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Pentatonix Shows the Way for Ensembles Looking to Innovate

It’s time for me to admit something: I’m an a cappella nerd. I sang in a cappella groups in college and graduate school. It’s not like it was a casual thing either: my bass tones, vocal percussion, and arrangements are found on multiple CDs by both groups. I was pretty far gone, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Actually, I think that other professional musicians can learn something from one of the rising stars of the a cappella genre – Pentatonix. This group essentially started from scratch, and came out of nowhere to win season three of The Sing-Off. Since then, they’ve recorded a number of EPs, gone on international tours, amassed tens of millions of views per video on YouTube, and recently signed a recording deal with RCA Records. So how did they do it, and what can professional ensembles and entrepreneurs looking to start something new learn from them?

  • Accurately assess your needs. The three co-lead vocalists of the group grew up together, and had a lot of experience singing together (what you see above is the earliest iteration of the group). When NBC put out the casting call for The Sing-Off, though, they knew that they needed more. Enter bass Avi Kaplan and vocal percussionist Kevin Olusola. The next time the world would see them, they sounded like this –

  • Take risks! Throughout their march to victory on The Sing-Off, the ensemble consistently wowed judges, audience members, and the competition with their off-the-wall arrangements, and willingness to take vocal risks that no one else did. Most of the times it worked, but sometimes the judges felt that they misfired, as with their arrangement of Ke$ha’s Your Love is My Drug, where the bridge completely breaks down in an attempt to simulate what a brain on drugs must sound like. Not all risks will be successful, but the important thing here is that the ensemble made risk-taking a core part of their identity throughout the show, and in doing so, figured out how to do so responsibly. This particular song is currently the ensemble’s 17th most downloaded song on iTunes – not one of their most popular songs, but also far from being a fiaso. This is one risk which gets chalked up in the win column.

  • Identify the strengths of your assets, and put them to good use. When the original three members added Avi and Kevin, they added much more than just a rhythm section. Avi is a bass with operatic training, and Kevin is a pretty good cellist. That led to a broadening of their musical identity. Avi has been given the occasional melodic line, and Kevin’s cello has been incorporated in several of the ensembles newest arrangements (I hope that you’re noticing how this point overlaps with the previous one!). Now that means that they’re technically in violation of the label “a cappella” (literally, without instrumental accompaniment), but who’s going argue with results like this?

Starting something new is always risky – when every penny counts, one failure can mean the difference between putting on the next show, shutting your doors. It is possible to innovate, create, and strike out on new paths responsibly. Pentatonix lays down a blueprint for everyone starting something new to follow.

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