Grammy-nominated Pentatonix arranger a loud voice of support for a capella
Surrounded by the music of everyday life at a café on La Brea Avenue — a cacophony of coffee shop clamor, milk steamers, titanium cappuccino mechanisms and register ka-chings — recent Grammy nominee Ben Bram described his passion for, of all things, a cappella, a genre devoid of all instrumental accompaniment.
For Bram, singled out for his arrangement work with the group Pentatonix, it’s vocals or nothing.
“When you’re singing in an a cappella group, you don’t have a band or a track to back you up,” he said. “The only pitch reference you have is the other people you’re singing with. So the whole group could go a little bit sharp or the whole group could go flat. And you really have to be that much better a musician to hold it together.”
With his work on the Grammy-nominated single titled “Daft Punk” on Pentatonix’s album “PTX, Vol. II,” Bram is breaking barriers. On that track, the band covers a medley of singles by electronic superstar duo Daft Punk that include “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” “Get Lucky” and “One More Time.”
The 27-year-old from Brentwood, who had no idea he would be nominated for a Grammy, found out through a friend’s congratulatory Facebook post on Dec. 5, the same day nominees were announced. It was made possible only after a June announcement that the best instrumental arrangement category would expand to include a cappella. The Grammys will be televised Feb. 8.
According to Bram, this brings the genre one step closer to mainstream acceptance.
“I want a cappella to become more of a thing and less of a novelty act,” he said.
With a resume that includes work on movies like “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Perfect 2” (where Bram worked as the on-set music director, vocal coach and vocal arranger, among other things) and shows like “The Sing-Off” (where he’s credited as a vocal arranger and coach), Bram is helping to show that a cappella can be a musical powerhouse.
“My hope is that there will be more groups trailblazing in their own genres and not just reduced to the ‘a cappella genre,’ ” Bram said.
“Having it be more prevalent in the music industry, that would be my goal. And I want to help it get there.”
If there’s a group that’s paving the path for fellow a cappellists, it’s Pentatonix. Bram was working on NBC’s hit “The Sing-Off,” when he helped propel the group into what it is now. (Its YouTube channel has more than 7.3 million subscribers.)
In 2010, three teens from Arlington, Texas — Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi and Kirstie Maldonado — became online sensations after they uploaded a video of themselves performing an a cappella rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” Bram, who recruits groups for the NBC competition, knew there was something special with the trio.
“We had the idea to add a beatboxer and a bass so that they could compete on ‘The Sing-Off’ and be a force to be reckoned with,” he said.
He enlisted Avi Kaplan (whom he had met at a barbershop chorus rehearsal) as a bass and Kevin Olusola for beatboxing (after watching a video of him beatboxing while playing the cello). By the time all five members got together, it was exactly one day before “The Sing-Off” auditions. Still, Pentatonix went on to win Season 3 of the a cappella competition, land a Grammy nomination and produce a No. 1 Christmas album on iTunes.
“All the stuff I do with them, I’m really proud of — just because it’s such a collaboration, Bram said. “And we are so nitpicky, all of us. So, if something gets past the six of us, then we know we’re going to be proud of it.”
Bram, who attends Stephen Wise Temple and graduated from the USC Thornton School of Music with a degree in music industry and vocal jazz, has a knack for putting groups together.
“I see a group from all sides. I see the musical aspect, but I also see performance and personalities and look,” he said. “I’m able to zero in on all those elements and not just look at talent, but look beyond that to see what makes a group special, and really find compatible people.”
Bram’s whole life has become a cappella. When he isn’t arranging records, TV or movies, he’s singing baritone in his a cappella side gig, a group called Level. He also organizes intensive summer a cappella workshops for high-schoolers through a camp program in Los Angeles called A Cappella Academy (acappellacademy.org), which he started with Kaplan and Robert Dietz, a fellow a cappella arranger who also works on “The Sing-Off.”
“The camp is one of my huge passions,” Bram said.
Sixty-six teens, ages 13 to 18, came from five different countries (including the U.S.) to attend the academy’s first session this past summer.
“It was amazing,” Bram said. “We wanted to foster the next generation of a cappella singers, and we love inspiring kids. “
Next summer, they’re expanding their academy to incorporate workshops for adults, ages 18 and over.
But for now, he’s still sipping tea on La Brea, talking about a capella as a metaphor for life.
“Everyone has their own role. Everyone holds up the community. And if one person drops the ball, everyone’s screwed,” he said. “There’s something transcendent about singing with other people and just voices. Everything is organic.”