Not Just Viral Musicians, Grammy Awards, Nobel Prizes, and Broadway for Pentatonix
Not many students who take top honors in the high school science fair go on to win the Nobel prize for contributions in that field. Pentatonix was a group of high school hopefuls who raised their voices and the bar to shatter the glass ceiling and shoot for the stars.
The a capella group was formed by high school friends Kirstin Maldonado, Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi to compete on the NBC reality show “The Sing-Off.” Kevin Olusola, a cellist, beatboxer and Yale graduate, and former member Avi Kaplan rounded out the original lineup. Kaplan was later replaced by Matt Sallee.
Named after the Pentatonic scale with five notes per octave representing each group member, Pentatonix dazzled the judges with its inspired arrangements, vocal harmonies and beatboxing, winning the competition, a recording contract with Sony Music and effectively launching their careers.
“I feel like we’ve been able to grow. Our crew has grown, our tour has grown. I feel like this last tour just felt so amazing. We were all really, really happy with it. The show was seamless, the staging was co cool. The first day we saw all of it, we were all just geeking out that we got to play on it every night. We’re just really thankful that we get to keep getting bigger.”
Maldonado says the tour will feature new covers and old favorites as well as some original music, including the track “Happy Now.” Among the most recent covers is a PTX version of Camila Cabello’s “Havana.”
After years of chart-topping success and accolades, including the first a cappella group to win a Grammy Award for Best Arrangement Instrumental or A Cappella in 2015 and 2016, the group still approaches a new song in the same way.
“We’ll hear a song and just kind of know the formula of how we want to arrange it. We’re basically doing the same thing we did in the beginning. It’s just more refined now,” notes Maldonado. “It’s always really organic. We all just sit down in a circle and start brainstorming ideas. Some music can’t be replicated by voices and you don’t want to just imitate a sound. We kind of know exactly what works now.”
What works is a collection of voices threaded together so seamlessly that it takes a song to a new level once it travels through the PTX filter. The group has partnered with producer Ben Bram since its inception. He’s helped the band define their sound and find their way in the industry when the journey wasn’t always smooth.
Sony’s Epic Records dropped the group which led PTX to form a YouTube channel to distribute its music, which now has over 17 million subscribers. A holiday cover of “The Little Drummer Boy” has been viewed over 211 million times.
“It’s helped exponentially. We started with YouTube when it was the magical world of ‘going viral’ was just starting. Coming from the show when there were so many reality shows, it was very important for us to stay connected with our fans through social media and by putting content out like every week or at least twice a month. We were just arranging every single day the second we all moved out to California together” recalls Maldonado. “That’s definitely how we were able to grow our voice and everything kind of fell into place after that. It was crucial then, and it still is.”
The group has inspired kids in choral groups and musical theatre to form their own a capella groups and follow their dreams. According to Maldonado, it’s that validation that keeps PTX inspired as well. “That’s just the best because that’s exactly where we were. We really persevered and didn’t take all the ‘no’s’ to heart and just kept going,” she says.
In 2017, when Kaplan decided to leave the group, Maldonado says there was never any hesitation that PTX would continue. “We’re family so that was hard but pretty immediately we were able to find Matt who is just so amazing and brings such a different vibe to the group which is so refreshing,” she says. “It’s cool to kind of reinvent the group with a different personality. Obviously, if you change the lineup of any group it’s going to reinvigorate and change the dynamic in a good way. It’s brought new life to the group.”
As the PTX continues to evolve, the individual members have stretched their legs outside of the group. Maldonado released her first solo EP L O V E in 2017, dropping her last name for the project and finding success with her single “Break a Little.” Hoying and Grassi have also explored solo music.
“We’re all doing solo music in different ways and I think it’s nice to have a moment to be creative by ourselves. When you’re together, it’s a group level. Obviously, we’re all happy to do things for the group but sometimes you want to be creative and do your own thing and give fans a chance to hear our individual vibes. I think writing music for ourselves has made us better writers as well because we were able to fulfill ourselves in so many different ways.”
In 2018, Maldonado starred as Lauren in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. The experience delivered her back to her first love of musical theatre, nonetheless PTX will always be home base. “It was amazing. Musical theatre is what got me into music in the first place so being on Broadway was like my eight-year-old dream come true. It was so wonderful and it was six months of being able to live that dream. We wrapped up that year with a Pentatonix, so it was beautiful. It was just the best year ever,” she gushes.