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Visalia native returns for sold-out performance with Pentatonix

Jan 26, 2013

Coming home to Visalia to perform professionally on stage is a dream come true for bass singer Avi Kaplan of Pentatonix.

“I just can’t wait to sing for the hometown crowd and inspire people,” he said.

Pentatonix began its second tour Thursday in Los Angeles. After a concert in San Francisco on Sunday, the five-member a cappella group arrives Monday in Visalia for a sold-out concert at L.J. Williams Theater. The concert benefits Hands in the Community, a Visalia nonprofit organization that connects people in need with people and organizations that can help out.

Pentatonix, which formed to compete on NBC’s “Sing-Off” in 2011, has had more than 45 million YouTube views since it won the reality contest.

Being a hit in the music industry is surreal for Kaplan, 23, who lives in West Hollywood.

“I get to wake up every single day and sing,” he said. “Everything is about the music. My life is 100 percent focused on something I love to do.”

Fans recognize him on the street, ask for autographs and take his picture.

“It’s really crazy in a good way,” he said.

Kaplan grew up in Visalia, the youngest of three children born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother. They would take road trips together, often to Bishop to visit his mother’s family. They sang along to his parents’ favorite tunes by Dion, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and John Denver.

Sometimes in the backseat as a little boy, Kaplan put his hands over his ears and told his family the music was too loud, his mother remembers. At age 6 or 7, while attending a music camp, he refused to sing a solo.

No one knew Kaplan could really sing until he was in middle school. He was recruited to join the choir at Divisadero Middle School by the girls in Sandy Manes’ class.

“I did tell the girls to bring in the good boys who don’t mess around in class,” Manes said.

He said he wanted to get out of marching band and he liked girls, so he picked choir.

Manes knew right away he had talent. Kaplan had a low voice and could sing in key, a rarity among middle-school boys, whose voices are in the midst of changing.

“He was a great kid,” she said. “He was fun. He wasn’t shy by any means.”

She keeps a photo of him, his arms wrapped around her and accompanist Yvonne Bechthold, on the wall in her classroom at Divisadero. During the 2011 “Sing-Off,” she told her students to vote for him.

She has tickets for the Visalia concert, along with her husband and son. Some of her students also bought tickets.

Her encouragement made him want to stay in choir, he said.

After middle school, Kaplan went on to sing in choral groups at Mt. Whitney High School, where he was selected as a freshman to join a chamber choir primarily made up of junior and senior students.

By 15, he had taught himself to play guitar and later began performing at Visalia coffee houses. His low, soulful tunes drew fans.

He packed them in, said his mother, Shelly Kaplan.

“The experience performing in those places was so intimate,” Kaplan said during an interview in 2011. “I loved being able to feel the energy from the audience. It was something that drove me.”

He wrote his first song, “Collision,” after he was in a six-car pileup in 2005 on Highway 99 near Modesto with his parents. Their vehicle was totaled and the whole back end of it was destroyed.

Kaplan was lying down in the back seat. If he had been sitting up, his legs would have been crushed, he said. He wasn’t hurt.

“It was such a powerful experience,” Shelly Kaplan said. “It was horrible and we all survived.”

His father, Michael, was taken to a hospital in one ambulance while he and his mother rode together in another ambulance. The teen wept en route to the hospital, his mother remembered.

His song “Collision” holds a special place in his heart.

“That could have been the last day of my life,” he said.

A line of his song goes, “So let’s live our lives like there won’t be another day.”

At Mt. Whitney High School, Kaplan was part of the school’s jazz ensemble, Change Up! In 2007, he was awarded a national choral award for his outstanding leadership and exceptional vocal abilities.

While a student at Mt. San Antonio College in Los Angeles, Kaplan landed a spot as a section leader with The Chamber Singers, an award-winning choral ensemble at the community college.

His choral director, Bruce Rogers, said Kaplan was a major part of the program during his tenure.

“Where many people consider themselves a lead singer, he has the rare combination of someone who can and will contribute to background vocals in a recording session, can read sheet music and has a true bass voice,” he said.

Although Kaplan received accolades for his musical talent throughout his years in middle school, high school and college, it was the Character Counts! award when he was 11 years old that holds the most meaning for his mother.

He was nominated by his parents, Michael and Shelly Kaplan, as an example of someone who exemplifies the Character Counts! pillar of caring in 2000. While she battled cancer for five years, it was her son, Avi Kaplan, who helped her the most, she said.

He didn’t know he was doing anything out of the ordinary by helping his mother when she was too weak to get up, he said.

“It was just my life, that’s what I did,” he said.

Avi is short for Avriel, a Hebrew name that means under the wings of God, his mother said.

“And God has really protected him,” she said.

The day before auditions began for “Sing-Off” in 2011, Kaplan joined three singers from Arlington, Texas, and a YouTube musician to form Pentatonix.

They staved off 16 other groups with ambitious vocal arrangements and mainstream appeal to win a recording contract with Sony Music and a $200,000 cash prize.

Since Pentatonix won the “Sing-Off,” the group has sold more than 80,000 albums. Its first album, “PTX Vol. 1,” debuted at No. 14 on the top-200 album chart, while a Christmas CD, “PTXmas,” was in the Top 10 Debut on Billboard and iTunes Holiday charts.

Pentatonix performs about five concerts a week. The group practices five hours a day every day, except Saturday. Sometimes the group’s members rehearse for up to 12 hours.

Kaplan’s sister, Esther Kaplan, 28, starts this week as the group’s tour manager. This second tour continues through May, with some breaks for two weeks at a time.

She admits the world of a cappella music is not mainstream, but with Pentatonix’s popularity and the success of the recent movie “Pitch Perfect,” it is much more mainstream than it used to be.

“Pentatonix has the potential to be that bridge between choral music and pop music,” she said. “It’s very exciting for them. They all love music.”

Even though fans recognize him on the street and in airports, the group’s success has not changed her brother.

“I really look up to him in that regard,” she said.

Kaplan continues to write songs. For Pentatonix, he wrote “Show You How to Love.”

For youngsters interested in a career in music, he offers advice.

“If it’s your passion, put your whole heart and soul into it and don’t let anything hold you back,” he said. “If your life will lead you elsewhere, don’t be afraid to see the world.”

As the group begins its second tour, two concerts have already sold out — the one in Visalia and New York City. Other stops for the group’s 2013 tour include Toronto, Hollywood, San Diego, Tempe, Ariz., and other cities across the United States.