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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Ben Bram on Creating A Cappella During a Pandemic

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Erin Ben-Moche
Erin is the Digital Content Manager at the Jewish Journal. She also covers Jewish art, entertainment and culture.

If you know modern a cappella, you know Ben Bram. The Grammy Award-winning arranger and producer has had a hand in almost every major recent a cappella project, from the “The Sing-Off,” “Pitch Perfect” and “Glee” to the formation of female pop/R&B vocal group Citizen Queen and the Pentatonix (PTX) with singer Scott Hoying. After playing the role of music director for the multiple award-winning collegiate a cappella group the SoCal VoCals at USC, Bram realized arranging, recording and creating a cappella music was his purpose.

Now, the 32-year-old is busy teaching the next generation of performers how to master a cappella. The co-founder of A Cappella Academy and Acapop! KIDS also is trying to keep the spirit of the musical genre alive during a pandemic.

Jewish Journal: Was a cappella always your end goal?

Ben Bram: Definitely not. In high school, I always wanted to be a film composer, but when I auditioned for college composition programs, I realized I was in a little over my head. I ended up studying music industry at USC with an emphasis in French horn. I started co-writing with singer-songwriters from the popular music program — playing keyboards, producing, music directing and putting their bands together. 

JJ: When did you realize you could pursue a career in a cappella?

BB: “The Sing-Off” started happening, and then I was hired for Season Two at the end of my senior year. The day I graduated, I got the job. It also gave me an opportunity to expand my arranging business. Then “Pitch Perfect” happened and “Glee” happened. By the end of Season Two of “The Sing-Off,” I was working with the Backbeats and we recorded two albums. 

JJ: How does creating music change in a pandemic? 

BB: It’s been a huge learning curve. A lot of the normal processes have gone out the window. Only now, after six months, do I feel like we’ve finally gotten in a groove. First step in the process is arranging. Normally, a few of us get together in my studio and work on a song in person. Now, we meet over Zoom. [We] put ourselves on mute and sing along with the notation software playback, and then they tell or sing me their ideas. It definitely loses a bit of that collaborative element we get in person. There’s something magical about humans collaborating and making music together in the same physical space. But we’ve definitely figured out this new process and are really happy with what we’ve been making.

(Video above was posted before the pandemic.)

JJ: When did A Cappella Academy come to be?

BB: It was something that I thought about all during college. The SoCal VoCals experience was so cool and fun, and I wish we could host high schoolers over the summer and show them what it’s like to be in this group. The same with my co-founders, Avi [Kaplan, former member of PTX] and Rob [Dietz] — they were always thinking about it, too. I was on tour with Pentatonix, and this must have been in 2013 or 2014, and Avi was tweeting about it. He said, “One day, I want to build a log cabin in the woods for my family and also have an a cappella camp there.” I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time. Then I said [to Rob], “Let’s do it.”

JJ: How many campers do you get each time? 

BB: Between 65 and 75 is our number for every year we’ve had it so far. [This year they had 83 digital participants.]

Photo courtesy of Ben Bram

JJ: How does the format change in a pandemic? 

BB: We did an all-digital version, which was broken into two parts. Each small group recorded and shot their own video. This happened in the two months leading up to the showcase. The week of the showcase, we had our actual camp session, lots of workshops, guest performances, classes and activities all on Zoom.

JJ: Did you get the Acapop! KIDS from the academy?

BB: Acapop! KIDS came out of Shams [Ahmed] from [the award-winning college group] the Nor’easters. We were trying to come up with what we could do that would be fun and impactful and just something we could really sink our teeth into. Then we invited Scott [Hoying] over and we brainstormed. We also brought in Jonathan Kalter, who is Pentatonix’s manager. We had L.A. auditions, New York, Miami and Dallas. Then we had our first cast. From that we started doing videos, and each video has its own group from our cast. 

JJ: How did the pandemic alter things?

BB: Toward the beginning of the pandemic, we wanted to throw some content together as quickly as possible, so we started doing Acapop! Minis. [We’d] arrange a one-minute version of a song and create a demo and send them out to the kids. The kids learn them and record themselves and send us the audio. Once we have the video, we edit it all together into a grid-style video, with each of them in their own box. Recently, we’ve been working on more elaborate content and on our second full-length album and accompanying videos. We send the kids to local recording studios and I am able to remotely engineer the session, coaching them through as I would if I were there in person. 

JJ: Where do you see Acapop! KIDS going?

BB: We’ve released a full album and a few singles, with a video for every song. We’ve talked about some potential TV projects and we would love to tour when touring is a thing again. For now, we’re just keeping the content flowing and trying to build the brand as much as possible and widen our audience.

JJ: How long have you been arranging Jewish music?

BB: I’ve only done a couple of things. I’ve done something for Six13 and for the Y-Studs. It’s pretty rare, an only-once-a-year kind of thing, if that. I also arranged Avinu Malkeinu for choir a few years ago.

JJ: Did you ever arrange music for the High Holy Days? 

BB: A few years ago, I was asked to put a High Holy Days choir together for a congregation in Orange County. I arranged a version of Kol Nidre and a few other songs and prepared all the music.

JJ: Where do you see a cappella going?

BB: I think a cappella is always going to be around in one way or another. It’s going to ebb and flow. People will always be singing in groups, and I think scholastic groups have never been stronger and more popular and had younger kids singing. I want to see more groups of more styles, because a cappella is not a style, it’s an instrumentation. 

This story has been updated to include the recent number of 2020 A Cappella Academy participants. 

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