Pentatonix Brings a capella Mainstream

Pentatonix WMC photo“I wanted to do something different!” How many times have you heard someone in the entertainment industry utter those words? Even though a successful path is often imitated, the artist seeks originality in his or her art. Musicians create music because they are inspired by experience, events or other musicians. Therefore, the sound of two musicians may sound similar, but their overall goals are to do something that marks them as different from everyone else. The group I chose to feature this week started with such goals, and are truly extraordinary in today’s music market. Pentatonix is a five-member American a cappella group from Arlington, Texas, with vocalists Avi Kaplan, Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado, Kevin Olusola, and Mitch Grassi. Their story, and music, are very compelling as you shall see.

Pentatonix began with Kirstin “Kirstie” Maldonado, Mitchell “Mitch” Grassi, and Scott Hoying who grew up together and were schoolmates at Martin High School in Arlington, Texas. For a local radio show competition to meet the cast of Glee, they arranged and submitted a trio version of “Telephone.” Despite losing the competition, their singing sparked attention at their school and they began performing. Their version of “Telephone” by Lady Gaga subsequently gained attention on YouTube.

Normally, those high school relationships end with the high school graduation. Everyone goes in different directions and meet other people and their lives go on from there. Hoying and Maldonado both graduated from Martin High School in 2010, Grassi in 2011. Hoying went off to the University of Southern California (USC) to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Popular Music, while Maldonado pursued a Musical Theater major at the University of Oklahoma. While at USC, Scott Hoying joined an a cappella group called SoCal VoCals. He found out about The Sing-Off from another member of the group, Ben Bram (also their arranger, producer, and sound engineer) and was encouraged to audition for the show. He persuaded Kirstie Maldonado and Mitch Grassi to join him, but Bram suggested having a bass and beatboxer as well to support the group. Hoying met Avriel “Avi” Kaplan, a highly recognized vocal bass in the a cappella community, through a mutual friend. Then the trio found Kevin Olusola on YouTube, where one of his videos in which he was simultaneously beatboxing and playing the cello (called “celloboxing”) had gone viral. Pentatonix was born.

The group met the day before the auditions for the third season of The Sing-Off began. Pentatonix successfully auditioned for the show and eventually went on to win the title for 2011 (season three).

At this point in the a capella group’s story most would think the next step would be instant success. With the exposure from a national television audience, and a competition win, everything should be great. However, there was still work to do. Remember, the main goal of the group was to become the first mainstream a cappella group in recent times.

Scott Hoying and Kirstie Maldonado dropped out of college in the hopes of winning The Sing-Off, while Mitch Grassi skipped his high school graduation to audition for the show. After they won, all the members relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career as recording artists.

In January 2012, having signed with Sony Pictures-owned label Madison Gate Records, the group began working on their first album with producer Ben Bram. During that six-month period of picking covers and writing originals, Pentatonix released covers of both popular and classic songs on YouTube. The videos went viral, proving that the mainstream audience was ready for an a capella group singing modern pop music. Their first EP, PTX, Volume 1, was released on June 26, 2012, charting at number 14 on the US Billboard 200 chart and number 5 on the digital chart. It sold 20,000 copies in its first week of release. Pentatonix had arrived to households around the world.

Pentatonix is not the first a capella singing group I’ve been privileged to feature in Weekly Music Commentary. Without a doubt they are unique because of their presentation. After viewing their many videos on YouTube and listening to their recorded music, I’m sure you will be pleased with their brand of music.

Whenever I hear a capella singing groups, I think about the work necessary to give a good performance. First of all, each group member must have a very good musical ear that helps them stay in tune. That musical ear is necessary because they also must hear other members in the group. Certainly the talent must exist, but also important to successful a capella performances is selflessness. The group of people must work together as one. Even though Pentatonix has not been performing together for many years, they have developed very good cohesion, a closeness that is either there or not. If not, then you don’t get very good performances. Just possibly good individual vocalists.

In late December 2014, Scott Hoying stated that for 2015, “Pentatonix is transitioning towards original music.” A release of a full-length album consisting of only original material is planned. Hoying also stated, “We’re at the point in our careers now [where] we must go to original music, and we want to go to original music; we have so much to say, and I think it’s gonna be quite a journey.” Indeed Pentatonix is on that journey and we are right with them as music fans,.

Their second full-length Christmas album, titled A Pentatonix Christmas, was released on October 21, 2016.  It debuted on the Billboard 200 at number three with 52,000 albums sold in its first week, and later peaked at number two. The album also debuted atop the Billboard Holiday Albums chart, their second number one on that chart after That’s Christmas to Me.

The a capella journey continues for Pentatonix. If you have not heard their music before, take some time to listen and enjoy the vocal music they’ve brought to the mainstream.

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