Ben Bram Wants to Bring A Cappella Back to the Masses
Kevin Olusola, Ben Bram, Scott Hoying, Mitch Grass, Kirstie Maldonado and Avi Kaplan of Pentatonix at the Grammys // Getty Images
Back when we rounded up 11 Jewish Things To Watch For At the Grammys, we directed your attention to the main televised performance that featured on screen. But a few hours before Tony Bennett performed a duet with Lady Gaga and Kristen Wiig dressed up like Sia, hundreds of musicians and music professionals gathered for a pre-telecast awards ceremony.
“There are two ceremonies,” explains Ben Bram, a Jewish millennial, music producer, arranger, music director, and engineer. “There’s the main telecast where they give out the top awards and all the performances. And then there’s the pre-telecast. They call it the Premiere Ceremony. It’s like three hours long and they give out like 75 awards.”
Bram calls from the road in Oakland while on tour with Pentatonix, a five-person a capella group with whom he won the Grammy for “Best Arrangement, Instrumental, A Cappella” at the 2015 award ceremony. The group’s medley of Daft Punk songs (that includes “Technologic,” “One More Time,” “Get Lucky,” “Digital Love,” “Harder Better Faster Stronger,” “Television Rules The Nation,” and “Around The World”) beat out other nominees who performed versions of standards like “Guantanamera” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”
Pentatonix, comprised of Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Avi Kaplan, Kirstin Maldonado and Kevin Olusola, are signed to RCA Records. Along with Bram, who records their albums and co-arranges with the band, Pentatonix attended the ceremony and celebrated their new hardware together.
Bram recalls: “The six of us were sitting together on the aisle. I hadn’t really been nervous at all…but then two awards before ours, I started getting really nervous. My heart was pounding and I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is a really big deal!’ It just hit me then.
“So then they read off the nominees and then they read off our names. And my name was actually first because it was in alphabetical order. So they said my name and then everyone just got up and cheered. We all rushed the stage. It was crazy!”
The year after Bram graduated from the University of Southern California’s Thorton School of Music in 2010, he helped facilitate the origins of Pentatonix. At the time, Bram was working as a staff arranger and vocal coach on the NBC television show The Sing Off. He knew Kaplan from growing up in Los Angeles, knew of Olusola’s simultaneous beatboxing and cello-playing from YouTube, and had seen Grassi, Hoying, and Maldonado’s viral video of Lady Gaga’s Telephone.”
By Season 3, Bram had introduced members to each other and they went on to win the competition. Since Pentatonix’s beginnings, he’s also accrued film and TV credits with “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Glee,” “The Voice,” and “Modern Family.”
“I would love to continue following Pentatonix on their amazing journey, working with them and working on putting a couple other groups together to saturate the market a little bit more,” says Bram. “Pentatonix is the only one who’s super mainstream right now.”
Yet, another way Bram spreads awareness of a capella music is through the music academy he co-founded with Kaplan and The Sing-Off arranger Robert Dietz last year.
“All three of us are Jewish,” he pronounces. “And bearded!” he adds with a laugh. “We always wanted to do something like that separately. We realized that we all had the same dream.”
The passion project, called A Cappella Academy, is more like a communal mitzvah they’re performing. The yearly camp offers 13-18 year-olds the opportunity to learn about vocal music and sing together with other like-minded and passionate young singers. Last year 66 kids from all over the world—Russia, Estonia, Puerto Rico, Canada, and throughout the United States—convened in Southern California to participate. Of course, Pentatonix served the guest artists.
“The community we were able to build was astounding. We got these kids who are the best singers and the most dedicated and the most nerdy—in a good way—from their hometowns and we put them together with all these other people who are the exact same way! They’re instant best friends!” he exclaims.”
This summer, A Capella Academy will offer two sessions, another one for the 13 to 18-year-old age group and one for college-age students 18-years and older.
“Our goal with it is to educate and teach the best practices to the next generation of a capella singers—people who will go off into the own college groups and communities and spread the goodness and spread the knowledge and just make a capella better.”
Until then, Bram will ride out this tour with Pentatonix for the new few weeks through the U.S. “I‘m doing what I love to do and that’s a blessing in itself,” he says humbly. “I do my thing. I create art and have fun. It doesn’t feel like a job. But then being successful and being recognized for it is a whole other thing! I’m extremely thankful.”