As a speech pathologist, I am very fortunate to work with a vast array of students, all of whom have unique abilities that set them apart from the rest of the student body. Because of this, I also get to help them achieve their goals both within and outside the realm of speech. A large portion of my caseload are students working on their articulation skills, be they fluency, oral-motor function, or speech sound production. Because these goals can take some time to accomplish, I am always looking for ways to motivate my students and keep them engaged. One of the tools I’ve used in my speech room is beatboxing—no I don’t personally beatbox, but I do use videos to show my students all that they are capable of. It occurred to me during planning that I always go back to what’s age and grade appropriate, that I was going back to Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan’s work, especially from hos work with The Electric Company and his live shows for kids. While I was getting ready for this academic year to begin, I thought it would be fun to talk to someone who came from the world of beatboxing, and Shockwave was generous enough to speak with me about his experience as a beatboxer, what the culture is about, and how he incorporated it into educational programming with the reboot of The Electric Company.
S: Beatboxing seems like a solo act, but you’ve done it with other performers. How do you take something so individualized and make it into a collaborative effort?
S: There’s a solo element to beatboxing, and there’s a collaborative element. I’ve performed with both soloist beatboxers and musicians who are beatboxers. Keep in mind, beatboxing has its roots in hip-hop, and there’s a sense of competition in that that’s just inherent, and that can lend itself to beatboxing. If you’re performing with someone who’s more of a soloist, it can be more challenging because they could choose to zero in on skills they know are impressive. I’d like to consider myself more of a musician in terms of coming up with my own material. My goal is to find the fit somewhere in between being the soloist and being the musician. There are thousands of videos online where I could learn how to do sounds, but I would rather improvise and create something that feels natural to me than learn that way. I’m more interested in telling a story and the theatrics of beatboxing. To me, that’s more exciting.
S: In order to do what you do, you really have to think outside the box. How do you come up with new sounds to add to your repertoire?
S: Truthfully, a lot of it is from improvisation. My first real job as a beatboxer was as a house band for a variety show for performers and comedians, so I did the music for their entrance and exit. Every show I got a chance to perform, and that was based on a word from the audience. Say the word was snowstorm. I’d get up there and act out what it would look like and sound like if I were going through a snowstorm from walking outside to opening the door to coming inside and warm up. So it really is storytelling. The sound I’d make for the door opening would come from the back of the throat, and other sounds come from here as well, like a baby crying, and some of this I didn’t realize until I was improvising on the spot.
S: For the majority of my students working on speech sound production R is the most difficult to produce because it’s not visible like /p/ or /b/. Is there a sound that’s difficult for you in beatboxing?
S: I always thought /th/ was the hardest sound.
S: Really? Harder than vowel sounds? I teach that one as if you’re biting your tongue, but that’s probably too over-exaggerated to perform. Are vowels or consonants more difficult?
S: Well, in beatboxing it’s different. There are sounds I hear other people make, for example really deep bass sounds, that don’t feel like they fit with my personal style. What I like to do are more drum-like sounds, keeping a rhythm, knowing when to become quieter or just a sound that’s crazy. To me, that can be a distraction and takes you out of the performance, especially because I like to accompany others rather than be that soloist. I’d rather keep the focus on whoever I’m working with; that’s just my style. I like to save the sound effects for storytelling elements.
S: Do you have any tips for maintaining speed and rhythm and staying intelligible. This is something a lot of my kids are working on.
S: The Electric Company is a wonderful thing. We made a bunch of lessons on everything you could think of, including how-to’s and explanations. There is a skit out there themed around taking your time, and it’s not really any different when you’re speaking or beatboxing. This video was actually for reading comprehension purposes with a focus on breaking the reading wall where learning to read turns into reading to learn. It explains that it is not only acceptable but necessary to slow down and take your time.
S: We say that all day, every day in school.
S: Another thing they can do is break the words into chunks. Break the words into chunks and then put them together chunk by chunk until it sounds like a word, and then the kid will never forget the word.
S: What about getting frustrated?
S: My first instinct would be to take a break so you don’t have a negative outlook on the task. Go do something you know you can do, and come back to it with a fresh take. And this is for anything, really.
S: Yeah, my go-to is usually going back to a sound the student has mastered to build confidence back up, and come back later or maybe even in a future session. Do you ever get frustrated when you’re trying to add something new to your skill set?
S: When I was practicing music, I’d have moments of frustration. Honestly, I’m not practicing beatboxing an hour a day anymore. I really like for it to be natural, and I guess with that there are fewer opportunities for frustration. I could go online and learn from other people, but I like this part of my talent to remain as pure as it can. I work with what I have and prefer to discover that in my own way.
S: To completely shift gears on you, like everyone else I am a big fan of Hamilton. What was it like for you to record your part of “An Open Letter” for The Hamilton Mixtape?
S: I got a demo version of the song, and it was just lyrics. It was what Watsky recorded as a raw data file. Figuring out what the beat should be for that track took some time. It then occurred to me to contact Bill Sherman, who is the Musical Director for Sesame Street, and worked on In The Heights and I worked with him on The Electric Company and we figured it out together. I started with a sample that became more complicated as the song went on, and it only got better by working with Bill and getting his input.
S: I love that you weren’t afraid to ask someone else’s opinion. That doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
S: Yeah, that’s important.
S: I challenge my students and readers every week to get outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?
S: I’d challenge the students to think of their own character or alter-ego who also is working on what they’re working on. This way they accept the character, accept their challenges, and identify the steps the character takes to work on that skill. So, if it’s R, they accept that it’s okay not to get it right all the time, and they set their own goals as to how the student can work towards making it their superpower. It shows them it’s okay not to figure the skill out immediately, they just need to be determined. They can draw the character, write their story, and really get invested in the character they’ve created. And if these kids are friends with each other, maybe they can find ways to intertwine the story, so they interact and help each other. This way it becomes more lighthearted and engaging.
I hope you all got as much as I did out of this conversation. Coming from the speech world, I thought this would be a conversation that focused on articulation and the mechanics of beatboxing. I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Shockwave’s approach to the medium, and using it in comedy and storytelling. Our conversation gave me some exciting ideas for lessons for all of my students, and I cannot wait to watch my students embody the alter-egos they’ll create with this challenge. It gives my kids a sense of ownership over their skills and their goals, and provides a visual component to assist them as they continue their work in speech, in the classroom, and in the community. I’m taking it on myself for some of my professional growth goals. I linked through the videos we mentioned throughout the article–do yourself a favor and go check them out. To learn more about Shockwave and his work, please visit his website at www.shockwavebeatbox.com.
Keep playing with words (and sounds) and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP