Bow Bow, Chk-a-Bow: Five Voices Rise To The Top Of TV's A Cappella Competition

Dec 2, 2011
Originally published on December 2, 2011 5:00 pm

American Idol is more high-profile and The X Factor is more sensationalized, but perhaps television's most unusual singing competition is The Sing-Off, which pits a cappella singing groups against each other. In the season that recently wrapped, the winning group was a five-person ensemble called Pentatonix, and its members speak to Melissa Block on today's All Things Considered.

If you're having trouble imagining what such a group might sound like, rest assured, you'll hear them do some singing — but if you want to see a performance, here they are in the closing weeks of competition performing a "mastermix" of Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and Cee Lo Green's "Forget You."

Pentatonix was assembled by three friends, Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, and Kirstie Maldonado, who went to high school together and had done some singing together, but badly needed a low end and a beatboxer to complete their group. They found their bass, Avi Kaplan, through a friend and found their rhythm section, Kevin Olusola, through YouTube videos showing him playing the cello and beatboxing. If that sounds unlikely, you really need to see Kevin do it.

Putting together an arrangement like the ones Pentatonix favors requires some unusual sounds, and you'll hear Avi demonstrate how, as he says, he takes the natural tones that exist in his voice and changes them with his tongue. You'll even find out the answer to the question: How low can he go?

Rarely will you hear an interview with quite so many unlikely mouth noises — and that is, in this context, a good thing.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.


And I'm Melissa Block.


BLOCK: This week, the a cappella group, Pentatonix, was crowned the winner of season three of The Sing-Off. That's a vocal competition show on NBC. They got a Sony music recording contract and $200,000 and then they got to come to NPR West and sing for us.


BLOCK: As you can tell, their sound features strong baselines and percussive beat boxing, no instruments, just a human voice.


BLOCK: Pentatonix, as the name suggests, is made up of five singers. They are Scott Hoying, Avi Kaplan, Kevin Olusola, Kirstie Maldonado and Mitch Grassi.


BLOCK: That was fantastic. Pentatonix, thanks so much. And, Kevin, that's you beat boxing, the wild range of percussive sounds we're hearing, including that little kind of - what is that - a flute in the middle that you're trying to do?

KEVIN OLUSOLA: Maybe a little bit of that.

BLOCK: That's an incredible thing. How did you learn to do that?

OLUSOLA: I just kind of always played around with it. When I was a kid, I did a cappella for a year at boarding school and then learned more when I was in China. I lived in China for a year and a half on a fellowship to study Chinese. Did some more there, learned from friends and then started doing other combinations, like playing cello and beat boxing together.

BLOCK: That's just a great big sound from five voices. It does sound like a whole lot more people in that room. You're sure there aren't?

SCOTT HOYING: Thank you.

BLOCK: And Avi, you're supplying some of the low end there.


BLOCK: Yeah. How low can you go?

KAPLAN: Right now, probably like a low A.

BLOCK: Which is what? How does that sound?

KAPLAN: Oh, let me see.

OLUSOLA: I'll help you. I'll help you.


BLOCK: So, Scott, tell me about how the band started. You were in high school with Mitch and Kirstie in Arlington, Texas.

HOYING: Yeah. I went to high school with Mitch and Kirstie and the three of us kind of just started singing for fun and we put a video up on YouTube of the three of us singing a Trio song and it got a little bit of attention and people seemed to like it. And then, when I went to USC and joined SoCal VoCals, I learned about the show, The Sing-Off, and I decided I really wanted to try out with Mitch and Kirstie and we decided to add a bass and a beat boxer.

Avi, who we found through a friend and then Kevin, we found on YouTube playing cello and beat boxing. He has a viral video.

BLOCK: Not too many of those.

HOYING: Not too many of those. And so it added a whole lot.

MITCH GRASSI: It definitely filled out the sound, for sure.

BLOCK: This is Mitch?

GRASSI: Yes, this is Mitch, by the way. Yeah. Because, before, we didn't have that low end in our songs and we also had to snap for vocal percussion or lack thereof, so...

KIRSTIE MALDONADO: Yeah, we would just...

GRASSI: Snap our fingers.

HOYING: Or worse. We would try to beat box ourselves.


MALDONADO: And that was really bad.

GRASSI: It was, you know, A for effort. It wasn't terrible.

BLOCK: Well, give us just a sense. Give us a little bit of a song out there live in the studio.

OLUSOLA: Okay. Sure.


BLOCK: Wow. Now, who was doing that sound? It sounds almost like a mouth harp in there.


BLOCK: Avi, that's you? How do you do that? Can you tell us or would you have to, you know, shoot us?

KAPLAN: No. I wouldn't shoot you, I promise. Let's see. Really, what you do is you take the natural overtones in your voice and you accentuate them with your tongue in your, you know, mouth.

BLOCK: Okay. Demonstrate because we can all try this at home.

KAPLAN: (Singing).

BLOCK: Wow. That is an amazing thing.

KAPLAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: I can just picture listeners all over the country right now trying to do what you just did and failing terribly.

KAPLAN: It's actually - it's really fun and it's cool because we do only have five people, so if I can sing two parts at once, that's always nice.

BLOCK: Wow. Mitch, can you describe when - I can't see Avi because you're out in L.A. Can you describe what he looks like when he's doing that?

GRASSI: Yeah. It looks like he is - I don't even know. It's...

OLUSOLA: It looks like he's about to kiss someone, but really...

BLOCK: It looks like...

KAPLAN: Oh, yeah. It's like I'm scared to give you a kiss.

MALDONADO: Yeah, it's very sexy.

KAPLAN: What can I say?

BLOCK: Well, Kevin, Avi, Scott, Mitch and Kirstie, thanks for coming in to talk with us and sing for us. Would you sing us out with something?

GRASSI: Of course.


BLOCK: Kevin Olusola, Avi Kaplan, Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi and Kirstie Maldonado are Pentatonix. You can see videos of more Pentatonix songs at NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELEPHONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.