Before the long flight home from New York, there was one last flautist I had to meet. Greg Pattillo (www .pattillostyle.com or www.myspace.com/pattillostyle) literally took the flute world by storm, in quite a short space of time, since loading his home videos onto YouTube. Known as the ‘beatboxing flute player’, Greg has gone from working in a grocery store to becoming a world famous flute player and representative of BRIO! flutes.
Beatboxing originates from hip-hop and is the art of vocal percussion. Greg is recognised for his redefinition of flute sound and capabilities, and this acclaimed performer, educator and clinician can be found both on the concert stage and on the streets, subways and parks. He has a strong background in classical flute, with Bachelors and Masters degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music, before spending a period as principal flute of Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. However, it was the time Greg spent on the West Coast in San Francisco that was pivotal in developing his beatboxing style.
He was a founding member of the Collaborative Arts Insurgency, which blended classical, jazz, and hip-hop music with performance poetry, folk music, comedy and dance. Here Greg began experimenting by accompanying his fellow street performers with not only a melody but a beat.
Greg is currently based in Brooklyn where he freelances and performs with the dynamic young group PROJECT (www. whatisproject.org), a unique and energetic trio of flute, cello and bass who bend and blend various genres, creating a fusion of jazz, hip-hop, and world music, balanced out with a sincere allegiane to classical roots.
If you haven’t yet seen Greg’s groundbreaking performance videos on YouTube, do so immediately! Showcasing beatbox flute, these have been viewed more than 20 million times – when YouTube picked one of his videos for their home page for a week in 2007, he received over 1 million hits. Tunes posted include Super Mario Brothers, Inspector Gadget, Peter and the Wolf (like you’ve never heard it before), Hard Knock Life, Spy Tunes and In the Hall of the Mountain King.
The interest generated through the videos has led to Greg being in high demand as a teacher and clinician around the globe. Not long before I visited, he had travelled to the UK to run various classes, including some at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where Ian Clarke teaches. In 2008, he presented at the 36th Annual National Flute Association Convention in Kansas City. Greg has developed a notation system for his beatboxing sounds, based on traditional classical pedagogy, consisting of one line for the flute part and another for the percussive effects (written in a similar way to drum kit music). Beatboxing is made up of three primary sounds – the high-hat, rimshot and bass drum. These were the focus of my lesson and, although it was not easy, it was really good fun trying to emulate a drum kit. The following notes come from my lesson and various worksheets provided by Greg:
HIGH-HAT – two cymbals on a stand, opened and closed with the foot and generally struck with drum sticks. In the closed position, the high-hat produces a short and crisp sound that Greg spells “TS”. This sound is frequently used as either a steady or syncopated subdividing rhythm and is notated above the top line of the staff with an x as the note head. The sound is produced using the tip of the tongue against the back of the upper teeth.
RIMSHOT – produced by taking a drum stick and striking it against the side, or rim, of a drum head and should be loud and piercing. Greg spells this ‘KAH” or “KER”. This sound frequently functions as a backbeat on beats 2 and 4 in a bar, and is notated in the staff’s middle space. On the flute, the rimshot is played with an explosive release of tension, using a lot of air and deep resonance.
BASS DRUM – largest drum in a drum set, struck with the foot pedal. This is loud, low and powerful, and frequently marks the beginning of a bar. Greg spells this ‘BOO” and it is notated in the staff’s bottom space. For me, this was by far the most difficult sound to produce and Greg offers the following explanation;
The key to this sound is a deep, open throat coupled with relaxed, yet firm lips. As the tension builds behind the lips, release the air, letting the lips pop. I find that people frequently make a “PAH” sound when first attempting the bass drum. While this is not what you will ultimately want, it is a fine place to start. The “P” sound is due to not enough resonance and relaxation in the face, throat and upper chest. When I get this sound to full volume, I can feel booming around my collarbones and I really use my chest to amplify the sound!
I found it helpful to aim for a low, deep, resonant sound and found that I produced it best when I released the tension behind the lips in a relaxed, yet firm way.
Once these sounds were relatively comfortable, we put some patterns together using mnemonic devices. These worked as an aid to co-ordinate tongue and lips movements. Mnemonics included;
Greg then showed me how to fuse together different words to create a whole phrase, for example, ‘Book Bar-b-que, Boots Cats, Boots Cats, Bar-b-que’. This allowed me to start building up some beatbox patterns. It was useful to start with only the bass drum part and gradually add in the rimshot, then the high-hat. This gave me a whole new appreciation of the co-ordination required to play the drums!
Now acquainted with the beatbox sounds, I got to try putting them together with the flute! Greg pointed out that it is impossible to make the different sounds speak clearly at the same time, but clever arrangements allow the two events of beatboxing and flute playing to happen around each other. We started with a rhythm, then added a very simple melodic line on top. The challenge was getting the flute to speak whilst making the drum noises. Even if my flute tone was weak, it was interesting that as long as I at least did the flute fingering, some aspect of the pitch could be heard. Finally, I got to try a beatboxing ‘Etude’ that Greg had composed, which combined everything I had learnt so far.
Greg explained that the drum kit can make many different sounds and the mouth can imitate almost all of them.Other sounds he demonstrated included;
As every one of us has a different shaped mouth, even with the three core sounds, every beat boxer makes them a little differently. Greg explained that the best way to learn to beatbox is just to give it a go and to practise, practise, practise. Greg is constantly practising and trying to create new sounds, carries a recorder around with him to document any new creations, improvises every day and listens to lots of beatboxers.
My session with Greg heightened my appreciation of the difficulty of what he does and it was tremendously good fun! I found that it gave my mouth and embouchure more flexibility and assisted me to use much more air than was normally comfortable. I am now waiting eagerly for Greg to produce a beatboxing flute method, which I hope is on the horizon.
This brings me to the end of my “Around the World: The Flute as You Don’t Normally Hear It!” series. I have really enjoyed sharing my experiences with you and if you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch. I would encourage anyone who can find an opportunity to travel to do so. With a little planning and some research, you can tailor a trip to suit your own interests perfectly. I was lucky enough to find four world class flautist/composers (Ian Clarke, Wil Offermans, Robert Dick and Greg Pattillo) who were free and willing to work with me to extend my knowledge of extended techniques and new music. All were energetic and generous with their time and knowledge, and, for me, this trip has translated into a renewed sense of enjoyment and inspiration for music and flute playing. Happy travelling to you all and I hope you have some exciting and inspiring flute adventures!