An essential asset to a group is a solid vocal percussionist. But what happens when that asset graduates? Having someone who can effectively fill this essential role can bring a group to the next level. Incoming members may be willing to learn, but they will be in need of a teacher! Being a good mentor is more than just being a fantastic beatboxer. The following steps are everything you need to teach your protegeé about the art of vocal percussion:
1. Master the Drum Kit
When it comes to beatboxing, there are a variety of crazy sounds that people love to do. A key difference about vocal percussion, however, is not just making the sounds cool, but being able to imitate and focus on the exact sounds a physical drum kit can make. This includes high hats, cymbal crashes, kick drums, and snares. While teaching, it is important to emphasize that these sounds will not come overnight. They take constant practice and persistence to master. Even the professionals will tell you that they still need to work on a certain sound more in order to perfect it.
These sounds are the basic building blocks for effective vocal percussion and are key to starting the teaching process. Demonstrate each sound and have them repeat it back to you as best they can. Describe what your mouth is doing as you create the sound. The tongue, shape of the mouth, and soft palette all drastically change the sound you're making, so it's important to be specific. You can also have the person learning watch themselves in a mirror to better visualize what their body is doing as they practice.
2. Build Up Basic Patterns
Once your student has a general grasp of the drum kit sounds, it’s time to start building up some basic patterns. A good resource to find these types of patterns are songs with acoustic drums or drums that are easy to follow, such as classics from The Beatles, Weezer, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Another good way to find patterns is by looking at past videos of your group. The student will be familiar with the songs and will have an example to replicate. Have them play around with different grooves from different genres while looking for patterns, such as Latin, R&B, and funk. This will lead to more innovative patterns as they increase their repertoire. (Photo by Melinda Packer)
3. Utilize your Metronome
Now that they have some basic patterns under their belt, one of the most beneficial tools for any percussionist is a metronome. Especially in a cappella, the group looks to the vocal percussionist to set and hold the tempo, so it needs to be consistent. Take one of the basic patterns from the previous step and set the metronome to an easy tempo (a good starting point is 60 beats per minute). Repeat that basic patterns on a loop in time with the metronome for a solid amount of time, then increase the tempo by 5 beats. Continue this exercise to increase stamina and to help internalize a consistent beat. As a test, try turning off the metronome as you beatbox, then turn it back on after a few loops to see if you were able to keep the tempo consistent. This will help a new beatboxer identify if they tend to rush or lag the tempo.
4. Know the Vocal Percussionist’s Role
Building up the physical aspects of vocal percussion is a major part of finding success. However, really understanding their role in the group is equally as important. Vocal percussion is about complementing the group’s sound by adding textures and creating a groove. It acts as a group metronome by keeping a consistent beat and tempo.
When an outsider is listening to the group, they should not be distracted by the vocal percussionist. It is not about standing out from the group, but rather being a unit of the group’s sound. Their role is a piece of the band, not a soloist.Photo by Sarah Maskill
It can be quite overwhelming when attempting to teach such an abstract art form. The student may be very intimidated by such an important role in the group and immediately think that there is no way they will be able to make those sounds. But everybody starts somewhere! Even the best vocal percussionists out there at one point was a beginner. It is also important to note that like singing, everybody sounds different. Each snare and kick drum is unique to each individual. As long as the groove is consistent and in tempo, you are on the right track!
Special thanks to Jill Clark, Mel Daneke, and Melinda Packer for their expertise and input!