Arts Beat

Beatboxers Hone Their Vocal Tools

Dave Baumgartner teaches students how to beat box in a class in North Bethesda, Md. Video by Rachel Beckman/The Washington Post, edited by James Hale/
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008

The wood-paneled music room in the Mansion at Strathmore pulsates with the sound of "boom chk buh-buh boom boom chk," as a dozen young men sit in a semicircle learning how to be beatboxers -- or "vocal percussionists," if you will.

The students break only to gulp water, dry mouth being the enemy of a good beatbox jam session.

They are here to learn from Dave Baumgartner, the master of the master class in North Bethesda. Baumgartner, 26 and a professional beatboxer for eight years, can mimic the sound of a bass drum, a high-hat and a snare drum. He can do a drumroll. He can make cymbals crash. He can create the sleigh bells at the beginning of "Jingle Bells," something so difficult that at one point he had decided it was impossible and quit trying to master the sound.

During the advanced segment of the three-hour workshop, Baumgartner's instructions stopped sounding like English: "All you need is uh, uh, uh, uh, cymbal, cymbal, crash, crash." Right.

Beatboxing feels like a throwback to '80s hip-hop: Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie are considered the founders of the art form. It is linked with a cappella, which is often the butt of jokes. One of the most prominent a cappella singers right now is the fictional character Andy Bernard on the NBC comedy "The Office." Andy (played by Ed Helms) is an obnoxious Cornell University alum with a habit of breaking into song.

Baumgartner -- wearing a suit jacket and torn jeans, with a piercing through his right eyebrow and five silver hoops in his ears -- is no Andy Bernard.

The class starts with the fundamentals of how to make the different drum sounds and then deconstructs the rhythms behind songs by the Beatles, Alicia Keys and Duffy, getting the students to beatbox to the music.

Kevin Barrett, 38, came to the Strathmore workshop to improve the sound of his snare-drum sound and to get more comfortable beatboxing into a microphone. He's the vocal percussionist for the A Cappella Showcase Chorus in Frederick and has been beatboxing for a year and a half.

"The hardest part is the whole 'less is more' thing," Barrett says. "I'm a showoff. I'm always trying to do more than I should."

The first time Baumgartner, the son of a music teacher, heard a cappella music was during his sophomore year of high school in the Buffalo suburbs, when he sent away for a Rockapella CD. (Rockapella sang the theme song for the early-'90s game show "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" and still tours. "A Rockapella Holiday" comes to Strathmore on Dec. 9.)

"I'm reading through the CD booklet, and it said all the sounds on this recording are produced by the human voice," he recalls. "I was like, you've got to be kidding me. I had heard of beatbox before, but didn't know you could take it to this level and actually sound like drums."

A couple of years later, an Atlanta band called Vocal Tonic recruited him -- and Baumgartner passed up college to be a musician. He now plays about 250 shows a year with the Raleigh, N.C.-based Almost Recess, an a cappella group with a primary audience of schoolchildren. On its latest album, the group performs pop hits by Daughtry, Carrie Underwood and John Mayer.

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