Articulation · Better Speech and Hearing Month · Interview · Lesson Plans · Strategies · The Human Connection

Thinking Inside the Beatbox: A Conversation with Kaila Mullady and Mark Martin

Hi everyone! I am so excited to share today’s conversation with you. I am always looking for ways to make speech therapy more fun for my students, and there’s no better time than during Better Speech and Hearing Month. As a speech pathologist working in special programs and with students from preschool to teens, I’ve always found it a challenge to make articulation therapy fun. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played Go Fish, Memory, or brought out flashcards and thought, “This is just as uninteresting for the kids as it is for me.” Enter The Academy of Noise, a program created and run by Kaila Mullady and Mark Martin. Their program works on articulation and social interaction through beatboxing. The second I first heard about this, I knew I had to learn more—how could I incorporate this into speech lessons? What could this do for digital learning? How much more engaged would my students be through this method of instruction? We had so much fun during this conversation that it quickly evolved into a collaborative learning experience for all parties involved. Let’s jump in!
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Stef: How did you guys become interested in speech therapy in connection with beatboxing?

Mark: My mom was a speech therapist and worked in special education. She worked with students with developmental needs, students who were learning how to read, and she would bring home whatever she was working on. As a kid, I got to see what she was doing with her students and she was definitely an influence in how I got interested in how we produce sounds. I’ve always been interested in how we get people to connect to their instrument, their voice, how we project sound, and I remember thinking some of the techniques I saw her use as a kid were boring. I could tell that, by nature of how her instruction was structured, there was a lack of rhythm in what she was teaching. But it becomes so much more interesting if you set it to rhythm. It suddenly becomes more exciting when you add rhythm. I think of how much I liked the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom as a kid, and it was because it had a rhythm to it to keep me engaged. I was a musical kid and definitely a noise-maker, and this rhythm aspect made it magical for me.

Kaila: I come from a really big Irish family, and became the babysitter for everyone. I have a cousin who used to be nonverbal, until he was about seven, and he experienced apraxia of speech. The speech therapist would come by after school and my cousin would just shut down. What kid wants to do more school after just finishing a full day of school, especially when his siblings didn’t have to do this? I realized he loved beatboxing, and I realized that if the speech therapist held up a flashcard and asked him to say “caterpillar,” it could become more interesting if I took the words on the flashcards and presented it as beatboxing. We would make beatboxing beats out of whatever cards the speech therapist held up. So we realized, he wasn’t going to sit and do flashcards, but if I presented the speech sounds he needed to work on as an instrument through beatboxing, he’d practice, because he was beatboxing around the house all day anyway. It’s like sneaking vegetables into a fruit smoothie—they don’t know we’re here to work on speech when we see kids, they think it’s a field trip.

S: Yeah, speech therapy can be boring, until it isn’t. It doesn’t feel like speech practice if you’re beatboxing. You guys have worked with a bunch of different schools and populations, can you share some of your experiences?

K: Once, we went into a school and worked with a group of kids and there was one student who was very quiet, hiding behind the teacher. He was participating with us, and  by the time we left and the teacher told us he had a hard time finding a way into activities and participating, and this was the first time they’d seen him join in. We’re not trying to say this is the fix for speech therapy, we’re not trying to say don’t do speech therapy—not at all—we just want to help give speech therapists another tool to engage their students. And if they get hooked on beatboxing, the kids have access to so much. There are videos online and it’s something they can practice on their own. And you already have the equipment. There’s no instrument to buy, and no limit on what they can do with their own instrument.

S: I was listening to your interview on SiriusXM with American Voices and I heard you talk about the /p/, /t/, and /k/ as the drum kit sounds as the first thing you learn in beatboxing. My speech-oriented brain immediately connected those sounds to measuring articulation skills as an oral-motor exercise to determine the articulation and breath support and control of a patient who may have recently experienced some sort of brain injury or stroke. I love how this connects to my line of work.

Kaila: Me too. It’s one of the things that brought Mark and I together. We’re both beatboxers and we had the same mentor, but we really bonded over the storytelling and musical piece of beatboxing and its connection to education. We took beat rhyming, which is when you talk and beatbox together alternating between the beat and the talking. When I heard it, I wanted to take the consonants in the words, thinking of what I did with my cousin, and over-articulate the consonants. This made the beat and the speaking simultaneous. For a while we worked with an art organization to do beatboxing as music therapy. We worked with a school that supported students with a variety of needs. This transitioned from being traditional music therapy to adding beat rhyming, to adding the emotional intelligence side of communication. What does it sound like when you’re mad? What does your voice sound like when you’re excited? And through this, Mark and I got to introduce the speech therapy related aspect to kids. At that point, Mark and I created a curriculum that was specifically for students who were blind or handicapped.  Now we’ve started The Academy of Noise where we have a vocal health professional, Christine Schneider. She’s amazing.

M: Top of the world in terms of anything dealing with the voice. She works with people on Broadway, vocal professionals, she’s incredible, I highly recommend her.

K: She is incredible. And then there’s Tom Burke, he’s an SLP we’re working with. Right now, he’s focusing on vocal coaching and public speaking.  And now that we have created our own organization, we have people who want to work with us and have seen what we’ve done. In the beginning, we had a hard time getting anyone interested in us doing research. We went to so many universities around NYC and the northeast and we had a lot of doors close on opportunities for us because of the word “beatboxing.” I did an experiment where I changed the wording to include “vocal percussion,” and we got farther with that. Through that, we met a woman through NYU’s Music Experience Design Lab who was willing to study our beatboxing and curriculum to create tactile instruments that students who are blind could use in the classroom. Now we’re trying to work with NYU to work on the beatboxing and speech therapy side of it. Something we just did was go to the Langone Vocal Center and some of the best beatboxers had endoscopies done to see what is happening when we’re beatboxing.

S: What was that like? I saw that on your social media!

M: For me it was insane. The most exciting part was doing something and the doctors saying “We’ve never seen the voice do this before.” For us, it’s exciting to see we’re pushing the bounds of what the human body can do. We can rethink what is possible with the voice.

K: We were supposed to get MRIs done around St. Patrick’s Day to see what happens in the brain when you talk versus when beatboxing or beat rhyming. Do the same areas in the brain respond to these tasks? We’re in a really exciting time because we have people who believe in what we’re doing. We definitely want to talk to more speech therapists about what we could make that would help you. We know beatboxing is fun, but what do you need from us for this to be effective in speech? How do we make this meaningful? Every kid is working on speech until they’re around 8, in terms of articulation, so why not make it fun and engaging? We’re looking at how to restructure our curriculum to be effective for you and meet your needs so you can meet the kids’ needs.

S: What I’ve seen that I really like is that you have a visual component to your digital lessons for the kids to follow while you’re giving them verbal instruction. Almost every child I work with benefits from the visual component paired with the verbal component to really comprehend directions. When I first heard about this, I had a student in mind that I thought would love beatboxing as a means to address articulation. I’m really interested in how you created your own major of “Beatboxing as a Language.”

M: I went to the Gallitan School at NYU. It’s a school for individualized study.  I originally went to study Music Business and I wound up with an Entertainment Media business minor. I wound up leaving the program in sophomore year because YouTube just became popular and kind of took over this whole area. At the time, I’d become part of the New York City beatboxing community and became interested in beatboxing as communication. I saw beatboxing as a kind of meta-language. I thought I had this moral obligation to share beatboxing as a form of communication with people. This has been an ongoing passion of mine. What if we could really articulate the sound of what we’re trying to do? I took all these diverse classes, poetry, different languages, linguistics, phonetics, some speech-language classes, along with the ethics and implications of how we communicate. So now, it’s about how we take what we have and turn it into what we need. At this moment, that includes delivering all of this over the internet while we’re all at home and doing digital learning.

S: In addition to The Academy of Noise, you guys started out in competitive beatboxing and now you’re producing the championship competition?

M: Yeah, so I started out making noise playing as a kid—laser guns, rocket ships, all of it. I was a musical kid and I would copy what the drummers did. I was always tapping, and getting in trouble for expressing myself through this in school. School is a fairly clinical environment, and the expectation is to sit still and sit quietly.

I didn’t know beatboxing was a thing, I was playing with music. There are two sides to beatboxing—expression and community. The feeling of belonging within the community because you express yourself the same way is amazing. It was a huge part of my learning. I know how empowering it can feel to be around other people willing to make sounds and take risks with you, and that’s why I’m here with Academy of Noise.

K: Mark was one of the first people I met. There is a vulnerability in beatboxing that is specific to what we do. We’re taking risks and making weird faces and strange sounds and I have to be okay with that, and the fact that there’s a community okay with me doing those things was amazing to find. It’s a really loving community. It’s a very positive community, our battles are an excuse to hang out; they’re not meant to be aggressive. The competitions have every age group now, and they want to welcome you and your unique voice and style. When you teach it to kids, they walk away with another skill. Say they have to leave class to go to speech, coming back into the room can feel awkward for them, they feel like they’re different and they missed out on something. Well now, with beatboxing, we’re giving them this superpower and they can come into class with something they can do that the other kids don’t know how to do yet. They get to share that. That’s what gets us up in the morning—we know all ages enjoy it. It’s harder to teach adults to beatbox.

M: I call it the shame barrier. For kids, they make weird sounds all the time and at some point, we get told to use our words. That’s so ingrained in us as adults that we don’t want to be vulnerable with our voices anymore and take those risks, because at some point, we were told not to. We work with everyone and have students of all ages. Seeing it cut to this level of freedom that these people can access through vulnerability is so powerful.

S: Is there a sound in beatboxing that’s harder to teach than others?

M: Yes. People are inventing new sounds all the time. People make the sounds more challenging, changing the production and complexity of the sound. People take outward sounds and make them inward sounds or combine them together. Every sound takes a different amount of time to learn.

K: I look at sounds that took me forever to learn and I’m seeing teenagers pick it up in a month. It’s like language acquisition, it’s easier when you’re younger. Beatboxing is a language through replication, rhythm, and timing.

M: And it’s dependent on your body. Your instrument is different from everyone else’s. Some sounds can take you moments and some can take you years. There are different styles of beatboxing so it depends on the focus of the person.

K: And bringing it back to speech, the kids get so many repetitions of a speech sound when they’re beatboxing.

S: What’s been really cool to watch while we’ve been talking is how you’re using your voices to make sounds. It would never have occurred to me to put certain articulators or sounds together to make another sound. I didn’t think vocal structures could do this. Based on how you’re explaining how you find, replicate, or recreate sounds, you guys might be the only other community that understands the articulation aspect of speech productions as well as speech pathologists.

K: That’s interesting, because we’re coming at it from putting articulators in place to make sounds and knowing how that works, and we have prompting strategies for avoiding the more common pitfalls that come with each sound.

S: Every week I challenge my students to get outside of their comfort zone and try something new. What would you have them try to do, other than beatboxing?

K: We have a game called “Show Time.” Everyone gets a minute of show time to do whatever they want in front of the audience of their peers or family. They can talk about their day, sing, dance, beatbox, whatever. The idea is getting them used to building confidence and trying something new in front of people. That person could do nothing for a minute if they wanted to, but no matter what, the audience is loud and supportive of that person’s choice.
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For the first time since distance learning began, Kaila and Mark got me thinking about the different avenues that can be taken to support my students best right now. I think beatboxing as a tool for speech production is brilliant. It really is another language, with its own shared rules and exchanges, which I think could be taken to the social skills areas of language as well. I am really excited about staying in contact with Kaila and Mark and playing with beatboxing in some of my own sessions in the future. You can find out more about what Kaila and Mark are doing by following them on Instagram at @TheAcademyOfNoise or on Twitter @AcademyofNoise. They are also teaching beatboxing to anyone and everyone interested online, and their information can be found on their website. I hope you all enjoyed reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed participating in it. I’m looking forward to hearing about how everyone’s 60 seconds of Show Time goes in comments.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

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