiliated with a high school, college or university. It just so happened that, although Hepps had no affiliation with them at the time, ScatterTones was also accepted into LAAF’s competition that year.
“That’s where we first met her,” Adam Turney says of the 2014 scholastic competition. “We talked after the competition ended and when she said she was considering UCLA, I immediately thought I have got to [informally recruit] her for ScatterTones.”
Turney, 21, is a senior acting as ScatterTones’ president for his second consecutive year. Kyle Frattini, also 21 and a senior at UCLA, is the a cappella group’s choreographer and music director. He, too, remembered taking note of Hepps at their rivaling competition in 2014.
Unstrumental had competed in LAAF’s Scholastic Competition for the previous two years, coming in second place both times. In 2014, Unstrumental and ScatterTones made it to the final round and went head to head, with the high school group ultimately coming out on top and nabbing the first-place honor.
“It’s whatever,” Frattini says of how he felt about Hepps’ group beating them, “She’s in ScatterTones now, so I’m not bitter.”
Hepps later auditioned for ScatterTones with a song by Jessie J called Big White Room. Both Turney and Frattini were part of the executive board at the time Hepps auditioned and had to try to remain impartial. Flash forward to today and Hepps has officially joined Turney and Frattini, sitting comfortably in the executive board’s third seat as the elected business manager.
“I’m a crazy a cappella nerd and I love being in the group so much,” Hepps says. “It’s important to be able to sing and have talent, but the most important thing is being dedicated and wanting to put your all into the group.”
When she wasn’t busy rehearsing with ScatterTones, Hepps spent her first year at UCLA exploring the university’s music major. Toward the end of the year, however, she decided that the program wasn’t a good fit for her and started looking at other options.
Hepps ended up opting for a cognitive science major instead, with a possible emphasis in ethnomusicology.
“Ideally I’d want to study music therapy, which takes a lot of studying on how the brain works, and that’s where the cognitive science comes into play,” Hepps says.
Hepps wants to research how music can be used as a treatment for mental degenerative disorders, mostly with elderly patients. She was inspired to pursue this path by her paternal grandfather Richard who, along with being the only other singer in her family, suffers from a form of Parkinson’s disease.
“His brain capacity is very much diminishing and he doesn’t remember much, but whenever you start singing his favorite song from the sixties, he knows every word,” Hepps says. “That’s that kind of thing I want to research and see how that works, maybe see if there’s some sort of medical treatment there.”
Since UCLA doesn’t have a music therapy major, Hepps is using the hands-on experience she’s gaining from ScatterTones to learn as much as she can in the field. As the group’s business manager, Hepps’ responsibilities include coordinating anything that doesn’t have to do with the music itself, whether that means booking gigs, organizing funding, or managing what the group does with the money they have.
Over the years, ScatterTones has garnered a positive reputation and created a presence on social media. Consequently, Hepps says they are frequently contacted to perform. When they’re not too busy preparing for competition, the group sings at corporate events, weddings, holiday parties, birthdays, and they have even been asked to sing for a proposal.
“We have our repertoire online so they can look and tell us which songs they want us to do,” Hepps says. “Or sometimes they have special requests and we can learn a song for them.”
The group has about 15 songs that they can perform at any time, depending on who can show up to the gig and what solos are assigned. Frattini explained that the hardest thing about arranging a cappella is finding a balance of what’s cool and what’s necessary, and what makes ScatterTones’ sound special is that their products are more than just transcriptions of what you can hear on the radio.
“There’s no point in having voices do what instruments can do better,” Frattini says. “Voices have so much more versatility and there’s more emotion behind them because they’re coming from living things.”
Although it’s an extracurricular activity, the group meets to rehearse for three hours on Sunday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Wednesday from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Turney says that the intense amount of hours they spend together ensures that they all get close.
“We want people to have fun and not be super stressed out because we already have a million other things going on outside of a cappella,” Turney says. “It’s not our job; it’s a ‘you want to be there’ thing, not a ‘forcing people to be there’ thing, and it’s important to make sure they know that.”
Hepps says it was impossible for her not to feel that closeness. Now in her sixth year performing with a cappella groups, Hepps says she loves the collaborative effort it takes to bring a successful ScatterTones arrangement to fruition.
“There’s something so incredible and beautiful about the entire process of a cappella,” Hepps says. “Everything about it is so collaborative and it’s not always easy, but I love that it takes every single person in the group and their cooperation and their passion to make that experience.”