Ben Bram and Shams Ahmed (alongside Scott Hoying and Jonathan Kalter) are co-founders of Acapop! KIDS — a teenage a cappella group comprised of 12-17 year-old students who deliver exciting arrangements of current and classic hits, unforgettable and aspirational vocal performances, and best-in-class music videos. We caught up with Ben and Shams to talk about their backgrounds in music, their roles in Acapop! KIDS, the arrangements they're proudest of, and what's next for the young a cappella group.
Interview with Acapop! KIDS co-founders Ben Bram and Shams Ahmed
Sheet Music Direct ("S"): Firstly, can you tell us a little about your musical backgrounds?
Shams Ahmed ("SA"): For me, growing up, I had always been in music. I was always doing choir, a cappella groups, and singing musical theater and different things like that all throughout grade school. And then when I went to college, I was the music director of an a cappella group the Nor'easters at Northeastern University, and that's actually how I met Ben. It was through an a cappella competition that my group had won. And our grand prize was to meet Pentatonix. It was a very big deal for somebody in collegiate a cappella to meet Pentatonix as they were just starting their career. And through my meeting Pentatonix, we became friends and they had invited me to their concert, which was happening in Boston (where I was at university) and that is where I met Ben, who was on their tour with them. And we just became fast friends and maintained our relationship socially until, you know, around 2016-2017 when we decided that we wanted to work together on professional projects. And so that's when I left my then career in investment banking and moved into music full time with Ben and Scott (Hoying). And Acapop! KIDS was actually our first professional venture together.
Ben Bram ("BB"): I started playing piano when I was five and at the time I wanted to be a classical conductor. Throughout middle school and high school, I played trumpet, french horn, and piano and I was in all kinds of different ensembles - jazz band, orchestra, jazz combo, pit orchestra, ska band, I wrote a musical, I accompanied the improv comedy group on piano. So I was just doing everything I could musically, except singing actually! I didn't prioritize singing at the time, but I knew that when I went to college I wanted to do a cappella. So I joined the SoCal VoCals at USC, after being rejected the first time that I auditioned, and ended up working with them and getting my first experience of music directing an a cappella group. Like Shams said, we competed in the ICCA (International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella) and won a couple times. And so I was getting this experience as a music director and figuring out what it means to craft a good performance and what an audience likes and doesn't like, and how you can build an emotional arc and create something very compelling. And then that led to my first gig out of college, which was working on The Sing-Off which was a really formative and incredible experience for me and taught me how to execute something really well, really quickly with all kinds of different people. So that was amazing.
While working for The Sing-Off, Scott Hoying and I formed Pentatonix to audition for the show. I knew Scott from USC and he knew Mitch and Kirstie from high school. I had met Avi at a barbershop rehearsal, and Kevin we found on YouTube. They made their way through the show, won season 3, and then I continued working with them after the show ended, doing mostly arranging and producing, with a brief stint as tour manager and live sound engineer.
S: Wow, that's an exciting journey for sure, for both of you! And so going back, can either of you cite any particular music or artists that you enjoyed listening to or indeed performing growing up?
BB: Yeah, I was really into Ben Folds. So working with him on The Sing-Off was really fun because he had actually inspired a lot of my harmonic choices growing up. His piano playing was amazing, his choice of harmony, and his extended harmony that you didn't really hear in pop-rock too often. He uses a lot of ninths, which was part of the building blocks for me in developing my own sound.
SA: I was inspired by Linkin Park among many musical inspirations. I think because I grew up in the choral tradition, I'm into a lot of contemporary choral composers. And I know everybody's answer is Eric Whitacre, but as a middle school kid, I was listening to Eric Whitacre in my basement in the dark for hours on end, analyzing it in my head before I really understood music theory in a more intimate sense. I think I just really felt it while I was listening to that type of music. But I would say I have a huge variety of artists and music that I listened to as a kid. My first album that I ever really analyzed was Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love. That was a major turning point for me as a lover of big vocals. All the divas - Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, they were huge inspirations for me vocally and in terms of developing the taste for high drama and production. I think Linkin Park plays to that, too. And throughout middle school and high school I always had this other interest in South Asian or Indian classical music because of my father's influence on me. My father is a very talented singer himself, and we played a lot of music in my house growing up. He would have singing events at my house all the time. So as a little kid, I was really exposed to the works of Rabindranath Tagore, ghazals, other types of Indian classical or South Asian classical music. And so that's also a major piece of my musical upbringing too, I would say. So it's basically a cross between 90s and 2000s boy bands and girl groups, R&B, the Divas, South Asian classical, and Bollywood!
S: That is certainly diverse. And can you both pinpoint where a cappella became an interest for you? Was there a point that you realized it was something you wanted to go into professionally? Or was it something that just organically happened?
BB: My first exposure to a cappella was really when the Yale Spizzwinks came to my elementary school. That was a really fun, cool moment. I was like, "Oh, this is amazing. You can do all this with just voices." So that was like the first little "aha" moment. And then I kind of put it aside and did other stuff until college. And then even in college, I wasn't thinking it would be a career. I was thinking it was a fun way to make friends, to meet other singers, and to develop my skills. Then The Sing-Off happened, and then I was like, "Oh, maybe this can be a career." So I just kind of followed the trail and never turned back. But it was definitely an unexpected thing, too. I never set out to have a career in a cappella. I wanted to be a film composer first, and then I wanted to do string arranging, pop production, and music directing in the general pop world. But then I kind of shifted over to a cappella once that seemed like it could be a thing for me.
No one would really have considered going into a cappella as a full-time career at that time because there were no examples for us to look at."
SA: No one would really have considered going into a cappella as a full-time career at that time because there were no examples for us to look at and be like, "Oh, this person does a cappella as a full-time career." Whereas I think people now who are younger than us may look at us and be like, "Oh, these people have made a cappella a career." But I think at the time there were like 2 or 3 people who had made a cappella music a major part of their career. So I had been in choirs and a cappella groups in high school. My first a cappella group that I was in was actually middle school, which is a little bit unique for somebody my age. We had a teacher in our middle school that was really into a cappella. And so I was in a group of all boys, and we sang like "Coney Island Baby" and the classic Barbershop stuff. And that was my first real foray into a cappella as a specific art form.
Then in high school, I was also in a men's a cappella group, and one of the kids had an older brother in an a cappella group at Rutgers University that would send us their arrangements. They were a couple of years older than us, and we really looked up to them and so they sent us some pop arrangements. And I remember it was "Over My Head (Cable Car)" by The Fray and they sent it to us and we were listening to it and we were like, "Oh, this is so cool. We can do songs on the radio. We don't have to just do what our teacher wants us to do." And so we started learning that on our own. And I was so enamored by this idea of doing pop a cappella music because I was really into pop music, and concurrently I was taking music theory. We were learning about four-part writing principles. And I really felt like these principles and rules were things that I intimately knew already in my body. Then I was like, "Oh, these things have names." And so I was learning about all of this in a more formal way. And so that's when I realized I should try arranging music, because I think that's just what I do in my brain anyway. And so I started with a notation of "The 12 Days of Christmas" by Straight No Chaser because I thought it was really funny for our winter concert. And it was a huge hit. I think I transcribed it really well for, I guess, someone who had no experience with that particular thing. It gave me the confidence to say, "Oh, I want to do arranging." So then I arranged "Thriller" by Michael Jackson and things like that. I really used my high school experience to propel me into a role in college where I became the music director of this very competitive a cappella group called the Nor'easters, which competes in the same competition as the SoCal VoCals, which is Ben's legacy group. So it really started for me in a really specific way at the end of high school.
S: Fantastic. And can you tell us what your individual roles are with regards to Acapop! KIDS? Do both of you do the arrangements? How does it work?
BB: My primary role is music – arranging, making part tracks, organizing, recording, all of that stuff. And Shams is more on the production side. So he's dealing with parents, he's booking, music video production, business and structural production planning stuff. He also sends me musical ideas to incorporate into the arrangements. And then other times when we have more time, it'll be more of a collaborative process where we sit together and actually do it. So it's just kind of whatever's needed.
SA: You know, back in the beginning, Ben and I would sit next to each other and arrange music, but we haven't done that in a while.
BB: Yeah, once things pick up to a certain pace, we kind of focus on our roles a little bit more.
SA: I would say between me, Ben and Scott, it's always a great balance of skills.
S: And so, some of the songs have accrued many millions of views on YouTube and streams. But aside from those metrics, is there an arrangement you're particularly proud of?
SA: For me, I love "Into the Unknown"! I will never stop loving that one. Because the funny story about that song is that we were at the time with Warner Records, and we had a meeting because Frozen 2 just came out. I was in New York, and Scott was on tour, and Ben was also traveling. And the label was like, "We really think Acapop! KIDS needs to release a version of Into the Unknown" which was obviously the big title song from the film, and the song had just come out the day before. And we're like, "Yeah, this sounds great, we should totally produce this," but we realized we'd have to produce it pretty fast if we wanted to stay relevant and on trend. But the Acapop! KIDS production is not such a quick thing. The kids live all over the country, so we have to book them out, fly them, plan the music video, arrange the song, record and edit the audio,, mix and master the song. There's so much to it. And these processes usually take weeks and weeks. But we turned it around in one week from the moment we decided to do the song to the final cut of the music video. I think Ben and I arranged for like a day and a half maximum and then sent it to the kids, flew the kids out two days later to L.A. to record. And then we filmed the video on Friday while the song was being produced the next day and had the video in hand on the Monday. And so that was just the craziest experience production-wise. And that song just turned out so beautifully which is a testament to how scrappy and willing our team is to just go for it in the name of good music and good art. And so that will always stick out to me.
S: That's super impressive. And for yourself, Ben, is there a particular arrangement that you're proud of?
BB: That's also my favorite arrangement. But my second favorite is probably "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." Yeah, that was a really fun one. Musically it was just so satisfying.
SA: Musically, it's probably our most sophisticated arrangement yet, but in terms of what the audience wanted, it just did not really hit the way that other things did. And it was a good lesson. Sometimes there are things that we really love and sometimes there are things that our audience really loves, and we're still developing the audience too. But it was very interesting because we all thought it was going to be a surefire hit, because the kids singing on it are absolutely phenomenal. And Ben really, really went in on that arrangement. It's just very good. It's very sophisticated. And it just did not do well on YouTube! There are other externalities with why some songs are more popular, too. "High Hopes" for example is a very simplistic arrangement which can be sung by pretty much anybody. And that has some of our highest viewership.
S: Yeah, I saw that one has over 15 million YouTube views! And can we expect a ACAPOP 2 album any time soon? Is that on the horizon?
SA: We do have some conversations, but nothing that we can divulge at the moment. We had a really eye-opening experience doing America's Got Talent, and I think that also taught us a lot about the brand that we've started, the types of changes that we have thought about making, what our audience is and what they want. But there are some exciting conversations happening surrounding Acapop! KIDS now. So we're hopeful that things will pan out. Personally, I would love to see this group tour! Live music is such an exciting part of this journey for me, and I would love to see these kids out singing in a big summer arena tour.
S: Yeah, that'd be cool. And going back to arranging, is there one song you haven't yet arranged that you'd love to do? Whether that's for Acapop! KIDS or for another group?
BB: One which I'm excited about this summer is that I'm arranging "Moon River," which I've wanted to arrange for a little bit, for A Cappella Academy Choir.
SA: This is a really hard question because I feel like if I'm really inspired to arrange a song, I will do it already. And so I think I've done all the songs that I'm right now. I have this ongoing playlist on Spotify that's like an arranging wish list. These are basically songs that I hear that I'm like, "Oh, I'm going to just force some group to do this!" And if it's like, "We really want Shams to do an arrangement for us," they pretty much give me the ability to pick which song, which I'm very lucky for. And so I go to this list and I'm like, "What am I really inspired by?" And then I will usually do one of those.
S: Cool. And last question - do you have any advice for aspiring musicians, particularly in the a cappella world, or just general advice for young musicians out there?
SA: Mine is to always be working on your craft, and also be fun to work with. I think people focus a lot on working on the craft and making sure they're amazing at what they're doing technically, but they're maybe not exciting to work with. Somebody who is 5% less skilled, but 100% more a joy to work with – I'm always going to pick that person. And I think that's a trend in the music industry. I think that people who are easy to work with, who are cordial, who are nice, as well as talented, are the people that get the gigs.
BB: I have two pieces of advice. One is to not ask for permission to do your thing, so that that oftentimes means learning another skill that you may not have already. If you're a singer, learning how to record yourself, how to produce, how to edit, how to write songs. Whatever it is, learn the skills you need to learn to self produce, whatever that might be. That applies to all artists of all types. I think there are some people that kind of sit around like, "When am I going to get an opportunity?" A lot of arrangers now show they're good by making their own videos of them singing their songs. Not for any particular reason, but just because they want to make something. And then that turns into, "Oh, let's hire this person to do this." So just showing what you can do at all turns and not waiting for someone to give you money or give you an opportunity. That's one of my pieces of advice.
My advice is to hone in on what makes you special as an artist and really cultivate that because everyone has something unique about them and what they do."
My second piece of advice is to hone in on what makes you special as an artist and really cultivate that because everyone has something unique about them and what they do. It might not even be an artistic thing that is unique about them. It might be like an extra-musical skill, like maybe you're really good at planning events, maybe you're really good at artistically designing your album and video art. There's all kinds of different skills that people have and things that make them special and will make them stand out. And so identifying that and really capitalizing on that can really go far, because there are so many people that do so many things and are good at it. So you need to differentiate yourself in some way.
S: Excellent advice from both of you. That was my last question for you, but is there anything that you wanted to add? Now’s your time!
SA: I would say that we are so appreciative of the opportunity to publish this first album of Acapop! KIDS material in octavo forum so that people can have access to it, especially the music educators. We feel like there's a huge gap in the music education space for pop contemporary, a cappella music for singers and for choral ensembles. We think that a cappella music is an amazing gateway for young people to enter the music scene in an academic setting. And hopefully that will translate into more performers, more producers, more directors, the same way that our a cappella upbringing has shaped our careers. I think we've given music teachers and choral directors way more options for satisfying the needs of their students. And my hope is that we can continue to put out a lot more of these types of arrangements into the space.
S: Yeah, we hope so, to! We're proud to have the arrangements on the site. So hopefully more to come!
BB: I just want to mention the camp that I co-founded that Shams also works at - A Cappella Academy, that I feel really passionate about and just want to kind of plug. It's a program for 13-18 year olds from all over the world to gather and make music together. It's a really awesome educational community which builds musical skill development. I would love to see more people from all over the world auditioning. You can find us at acappellacademy.org.
SA: I can second this endorsement, having been a director of A Cappella Academy for going on ten years. This program has shaped hundreds of young musicians who are already coming into the program with an extremely high level of musicianship and skill. But we create this ethos of group work, community-based singing, and communal sharing of skills to make something better. And I think this type of ethos is really important for people that we're shaping to enter into the music industry. Alumni from this program have gone on to do amazing things, whether they're directing or producing, or appearing on reality television singing shows. There are so many people doing amazing things. We have Grammy-nominated alumni. The list is endless.
S: Fantastic. Well, thank you both so much for your time, this was a fun chat.
SA: So fun. Thank you so much, we really appreciate your time as well.
BB: Thank you!