Beatboxing with Greg Pattillo

Victoria Jicha | September 2009

     For the uninitiated, beatboxing is the art of vocal percussion and is mostly associated with hiphop. Often erroneously lumped with rap, beatboxing is an art form of its own. Upon hearing Pattillo’s video, you may be struck with the similarity to the sounds flutists refer to as extended techniques. Pattillo says his beatboxing style is “a synthesis of many things that I have heard. It is extended techniques applied to a different genre. My beatboxing actually grew out of playing bluegrass music in Ohio five years ago, when I was doing a series of K attacks to imitate the sound of muted strings.”
     Pattillo doesn’t come from a musical family, although his Uncle Chris could play boogie-woogie piano that “was the coolest thing you ever heard. He knew some Pink Floyd tunes, but that is about as far as music goes in my family.” He started flute in the Seattle, Washington school music program in the fourth grade. “They gave us a brochure at school to take home. I remember that it had little pictures of all of the instruments, and I wanted to play trumpet or violin. My mom didn’t want to listen to them because it takes too long to learn to play them well, so we agreed that flute or clarinet would be a wise choice. Two of my buddies were playing flute, and it was shiny and looked cool. I picked the flute and was really into it.
     “Initially, I was unaware that some people might see the instrument as a less than masculine instrument. I did have a big problem later on when I had to explain to my soccer team that I was going to miss the game because I had to go to symphony practice. There was a point at which I didn’t want to take band anymore, because flute for guys was weird. I wanted to take photography instead, but Mom just put her foot down and said, ‘You are going to play music.’ I’m glad she did. She says she didn’t have to nag me too much about practicing – that I just did it. I don’t remember it that way.”

Flute Lessons
     “I took private lessons with a woman named Linda, whose last name I can’t remember, because I wasn’t learning fast enough in school. I had a good ear and was very adept at picking out commercials on television. Anything I heard I could play on flute.” The lessons were traditional flute lessons, and Pattillo competed in all the local music competitions.
     “I was lucky enough to join the high school jazz band and learned to play chord changes on flute, even though I didn’t double. The director gave me lots of solos because I could rip on the flute. I did very well with that.” He won jazz solo awards every year, eventually winning an award to play Take the A Train with Dave Brubeck. In the seventh grade, Pattillo joined the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra and four years later made the finals of the 1995 National Flute Association High School Solo Competition at the Orlando convention.
     For college he attended the Cleveland Institute of Music. “Very few students there were playing nonclassical music, which was a total surprise to me. There is no jazz taught there at all, not even in an extracurricular way. I quickly became friends with those students who did play jazz or some form of nonclassical music, and we played together as often as possible. I spent the first two years rather torn between traditional and non-classical music.
     “I studied with Joshua Smith, the principal in the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. In the second semester of sophomore year, he gave me an A minus. When I asked what was up with that, he said he wasn’t sure if I was truly committed to classical music. I thought about that comment all summer. When I came back for junior year, I disbanded the band I was playing in and switched over to classical completely.
     “However, once out of school and looking for work, there are only so many times you can take auditions and try to keep your head above water. I was surrounded by classical musicians who had jobs. That can be really frustrating, when you don’t have one. I taught a lot of students and played in all sorts of bands – salsa, bluegrass, Brazilian, and hip hop groups. Bluegrass music really got me into breathy playing and super breathing. I realized it wasn’t that far removed from beatboxing. I just needed a couple more tricks, such as a bass drum kick, which is an explosive B or P sound.
     “I set out to refine the sounds I was making. Then I sold everything I owned and bought a one-way ticket to the San Francisco Bay area to see what would happen. Out there I learned that flute and music were integral to who I was. I worked with a bunch of street performers – poets, singers, and comedians. I backed up poetry and free-stylers who improvise rap and realized that, with a little more effort, I could accompany them with a beat – not just lyrical stuff. While in San Francisco, all I did was work at Trader Joe’s and play my flute, and the flute playing was never for money. I couldn’t find music work at all, either teaching or playing. My college degree meant nothing. No one cared whether I had a degree or not, because flute players were a dime a dozen.”

     After two years on the West Coast, Pattillo moved to New York. “My fiancée got into law school there, so it made sense to relocate. By the time I arrived, I could play any melody with beats. The big watershed piece for me was Super Mario Brothers. I put the videos on YouTube as an electronic business card or press kit. My experience up to that point had been that when I told presenters that I beatbox on the flute, the statement went right over their heads, as if I were talking about particle physics or something. The videos let people type my name on a computer to see what I do.
     “What a surprise! People liked the videos. YouTube actually chose one for their home page and ran it for a week or so, producing over a million hits in that short time. The entire experience has been surreal. I had been beatboxing on the flute for a long time, but when I put a video on the internet, all of a sudden people thought it was important and interesting. It has completely changed my life.”
     I asked Pattillo if he is happy with the change, and he answered quickly with a laugh. “Absolutely. Have you ever worked in a grocery store? It is a hard-labor job, and I did it in New York as well as in San Francisco. They scheduled me to work for nine hours, with an hour off for lunch. When you figure that it took an hour to get there and an hour to get home, I was working an 11-hour day. With that kind of schedule I wasn’t going to blow two hours of long tones and scales before work. My solution was to take the flute to work and play in the subways during lunch break. I quickly discovered that I could make almost the same amount of money in less than an hour in the subway as I could make in nine hours in the grocery store.”
     He gets different reactions from people when performing on the street or in a subway. “Kids don’t really notice you when you play classical music. I’ve played classical music in the subway for an hour and only made $2. When I play a popular melody that someone recognizes and do it with a beat, the reaction is completely different. Once a 13-year old boy, perhaps the hardest person on the planet to impress with the flute, watched me and asked questions about what I was doing. His intense interest made me even more enthusiastic about beatboxing.”
     He has been asked to teach others how to beatbox. “I’m working on a method and have figured out how to notate the beatboxing sounds. However, when I started to put the method together, I based it on the traditional classical approach and thought it would be similar to traditional pedagogy. It is actually very different with beatboxing. I talked to a bunch of beatboxers and they all said the way to learn beatboxing is to just do it all the time. Everyone’s mouth is a little different, so each beatboxer makes the sounds a little differently, although there are some core sounds.
     “Now that I have figured out how to notate it, I am trying to show other people how to do it. Unfortunately, most of those who come for lessons are adults who learn differently than kids. Adults are quick to understand the concept and slow to put it to work. The first lesson is always interesting, but when they come back a second time, and they haven’t practiced, there is only so much time I can spend explaining how to go BUH.”

Teaching Dalcroze
     Pattillo was introduced to the Dalcroze method at C.I.M and has spent the past two years in a certification program. “In New York it was difficult to find flute work. Few people were knocking on my door wanting to learn the Bach B Minor. However, people are very curious about music in general. I love education and working with kids and had enjoyed Dalcroze at C.I.M. I spent last year teaching a class of four-year-olds using drums, xylophones, dancing, pitch concepts, solfege, and fixed and moveable Do.”
     “The fundamental concept of Dalcroze is learning musical concepts through movement. When you create a rhythm with your hands and put it in your feet on command, the movement goes beyond the thinking brain. You end up not thinking; you just become the rhythm.
     “C.I.M. is one of the few remaining conservatories that requires students to take Dalcroze classes. I had seven semesters with David Brown, and they made a big impression on me as a musician. When I left school, I realized how much I had taken Dalcroze for granted when I met and played with musicians who didn’t internalize rhythm. It was very frustrating to play with them.
     “At C.I.M. Dalcroze doesn’t deal with pitch or dynamics – only rhythmic dictation and cross rhythms. For example, we would do an exercise called the Cosmic Whole Note. The teacher set the metronome on six or seven beats per minute, which creates a good 10 seconds of silence between notes. While the class stood in a circle, Brown would designate the starting person, and we would take turns clapping with the metronome. Everyone counted in their heads and subdivided to try to place the next whole note in the correct place. We also did two against three, three against four, etc. one pulse in the hands and the other in the feet. Then we switched the hands and feet on his command.
     “I always wanted the Dalcroze class to leave a magical impression on me for the rest of the day, as if I could take away burning insights from it, but Brown didn’t sum it up for us. He just left it to us to interpret. I would realize later in the day that I was breathing three against the two that my feet were walking as I went up the stairs. It just happened. There is no doubt, that what I do on the flute now was made possible by the Dalcroze training I had. It was just rhythm all the time.”
      I asked Pattillo if coming to beatboxing from the disciplined background of traditional study has given him an edge. “What I do is different from what other beatboxers do. Most beatboxers use a microphone, and they are not just imitating a drum set. They create a kind of sound that changes styles and drum sounds, whether they are mimicking acoustic or electronic drum sets. They use drum and bass, hip hop, and rock concepts; or all of a sudden they start to sound like a robot. When you watch beatboxers by themselves as they entertain a crowd, they go through five different musical styles that they are mimicking or embellishing upon.
     “I am different because I use a flute. I tweak or play songs that people know. People call out requests or a kid walks by looking like a clown, and I improvise some clown music. The skills that I learned in school help with playing in tune, putting the beats and rhythms together, and staying disciplined. I don’t have to think about the music or the beats. I just have to make sure that it all fits together and that I have time to breathe.
     “At the same time all of my traditional learning has stumped me because at first I kept looking for rules about beatboxing instead of just doing and living it. A nice thing about playing music by ear is that it is easy to play with other people. There are tons of flute duets, but how often do you actually go to your buddy’s house and play duets? My friends and I play music all the time. We just play whatever is in our heads. We improvise, play jazz charts, and arrange tunes that other people have written.

Circular Breathing
     “I can do it but find almost no practical application for it even in Classical music. Even long classical phrases are possible with good breath control. Circular breathing is unnecessary. Now, someone who uses circular breathing might have a bone to pick with me for saying that, but I breathe, and I like to phrase. I think breathing and phrasing go hand in hand.
     “If I were to play the Bach A-Minor Partita with no breaths, using circular breathing, after a while, I would end up creating phrases anyway. It is just natural to breathe. I think it is fun to breathe in weird places because you find yourself phrasing in places you never initially expected. In beatboxing the se-cret is to stay relaxed, resonate, and breathe often. It is not about being tight and forcing the sound. You can make many useful noises by breathing in as well as breath-ing out over the embouchure hole. I get a lot of breathy noise in my throat when I inhale, and I use that. I use my vocal cords as a second layer of support. I push from down low and from the vo-cal cords. I get a different sound and can play longer.
     “When beatboxing, singing while playing is more like the tuneless humming that Glenn Gould did on his recordings. I use my voice like a guitarist uses a distortion pedal. It is just a way to get another type of sound. You can play a note clean, or dirty, or you can play it with the fingering from an octave below to create a hollow sound. These all make different colors.
      “I hear from a lot of students who have seen the YouTube videos, and I really try to write them back. They usually want to know how to beatbox on the flute. My explanation is that there are many facets to flute playing besides beatboxing, such as intonation and sound in the third octave, and I would like to help them with those.
     “Years from now there will be a generation of people who grew up with this sound in their head; it won’t be new anymore. There will be a method, literature, and people using these idioms and articulations in art and popular music.”