So here we are, 21⁄2 years after a couple of videos exploded across the internet, and it seems Beatbox Flute is here to stay. Although there were most certainly others before me combining beats and rhythmic elements with the flute (actually, a chance encounter with beatboxing on the trombone opened up the possibility to my ears), it was seemingly 2 covers of popular tunes that propelled this style into the limelight – one of a popular video game (Super Mario Bros.) and the other a cover of the themes from an old cartoon (Inspector Gadget) and movie (Beverly Hills Cop).
In this article, I want to describe some of the different projects with which I have been involved. I hope to inspire you flutists out there to get more bang out of your playing; by encouraging you to play more, as much as you can, to keep on learning new things, and, of course, to share those treasures with the ones around you. Over the years, I have been involved in many different styles of music – it turns out, the flute is quite versatile! I have helped to form many groups, as well as found myself joining: woodwind quintets, jazz trios, a rock/rap fusion group, a Puerto-Rican Salsa Band, a Brazilian samba trio, a bluegrass group, a beatnik poetry/music fusion guerrilla street posse (San Francisco is a wild town!), and many more. My current trio, PROJECT, (flute, cello and double bass; check out whatisproject.org for more info) tries to write for and perform in every genre we can get our minds around, in as many different types of venues as we can. Although drastically different musically, these groups do all have one thing in common: they were all about performing music, as often as possible, for anyone that would listen.
I grew up in the classical world of flute: private lessons, youth symphony, school band, classical conservatory through to a masters Degree – even a job as an orchestral flutist. There were concerts, competitions, recitals, studio classes, chamber groups, and all manner of performance opportunities. But, early on, I found that my heart really lay in the thrill of the performance – I loved to play in front of people. But, in the course of my studies, I realized how much more time was spent practising and rehearsing than actually performing. So I took matters into my own hands, hit the streets, and began what was then a small career in street performing.
I grew up in Seattle, a relatively small city in the Northwest corner of the States. There is a huge tradition of vaudeville and street performers in the Pacific Northwest, and as a child I used to love watching the jugglers, magicians, and ragtag street performers work the crowds downtown. My first experience playing on a street corner was with a gal who played the clarinet with me in my youth symphony. We played flute/clarinet classical duets out of a book, with a music stand and a sign that said, “Saving up for music camp”. I was blown away by the reception, warmth and fun people were having listening to us, and interestingly enough, people were generous!
Over the months to follow I struck out on my own, playing all the tunes I knew from my lessons, like the Telemann Fantasias to show off tunes my teacher made me learn, and asking for requests when people seemed to be really paying attention. Soon I was forced to learn tunes I didn’t know, and investigating what people liked to hear and found familiar. It was a lot of fun (not to mention lucrative!) and I found myself playing in many of the big parks downtown, and at all the local street fairs and festivals.
I was extremely lucky to be accepted to the Cleveland Institute of Music, to study with Joshua Smith of the Cleveland Orchestra. I worked hard to get into a good school, but once I had obtained a Masters degree after 6 years of study, I found myself sloughing around the States on the orchestral audition circuit; blowing all my savings on the hotels, flights and disappointments this common ‘between-job-and-school’ reality brings. I wasn’t winning jobs, not even one, and that is a tough place to be! It made me start to wonder... surely there was more to being a musician than winning a job? There weren’t even that many jobs to be won...
I was teaching full time, but also working full time as a cafe manager to make ends meet, and I wanted to perform. Where does one get to perform if not in school, and doesn’t have a performance job? Non-music jobs can make it impossible to play in many community ensembles by gobbling up all your time. Soon I realized that my education had provided me with wonderful opportunities and resources, but, in the mean time, I had never learned how to obtain those resources once out of school: big and little concert halls, recording equipment, pianos, accompanists, practice rooms, lessons, contact with other musicians. Once out of school, how do you book a recital? How do you rent a hall and pay for it? How do you advertise your concerts? How do you get people in those seats to hear a flute recital? How do you get people to spend the time rehearsing and playing with you for your recital? These things take time and money, two things quickly in short supply when you graduate without a job. So what to do? What would you do? I went back to street performing... So it was, back to the streets for some impromptu “community music”. And I started attending ‘Open Mic Nights’ at local cafes and bars to meet new musicians and collaborators who I could bring out on the street and play together with.
At this point, I would like to point out that performing with your case out is not for the faint of heart. People are quick to judge in those settings, and without all the stage lights, you can actually see their reactions. There can be heckling, competing noise (busses, other street performers, etc.) and sometimes the greatest, livest, sweetest renditions of tunes get not even the smallest reaction. Sometimes people you didn’t even know were listening come up and thank you for giving them some joy in an unexpected place. Sometimes the cops push you out, and sometimes people come up and start jamming along with you. I have had people break dance, line dance, ballet dance, sing, pull out guitars, tap dance, shout poetry, shout political slogans, freestyle rap, and even paint to the music – all of it impromptu!
By the way, in these settings it is ALWAYS best to have everything memorized. And have everything prepared in all keys (you never know what key a singer is going to start singing in, and if you have to ask, you will spoil the spell). And be able to play (sometimes fake) a tune that is called out. More and more I found myself needing to be able to play all sorts of different styles of music. Not just classical music, but pop music, rock music, jazz music, funk music, in fact, anything people ask for.
Now, to be fair, I must admit that I had quite a bit of non- classical experience growing up. I had lots of ear training through the Suzuki Method, and I quickly started learning tunes without sheet music right from the beginning. Mainly these tunes were commercials, cartoon theme songs, and movie scores; my main source of music as a kid (I was a big TV fan back then... ). As I grew older I found myself attempting to make my flute sound more and more like the music to which I was listening. Rock, hip- hop, dance music, jazz, bluegrass; these were the sounds around me and few of them used much flute. Of course there were some big flute influences: Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull (my favorite albums are “This was”, “Stand Up” and “Aqualung”), Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the famous blind jazz musician who brought that cool singing and playing the flute at the same time to the table (don’t forget his ability to play three saxophones at the same time!) I own his complete Atlantic recordings, an 8 cd set! Hubert Laws fluting on Gil Scott-Heron’s album “Pieces of a Man”, (especially on the tune, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”), Matt Eakle on David Grisman’s bluegrass albums (the first of which I owned was a 2-disk, 20 year retrospective of the Dave Grisman Quintet called “DGQ- 20”). But more and more I aimed to sound like the electric guitars of my favorite bands: Jimi Hendrix (anything I could get my hands on), Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (all of their 10 albums are gold), Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead (favorites include “Live Dead”, “Workingman’s Dead” and all of the “Dicks Picks” live bootlegs – I owned tons of their live shows on tape!). I used overblown low notes, harmonic partials, voice, alternate articulations and all the coolest scales and licks and extended techniques I could get my hands and ears on, to sound like these coolest of cats.
And after a good run of vying for a classical career, I found my self out in the world with no music work, and all of my time spent trying to pay rent, but playing all the time, every week. And most of this was because I was back to playing in the streets.
By the time I found myself in NYC, I had just finished a two year stint playing with some wild street performers out in San Francisco. We never made any money, it was all for the art and rush of performing. We would get crowds of people of more than a hundred, every Thursday night at sundown, most of whom were also performers – everyone listening, thinking, and trying to get on stage (the stage was really just a street corner in a seedy part of town in the Mission District) to do their piece next. Poetry, Slam Poetry, comics, singer/songwriters, jazz cats, a violist, punks, hippies, Jazz combos, anarchists, underground leftist political organizers; the wildest, most eclectic blend of the arts I have ever witnessed. We called ourselves the CAI, the Collaborative Arts Insurgency, and it was through this organization that I finally found myself beatboxing proper with a flute.
But in New York, I was clobbered with the cold reality that big cities are expensive. Too expensive to have an apartment nice enough to teach in, and too big to get a teaching studio without a famous name. In fact, you can hardly book gigs in NYC unless you can promise seats in chairs, which, as I mentioned before, takes time and money. But the subway runs 24/7, and the flute fits in a backpack easily enough. So at work, I find myself playing in the subway during my “lunch” breaks (which were generally at 8 at night, as I worked nights for a grocery store). I quickly found that after a nine hour shift, it’s not fun to go home and blow some Taffanel and warmups with a metronome for a couple hours. If I was to keep my chops up and still play everyday, I had to play underground.
And it was here in NYC in the subways where I finally found my first tunes that I turned into videos. The first 5 I put up were beatboxing flute Super Mario Brothers theme, Inspector Gadget remix, Sesame Street, “Peter and the Wolf ”, and Freedom Jazz Dance (all my videos can be found at youtube.com/ freedomworksfilms, although many others have made videos of me too – a little investigation can find them). These were shot as single takes in a session of about 45 minutes. They were the tunes I played in the subway every time I pulled out my flute, and they made the most impact on the folks listening. I would like to point out that all though they do all include beatboxing, they are all from different genres – video game, a cartoon, a children’s TV show, a classical tune (which most kids and adults know) and a not so well known, yet funky jazz tune.
The recordings were made in December 2006, and at that time I only had about 3 basic beatbox sounds – ts, K and B (more about those and their immediate variations later!). But they are each used in different ways with the flute in the videos: some more flute, less beatbox; some more beatbox, less flute.
These videos were a direct result of finding out what people liked to hear underground in NYC. I had experimented with lots of different tunes and styles, and many different arrangements of the same tune, and focused on what I thought people wanted to hear. It was important to try and find out what people like to hear, and I was willing to try playing anything. Beatboxing on the flute was always a winner. Beatbox flute is flashy, sounds different and unique, can mimic a lot of contemporary music, and is capable of filling an audience with incredible energy and enthusiasm.
So, Beatbox Flute. What is it? Can anyone learn it? What’s the deal, and how are all those sounds being made?
Let’s first define beatboxing on a flute as just an extension of articulation techniques. Simply put, we use our tongue and lips to make sounds that are audible to an audience over the sound of the flute. Sometimes these sounds happen at the same time as playing a note on the flute, and sometimes they are cleverly arranged together can enter into the arsenal of sounds one has, and prove to be very effective in flashy, fast passages, when breathing opportunities prove rare. It is possible to make great inhaled sounds in the lips and tongue. Of course, this makes no flute sound, but does give a breath, and can make vamps happen indefinitely, an excellent tool for backing up someone else. My favorite inhaled sound is the inhaled “Ps”, which is my best snare sound. I found this sound much later in my beatbox flute quest than others, and you can hear it well on the video “Hotel Crazyness...”, around 33 seconds in. But this idea is rather complicated for those of us used to saving our air to complete the line. When analyzed closely, the first five videos I made pretty much only use “ts”, “ks”, “t”, ”k”, “ch”, “f”, ”F”,“K”, “B” and “P” sounds, and not too many inhaled sounds. Mostly, just “ts, “K”, and “B” are used.
So where to start adding beatbox techniques to one’s playing? Well, that of course is up to each individual, and depends on how interested you are in making arrangements of other tunes. Certainly you can beatbox your scales, but really the art lies in finding cool tunes and bits that people recognize, and blending them with a beat. I suggest starting with a basic back beat, “K” and adding it to any tune you have memorized. For instance, Mary Had A Little Lamb. Can you play the tune while keeping a back beat on beats 2 and 4? Can you keep the illusion of the flute and beat separate? This is a great place to start! All sorts of simple tunes will work, and, most hip hop beats are actually really simple tunes; can you mimic the beats you hear around you on the radio? Can you find what key the song is in? Can you keep the beats happening at the same time as the melody?
This is the world of Beatbox Flute in its present state. It is really a wide open genre for people to write for and excel at this sound. What lies in the future? Beatboxing on the flute has taken over a decade to bring to its current form, and I work on it everyday for as many hours as I can spare. Each sound gets its own practice time. Each sound is forever being tweaked, and added to the flute. I experiment with new sounds and limitations everyday. The voice will soon be added to this mix, so that flute, beatbox, and voice will have three part counterpoint at the same time. And the possibilities are endless. Who and what is next? As such a new extension of flute style, where will it go? Who will lead the next charge? Who will write the concertos and etudes that propel this style throughout the next century?
Myself, I still to this day play in the streets – here in New York City, the action is in the subways. I use the experiences down under ground to build new tunes, find new audiences, and search for the perfect arrangements of older and new tunes. I want the flute to be in the popular vernacular of the people, I want kids growing up trying to make the flute cool and fun, and want to have a great time doing it.
And hey, you should too! Make some videos! Why haven’t you yet? Share them with your friends! Take criticism through performances and videos, and have it make you stronger and wiser. Perform everywhere and anywhere you can get away with. The flute is the oldest and easily the most versatile instrument on the planet, USE IT! Share it. Write music for it. Arrange music for it. Play other music that people didn’t even expect to hear on the flute. Investigate our rich musical heritage and traditions as flutists, and then surprise and delight yourself by forging ahead And most of all, have fun...