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As part of Pentatonix, Arlington trio shines on NBC's "The Sing-Off"

A Cappella Art

Posted 8:21am on Tuesday, Nov. 08, 2011

Over the past decade or so, Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi and Kirstie Maldonado have sung their way into hearts and souls across North Texas.

All three made a mark at Martin High, regularly winning spots on the UIL all-state choir. Before that, Grassi and Maldonado were mainstays at Theatre Arlington, while Hoying could be found at places like CATS and Johnnie High's Country Music Revue.

Now the tight-knit trio is giving America a taste of its talents, competing on NBC's The Sing-Off. On Monday night's episode, Pentatonix, which also has two other members, made it into the final five. At stake: $200,000 and a Sony Music recording contract.

From making their own YouTube videos to the bright lights of L.A.: If the college years are about leaving home and exploring the world, then the three, through hours of toil and a little serendipity, have made every musical note count.

The practical: "I think we've all grown so much as musicians, but more importantly, as individuals," said Grassi, 19. "We've learned to work hard under extreme stress, as well as tolerance and understanding toward new ideas."

The creative: "We are making music with just our voices, and we're doing it in a way it's never been done before," said Hoying, 20, the frontman. "I feel like I'm creating a successful band with my best friends, and it honestly is the best feeling in the world performing with them."

The memorable: Maldonado, 19, called the experience "amazing, incredible, life-changing."

"I'm humbled to have worked with such amazing people as a performer and as a person," she said.

Setting the stage

The story starts with Hoying. He first wowed teachers with his musical talents as a preschooler, then went on to win talent contests, record CDs and sing at Rangers and Cowboys games. By the end of seventh grade, he had won Johnnie High's Next Big Star contest in 2003 and competed in CBS' Star Search in 2004, at age 12.

After he graduated from Martin in 2010, he went off to the University of Southern California for its bachelor's degree in popular music.

"That's the only place he wanted to go," said his mother, Connie Hoying.

It proved to be a pivotal choice. Hoying joined a campus a cappella group called SoCal VoCals, where he met Sing-Off alumni. He was soon encouraged to give the show a try himself.

The minimum group size is five, so he sprang the idea on Maldonado, who was attending the University of Oklahoma, and Grassi, who was a year behind the other two at Martin.

At first, they thought he might be joking.

"I was excited," Maldonado said. "I'd watched the show before and loved it, but I really didn't think he was serious. Then he started talking about plane tickets and getting other members, and I knew he was."

Rounding out Pentatonix are Avi Kaplan, whom Hoying met through a mutual friend, and Kevin Olusola, whom the group found impressive on YouTube.

Everybody met in Los Angeles. Grassi was the last to arrive, flying in when the rest of his class was walking across the stage at graduation.

The first rehearsal occurred the day before auditions began. By all accounts, it was as if the group was meant to be together, five lives on different roads leading to the same time and place.

"It was scary," Maldonado said, "but so amazing because it just seemed like everything clicked."

For several years, Hoying "has always kind of wondered, 'Where is all this taking me?'" his mother said. "It's almost like his whole life has been progressing to this point."

An early interest

Grassi and Maldonado also started on the journey as youngsters.

Mike Grassi recalls how as a 3-year-old his son spent hours on end singing on pitch to a Fisher-Price tape player, which struck the father as unusual. A few years later, after Grassi began participating in musical theater, a role in a patriotic production called for him to sing America the Beautiful.

"He just brought the house down," Mike Grassi said. "We started thinking maybe he does have some kind of special gift."

In junior high, the Grassis, who live in the Seguin High attendance zone, applied for a transfer to Boles Junior High so that Mitch could take advantage of Martin's outstanding performing arts program. Mike Grassi credits the "tremendous music teachers" at Boles and Martin for helping his son develop.

Maldonado, meanwhile, was 5 when she announced to her mom, Angelica Maldonado, that she wanted to be a singer. At her mother's wedding reception a few years later, the crowd watched in amazement as she sang the first song for the newlywed dance. It was a prearranged surprise even her mother didn't know about.

"That's when I really realized it," Angelica Maldonado said. "I really took her seriously after that."

Her daughter attended Holy Rosary Catholic School. For high school, Angelica Maldonado found a home in the Martin zone for the same reasons that the Grassis sought a transfer.

Once there, Kirstie quickly found a new friend.

"Scott was the first person to ever ask her to go do something," Angelica Maldonado said. "I feel like God put her there for a reason."

At Theatre Arlington, Grassi and Maldonado were members of the touring group Standing Room Only and once starred opposite each other in the musical Once on This Island.

"I am so proud of them for having the courage to chase their dreams," said Executive Producer Todd Hart, who has known the pair the entire time.

If Pentatonix reaches the finals, which NBC will air live, he plans to fly to Los Angeles to attend.

One of Hoying's longtime mentors is radio personality Kidd Kraddick, who met him when he appeared alongside Kraddick's daughter in a production of Annie at Creative Arts Theatre & School.

"It was obvious to me then that he was a cut above most of the other kids," Kraddick said. "We've been friends for well over a decade, and it's been fun helping him and watching him become so accomplished as a singer and musician.

"The music business is froth with danger, and I always tried to steer Scott in the right direction. ... He's one of the few people I've mentored over the years that I truly thought had a great chance to make a living at this."

Patrick M. Walker, 817-390-7423

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