by Shaun Barlow
(Originally published by The NSW Flute Society Blog in September 2010 and published on Flute Tutor Australia at the request of the NSW Flute Society in February 2014)
By now, almost every flute player has taken a look at a few of Greg Pattillo’s flute-beatbox YouTube clips – should you fall outside of this category, run immediately to the nearest computer and type that name into google! His arrangements of popular tunes, honed whilst busking on the streets and in the subways of New York City have led to an incredible following. Like many young flute players, I was blown away by Pattillo’s playing. I had to try and work out how to make all those crazy noises!
In August 2009 Angus McPherson and I took a trip to New York City for the 2009 National Flute Association Convention. Before this I’d been messing around with a few simple tunes, trying to get some basic beatbox sounds happening. The idea of contacting Greg Pattillo and asking for a lesson had been mentioned here and there for a while – everyone I spoke to, including my teacher Alexa Still, had expressed an enthusiasm. So all of a sudden, sitting in the hotel room on West 51st, I took a look at Pattillo’s website, sent an email asking if he might have time to meet up whilst we were in town, et voilà – he replied! Gus and I had a lesson!
The lesson kicked off with Greg asking for a show of where each of us were at with beatbox-flute. My first attempt at a beatbox arrangement was upon the theme from Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A minor. Pattillo guided us through some of the basic beatbox sounds – /b/ kick or bass drum, /p/ snare, /k/ handclap or rim shot and /t/ hi-hat cymbal. We spent time refining each sound, plenty of spit flying, repeating /b/, /b/, /b/… against the metronome ticking at 60bpm, Greg encouraging and describing what needed to be tweaked to get the sounds sounding super.
We covered a bunch of techniques – inhaled /k/ and /p/, adding /s/, /f/ and /sh/ to the drum sounds, how to string sounds together into grooves and some pretty hip ways of vamping and arranging tunes.
session jamming on the Paganini theme
and a Piazzolla tune”
Needless to say, the rest of our stay in NYC was punctuated by beatbox practice whilst walking the streets and plenty of jamming back in the hotel room.
Back in Sydney, with little to do and little income over the summer break, the idea of taking Pattillo’s lead and heading out busking was way more favourable than waiting tables. I began pairing up with other musicians mainly playing jazz standards and improvising our own grooves. People reacted enthusia-stically to the music, often stopping to chat, or to sing along in the case of one homeless guy. The music was great but of course, the cash was pretty thin…
So, how do you get this beatbox thing happening for yourself? Easy!
1. Go and grab your Moyse “Tone Development Through Interpretation” or any old beginner method. Pick out a simple tune, something consisting mostly of crotchets like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – this works perfectly.
2. Take a pencil and write a “b” under the first note in each bar and a “k” under each note that falls on the third beat.
3. Taking everything at a really, really slow tempo, play the tune on the flute, but replace each of the/b/ and /k/ notes with a really strong /b/ as in “boots” and an exaggerated /k/ as in “cats.” Sure, it might be tricky at first, but that’s nothing a bit of slow practice can’t fix.
So you’re thinking, “But my /b/ doesn’t sound like Pattillo’s. How do you get it to sound like a real bass drum?”
Like regular flute playing, beatboxing takes practice and instruction. Luckily, there’s a tonne of instructional material available for free on the internet. The “HumanBeatbox.com” website has a fantastic section called “Learn”, containing written tutorials and videos on almost every imaginable method of spitting and clicking like a drum machine. For a great step-by-step introduction to beatboxing aimed at the complete beginner, type “www.humanbeatbox.com/lessons” into your web browser.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, flute-beatboxing is an open door. There are a couple of really great performers putting their own spin on things. Greg Pattillo, alongside his prolific collection of YouTube videos, has released three albums with his group “Project Trio” (I got my copies from www.cdbaby.com).
Dirko Juchem, a German jazz musician, has produced an album of his solo beatbox-flute performances, it comes with an instructional booklet containing a great deal of info on how he makes it all happen. There’s even a few songsheets in there. For more info, see: www.myspace.com/flutelounge
A few other noteworthy players to check out on YouTube are Nathan “Flutebox” Lee and Tim Barsky. Watching some of the thousands of videos on YouTube of beatbox performances quickly broadens one’s conception of what might be possible on flute.
Guys like Rahzel and Roxorloops provide some pretty amazing examples of how to pack a lot of sounds into a bar, appearing to barely ever stop for breath!
Many beatbox websites feature free tutorial and “how to” articles. These provide a great way of expanding one’s vocabulary of beatbox sounds. Some lend themselves really well to flute whilst others may not immediately appear to work at all. There’s always something to be learnt whilst undergoing a new bit of vocal gymnastics, though. For example, try the “click roll” technique described at humanbeatbox.com (typing “Click roll” into the search box on the humanbeatbox.com homepage should lead you there pretty swiftly). Whilst it doesn’t resonate as well as a good, loud /k/, if you cover the tone hole with your lips and perform a click roll into the flute there’s some interesting possibilities for resembling a creaky door or some weird creature from Jurassic Park.
It’s early days for beatbox-flute yet. Give it a go and see what crazy new sound you’ve got up your sleeve!
About the author
Shaun Barlow is a professional flute player based in Sydney. He specialises in contemporary music, flute beatboxing, collaborating with composers and exploring the vast cacophony of sounds available to the flute player. Shaun is studying with Dr Alexa Still at the Sydney Conservatorium, completing a Masters of Music (Performance). His current research is a study of the development, notation and practice of flute beatboxing.
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