Boom Boom (Vocal Percussion)

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Nancy Cheng is an English major and pre-med junior at Duke University, where she is also a member of the group Out of the Blue. She enjoys shower-singing, hemiolas, and funk. Nancy writes Members Only once a month for The A Cappella Blog.

I was playing Out of the Blue’s version of Just for Now (by Imogen Heap) that’s going to go on our next CD for my music teacher the other day, and we got to talking about a cappella in general, and how he really isn’t a huge fan of it. I asked him why: was it the syllables, the sometimes silly blocking, the weird arch to which most groups default? Nope. The one thing that made him completely unable to stand a cappella was the percussion.

His main criticisms were that people tried to make sounds that didn’t fit the songs, or that all they did was make weird sounds that rang hollow, without any conviction behind it. So, maybe my music teacher is the odd one out of the bunch of casual a cappella listeners, but I think he has a few good points, especially if you’re new to making mouth sounds, or as Wes Carroll puts it, mouthdrumming.

One of the problems facing new vocal percussionists (or beatboxers, whichever moniker you prefer) is building up your repertoire of sounds so that when you need to make a good snare or bass kick, you don’t have to worry about the mechanics of actually getting the sound out. Although professional beatboxers can dazzle crowds by wickedly spittin’ lickety splickety, I can tell you from experience that you don’t need a wide range of sounds to get a good groove going.

There are three basic sounds: the bass kick, the snare, and the high hat. Of course there are many more, but getting these three down and playing with the combination will enable you to percuss nearly any song your group might choose to perform, from rock to pop to whatever. You can start looking up “how to” websites (like to learn more.

Ultimately, though, you should consider that there are more ways than one to make a sound: I once came across a guy who did a lip snare INWARDS (sheer madness), and the percussionist of Naturally7 also makes his snare by inhaling (though his forces air past his inner throat as opposed to his mouth).

In one song, you might be expected to do a snare dozens (maybe hundreds) of times. They get very tiring, and you have a responsibility as the percussionist to maintain a steady beat. Once you get the kind of sound you want, prepare to practice it to a metronome. Personally, I think the shower is one of the best places to practice, even if you can’t take your metronome with you: there’s crazy good echo *and* the shower keeps your lips wet so the sounds are easier to make. Speaking of, don’t forget to bring water and stay hydrated when you perform: licking your lips not only helps you maintain a consistent sound, but it makes you look sexy too!

I know that’s a lot of information, but basically get your sounds, experiment with them, PRACTICE, and make sure you drink enough water.

People who are new to actually doing VP (as opposed to listening to it) won’t have much experience (especially females, since unlike males, we probably weren’t encouraged to make rata-tat noises while growing up). Don’t let this discourage you. Keep practicing, and you’ll get it in no time!