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Sitka campers sound it out with beatboxing

Posted: June 30, 2014 - 12:03am

SITKA — Kids taking the beatbox class at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp say you can start building your skills in this art form with “boots and cats.”

Those are the first words they learned when they signed up for Austin Willacy’s course at the middle school camp.

Beatboxing and vocal percussion are two related ways of making drum-like sounds with your mouth. It’s not as easy as it looks, and the students are spending a lot of time on fundamentals, Willacy said.

“What’s challenging for them is you have to rewire your mind,” said the Berkeley, Calif.-based musician, now in his second year teaching at camp. “It’s an opportunity for people to pick apart the little hurdles they have between the way they normally speak and beatboxing. In a way, beatboxing is its own language - that if you want to do, you have to practice every day.”

At a Tuesday morning rehearsal the kids told a visitor they would open their Thursday performance with their “boots and cats” demonstration, and explained how you have to remove vowels to get the right sound.

Willacy said that while beatboxing is certainly fun, he also takes the artform seriously and wants the kids to learn correct technique. Students have to train their mouths to make the right sounds.

“You need to slow it down so you can do everything clearly and distinctly,” he said. “The rewiring has to happen. Once it does, you can speed it up. You have to give the muscles in your mouth a chance to make the sounds properly.”

Jonah McClenahan, 13, is in his second year of camp, and first year of beatboxing.

“I wanted to learn how to make percussion noises with my mouth,” said Jonah, who’s going into eighth grade at Blatchley Middle School. “For each drum you can make a noise in your mouth.”

So far he has kick drum and high hat in his repertoire of sounds. He’s also taking animation, mime, sonic boom and rock band, where he’s one of the singers. He said he has been enjoying beatboxing, and hopes it grows in popularity at future camps.

Born and raised in Sitka, Jonah said he looks forward to Fine Arts Camp. “I love how it’s like school, only you get to choose your classes. I love how it’s based on music and art.”

Selma Houck, 14, from Juneau, also loves arts camp.

“I really enjoy being around my friends who are artistic,” she said. “I always learn so much.”

This is her second year of taking beatboxing, and she wants to build on the skills she picked up last year.

“I’ve always really admired beatboxers, and their ability to make music and rhythms without music,” she said.

She learned a lot last year, she said.

“It was really eye-opening to me to learn how much I didn’t know about rhythm and how many sounds you can make with your mouth,” said Selma, who goes by the name FySH at camp. “You don’t make many inhale sounds, breathing in and making noises. ... We learned so much and we had a lot of fun so I wanted to do it again.”

Luke Matthews, 12, came to camp for the first time this year from Mount Pleasant, S.C., after his Sitka friends, Scott and Cleo Brylinsky encouraged him to try it out.

Beatboxing was a good choice for him, he said, because he’s a drummer, and is interested in adding to his skill set. He’s already familiar with the skill from watching movies and You Tube, he said. He’s also taking camp courses on percussion, rock band (two sections), writing and surrealism.

Willacy said beatboxing is something that can be learned, and also needs to be practiced.

Who should take the course? “Honestly I think it’s an opportunity for people who have an interest in using their mouths for a cappella and for rhythm, and because they think it’s cool,” Willacy said. “It’s a perfect opportunity for people who have a passion for making strange noises to channel or to harness them, and use them for the forces of good.”

That’s what the beatboxing class is about, getting performers on the right track by learning the fundamentals.

Willacy was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio. He played a few instruments and “quit everything in 9th grade,” only to join the choir his final year of high school. He said the choir itself was not a particularly inspiring experience, but the shortage of boys resulted in more opportunities and his placement in a barbershop octet.

“It was excellent,” he said of his experience in the octet, Vive L’Amour. “It was magical, the experience of having the parts and fitting it together. It was magical and joyous.”

During his years at Dartmouth College he sang with the men’s a cappella group the Dartmouth Aires. He had initially turned down offers to join rock bands because, he said, “I was afraid of singing in a mic.”

But soon after, he joined his girlfriend’s band for a year, and soon after started writing music with his own band that featured three-part vocal harmony, hand percussion and guitar.

After graduation, Willacy moved to San Francisco, where he now has a “portfolio lifestyle” career. That includes his work with the a cappella group House Jacks, his solo career, his work as a mentor artist for Youth in Arts with a teen a cappella group ‘Til Dawn, and running a production studio.

Willacy also has an interesting section of his resume in “sound-alike vocals,” where he is asked to sing for music-based video games such as Karaoke Revolution, Guitar Hero and Just Dance Kids for various video systems. For this he has to sing in the style of such famous performers as Michael Jackson, Jay-Z, and Billy Joel.

His career is diverse, but Willacy likes it that way.

“It’s good for me as a musician to do many different things,” Willacy said.

Willacy first heard about the Sitka Fine Arts Camp from Marco d’Ambrosio, a veteran camp teacher who also lives in California. “He told me how inspired he was,” Willacy said. “He said ‘You should talk to Roger (Schmidt, SFAC director) and go up there.’”

He said he has enjoyed the experience his last two years.

“The environment, the staff, the faculty and the students are really engaged, and open, which makes it a really sweet place to be, in a place where there’s a lot of possibility.”

___

Information from: Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, http://www.sitkasentinel.com/

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