This is a full transcript of What happens when the beat drops? as first broadcast on 2 November and presented by Niamh Hughes.
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NIAMH - What you're listening to now is the sound of award winning composer, artist and beatboxer, Reeps One. Welcome back to BBC Ouch. I'm Niamh Hughes, and this week we're looking at how a school in the Bronx, New York City, turned a music class for young disabled people into a beatboxing programme called Beat Rockers, that not only encourages self-expression, but has been used as a form of speech therapy.
We're lucky enough to have James Kim, the Executive Director of BEAT, Bridging Education and Art Together, which runs the Beat Rockers programme. We're also joined by Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Sophie Scott, from University College London, who, in recent years has been working with beatboxers to explore how far we can push the human voice to understand its potential.
But first of all, what is beatboxing?
JAMES - Beatboxing is an art form that you use your mouth, your voice, your lips and your body to make music, often mimicking percussive sounds and musical sounds. You know, some consider it maybe the oldest form of musical self-expression. It gained popularity through the hip-hop circles in the '70s where, let's say young people wanted to rap or they wanted to express themselves and didn't have instruments or access to instruments, so they would just user their mouths, creating music on the fly, creating music with the bodies.
BEAT, it is an acronym for the name of our non profit organisation based here in New York City, Bridging Education and Art Together, and we do programmes for young people here in New York and all over the world. And Beat Rockers is one of programmes, we started nine years ago at the Lavelle School for the Blind, and it's essentially a music and self-expression programme that uses beatboxing as the main tool for creation.
NIAMH - You work closely at the Lavelle School for the Blind in the Bronx in New York City. How did you get there?
JAMES - Well, interestingly enough, I also DJ, and I had a friend who was working at Lavelle at the time, she's an instructor, a teacher there, and she invited me to DJ the school dance. I thought, wow, what a great opportunity. I had met some of her students before individually outside of school.
To give you more context, Lavelle has been there for like a hundred years in the Bronx, they've always catered to young people who are blind and have visual impairments, and currently Lavelle caters to basically young people who are yes, blind, visually impaired, but they also often have multiple disabilities. And I walked into the auditorium, the dance had already started at that point, the young people had sort of commandeered the iPod already, [laughs] so they were playing music that they liked, and in that moment I was just completely blown away.
I was so floored by just being in a gymnasium full of young people who are blind, whatever disabilities they had, and I was like wow, the way that they're sort of listening and interpreting the music, I thought was just so beyond anything that I'd experienced. So raw and true and visceral, and in that moment I was like wow, the power and the impact of music is so incredible, especially with this population of young people.
And I was really inspired and I was really moved in that moment, and I thought to myself, you know, it would be really fantastic if we can maybe get some beatboxers in here and do a performance or a showcase for the young people. I thought it would just be like this really cool audio magic trick, if you will.
And at that point we were like, well rather than giving them like an afternoon of a showcase… I happened to work with some of the best beatboxers at that time and I was like we should teach them how to beatbox, we should actually give them the ability to make the music themselves.
I contacted a friend of mine, his name is Taylor McFerrin, he's an incredible beatboxer, producer, I wrote a quick proposal, spoke to the principal and the superintendent, and we pitched them on the idea and they took a shot with us. So it's nine years ago. It's been such an incredible programme, something that we're really proud of.
NIAMH - But what I'm really interested in at this point, Sophie, I'd like to bring you into the conversation, so you're interested in sort of the mechanics of communication. To scale everything back, what happens when we're speaking in terms of the mechanics? Like what's happening with the vocal chords?
SOPHIE - Well, when humans vocalise we do what most mammals do to make a sound, we use the larynx which is your Adam's apple. And that evolved in nature as a way of keeping things from falling down into your lungs and choking you. So it's a structure that can snap shut and keeps your lungs safe. And what many animals worked out is that if you bring the larynx together, bring the vocal folds together and close it, even in the absence of something sort of threatening the lungs, and then blow air through it you can make a sound.
And what humans have done is they've taken that and they've absolutely run with it. So we have got phenomenal breath control, which means we can continue making sounds over a very long period of time compared to other animals who are making a sound on an exhalation.
And that gives us rhythm and melody in our voices, and then we shape those sounds with what's called the articulators. So we can move our tongues and our lips and our soft palates at the back of the nose, and our jaw, particularly the human tongue which is more like an octopus tentacle than it is any other animal's tongue, and that lets us continuously shape that sound and produce an incredibly rich variety of sounds.
Now, I'd always worked with that in terms of speech and I used to start all my talks by saying, you know, "Human speech is the most complex sound in nature because no other animal can make the sounds that we make." And then I started working with beatboxers and I realised that we're doing almost the bare minimum when we talk to each other, because there's so much more you can do with your voice. And beatboxers are kind of giving us a glimpse of the possibility of where the human voice can go, as an instrument.
NIAMH - What's happening with our brains as we're speaking? So as I'm speaking now.
SOPHIE - Well, as you can imagine, because speaking is a very complicated action, you get a lot of different brain areas recruited. But they tend to be fairly common across people; I could pretty much put anybody in a scanner and get them talking and tell you the brain areas I should see. So you see parts of the brain that are directly involved in controlling how you move, and you also have parts of the brain that are using sensory information to help you guide that.
So your brain's using the sounds that you're making to help guide you to make those sounds, and also you're using the feel of the inside of your mouth to help you do that. And you can see that in the brain. So if you've ever had a dental anaesthesia and you try and talk with a numb mouth it's very hard, for that reason.
And then you also find the cerebellum, which is a part of the brain, that's very important for coordinating complicated movement, that's strongly activated when you talk. And then you get some left lateralised areas which seem to be really involved in actually planning what you're going to say, coordinating the whole dance, if you like, the entire orchestra of neural activity that is actually leading to speech.
NIAMH - So when we're beatboxing we are kind of pushing our vocal ability to the absolute limit?
SOPHIE - Basically you're doing a great deal more when you beatbox. So first of all, one of the things that's such a sort of fixed property of speech, it actually gets taught in first year phonetics, I was taught this, you only can make one sound at a time when you're speaking. So if I make a sound like 'puh', I'm actually making that with my lips. So if I'm going 'ah', that's happening down at my larynx and you can do one of those at a time, that's how we make a sound.
And then I met Harry Yeff, Reeps One, the beatboxer, and we recorded him in the anechoic chamber and realised he was making, simultaneously, up to three sounds at any one time. Together, not quickly after one another, actually at the same time. And he was varying them, varying the pitch of them.
Now, according to traditional phonetics we're not supposed to be able to do that, and it seems that nobody told the beatboxers. It's very early days in terms of brain scanning, but we have shown that, certainly in Harry's brain, when he's beatboxing compared to when he's speaking he's doing a great deal more, and he's really recruiting, for example, the cerebellum in a much stronger degree than he does when he's speaking.
NIAMH - Now, what I'm really interested in, James, when you apply a lot of this to a group of disabled people, when you're really pushing the vocal ability, did you know that this was going on in the brain?
JAMES - No, not necessarily, not from a biological perspective at all, I mean we never really looked at it like that, and never really had to. I mean, we were just, I guess, just in the moment, just really appreciative of the fact that the kids were able to make music. Especially if you're working with this population, I think what's really powerful is that you're actually also making music with your body.
Oftentimes these kids are like, you know, told their whole lives that they can't do this or that because of their disability, and with beatboxing you're literally flipping that whole concept on its head, and you are the instrument, as opposed to learning how to manipulate or play an instrument. I think beatboxing also is really accessible in a sense where you don't really need to know anything about music, you don't need to know anything about octaves or notes or anything like that. And it's also very social.
If you look at some of the kids at Lavelle for example, we have this one student, Christopher, who is blind, he's wheelchair enabled, autistic and nonverbal, meaning that he can make sounds but he can't make words. And he can beatbox, he's actually pretty good. And if you put that in the context of all the other young people doing it you really see them open up.
NIAMH - What struck me is that a couple of the instructors, I think it was Kayler…
JAMES - Kayler, yes.
NIAMH - …said that it was helping the kids kind of engage with their peers in terms of listening, because you've got control of the beat and you're having to listen to the pace and the rhythm. And that could translate well in terms of how they interact with their peers. Have you noticed that?
JAMES - Oh, absolutely. We're doing a lot of research and really examining how we might be able to use to beatboxing as a tool for speech therapy. A lot of the same inherent characteristics of speech and language are shared with beatboxing, I mean, often very down to the building blocks, BTK, 'buh tuh kuh'. When you're talking about speech and you're talking about language it's often having to listen first. When can I jump in? When can I add or when is this person going to stop so I can start?
It's not something that has to be, quote, unquote, 'learned', I feel like it's just intuitive. It also opens up the young people because you're not having to be right or wrong, you can just create and make like super silly sounds if you want to, but if you put that in the context of a bunch of people doing it together in a rhythm then you have this incredible conversation that's happening through music.
SOPHIE - One of the things that I'm very interested in is the fact that one of the things you do as a beatboxer, it's like it takes away all the barriers of entry to music, you just do it yourself, you can just access this.
And one of the very interesting things is that you just have to forget about speech and make noises based on their musicality, or even just like here's a funny noise and what can I do with that? And that's actually incredibly liberating. And if you think back to people coming to speech and language therapy, say adults who've had had strokes and who now speak with difficulty, and speak in a way that's not how they used to speak and it's hard for them to speak, and they know they're producing speech that sounds different, if you could perhaps give them an opportunity.
Say, "Do you know what, forget about that, it doesn't matter that you say a word and it sounds different, let's forget about words altogether and let's make some noise and let's make some music," and let's get some confidence back into making sounds in a world.
Because it's fairly awful to speak and everybody judges you all the time. So just leave all that to one side and do some other things with our voices, because many things contribute to talking, and it's not going to be easy to relearn to speak overnight. And it's possibly impossible to sound the way that you used to, but if nothing else, if you could just feel better and more confident about using your voice out there in the world, anything that we can do to help that I think is going to help people.
NIAMH - James, you talked about how accessible beatboxing is. As you said earlier, beatboxing has roots in hip-hop. Do you think that these sorts of programmes could translate well for maybe an older audience? As Sophie says, for people who've had strokes, perhaps a little older. Like, would this translate well in the Yorkshire Dales here in merry old England? Do you think something like that would work, or is context important?
JAMES - Yes, to answer your question, it would absolutely work, without a doubt. And it's not necessarily about hip-hop or its roots, it's really about self-expression. You just have to put it in the right context, maybe just to a beat, or maybe do it with other people. It's about having fun, and I feel like all those are more human qualities, as opposed to anything related to hip-hop or anything like that. Even let's say somebody with, I don't know, Tourettes or something, we're like, "Oh that was great, can you do that again?"
NIAMH - I've been looking online, just to see if any other medical specialists have come up with this, or have talked about singing or beatboxing as a form of speech therapy, or tried to incorporate it into, you know, as you say a treatment for Tourettes or something. And it's overlooked. Is it even a possibility in the near future, Sophie to bring it into speech therapy in a more mainstream context?
SOPHIE - So we've known for a while that singing definitely helps people who've had strokes and had difficulty speaking as a result of that. So if you [sings] sing your sentence rather than say your sentence it is easier for people to do that. We haven't really had a way of understanding this. It's now becoming clear that actually talking with our voices is just one of the things that we can do when we speak, and if we do things like talk with different accents or in different environments, all these other neural systems kick in and support how you're talking.
And if you sing it is different from speaking. Again, different brain areas. Beatboxing's different again. What it suggests is that you can modify the same thing, the output being use your voice to make a sound. And actually exactly how you make that sound, different brain areas can be recruited. And that might be a really helpful way of getting into therapy, because if you have a complex system and you can drive that complex system via some other root than the root people have learnt to do then that gives you the possibility of different kinds of promoting therapy via these other connections.
JAMES - I was fortunate enough to win a fellowship last year and we did our own little experiment. We are really trying to confirm more of these academic partnerships, and Professor Scott, I'd love to work with you. [laughs]
SOPHIE - Same, same.
JAMES - And really, like, let's really examine this. Oftentimes speech therapy can be not a thing that young people are looking forward to going to. I want to continue to examine it, led by data and led by science. It could be stutters, it could be apraxia, it could be autism, and I do feel like we'd love to continue to take a deeper examination and really answer the questions. Like, can it be a good tool for speech therapy, and if it is, for who?
NIAMH - I'm assuming I'm the only disabled person on the mic. I have congenital hemiplegia, which is a little bit like cerebral palsy but only affects the right side of my body, and I just remember going into so many appointments, getting leg brace after leg brace, I would have loved something like this. So something a little bit more interactive with my physio.
When you started this out did you realise it would have such great benefits, even in the long term?
JAMES - No, we didn't. I think the bigger story is just using the art of beatboxing as a music programme for all kids, whether you have a disability or not. And again, going back to those reasons that you stated earlier, like the participation is immediate and it's full and it's real, I think as adults we often forget what it's like to be 13 and just want to be cool, and just maybe want to talk to a girl or, you know what I mean? [laughs]
And like, especially if you have some sort of disability it makes it that much more challenging, you know. And I feel like this is something that they can like really own and something that doesn't have to be convinced to the other young people that this is actually something really cool that they can do really well.
NIAMH - So you're based now in New York.
JAMES - Yes.
NIAMH - Where to next?
JAMES - We want to again really focus internally and really look at research, so we want to invite any potential academics or speech therapists to come and contact us because we really want to examine this idea of beatboxing as a tool for speech therapy. We are working with New York City, they have something called District 75, which basically caters to young people with disabilities here in New York, so we're working with more schools, D75 schools here, but we always want to work with other beatboxers all over the world.
And although that's not something that, oh we want to get in as many cities etc, we do want to provide a service or an opportunity to the New York programme for young people to be able to learn how to beatbox, especially young people with disabilities.
NIAMH - And James, finally, could you maybe teach us a quick beatbox beat or something?
JAMES - Sure.
NIAMH - Because my knowledge doesn't really go further than boots and cats, I'll be perfectly honest.
JAMES - Oh, I mean, I think boots and cats, the B/P sound is the base drum, so put your lips together and you just [makes drum sound] make a sound.
NIAMH - [makes sound] Oh, that just sounded…
JAMES - Oh, that's good.
NIAMH - Was it? Was it?
JAMES - Yeah, yeah, it was great.
NIAMH - It sounds terrible from this end.
JAMES - No, no, no, no. Again, there's no wrong sound. Everybody's mouths are different and everybody's teeth and muscles and everything are different, so whatever that B sound is that's great. So that's the first sound.
NIAMH - Okay.
JAMES - If you guys want to repeat. [makes sound] That's the base drum. The second sound is, we'll do a K snare, which is a kuh, kuh. Super easy.
NIAMH - Kuh, kuh.
JAMES - Yeah, so just kind of exhaling.
NIAMH - Kuh, kuh, kuh.
JAMES - Beautiful. So let's put the B and the K together, so buh, kuh, buh, buh, kuh.
SOPHIE - Buh, kuh, buh, buh, kuh.
JAMES - Beautiful, beautiful.
SOPHIE - Really? [laughs]
JAMES - And then the last sound we're going to learn is the hi-hat which is sort of like a T and an S put together.
NIAMH - Okay, yeah.
JAMES - So you have two hi-hats, you have a t-t-t, which is the closed hi-hat, and then you have the open hi-hat, which is tss. So, it's…
NIAMH - Tss…
JAMES - Yeah, you just kind of let the S out. So it's tss, tss, t-t-t.
NIAMH - Tss, tss, t-t-t.
JAMES - Beautiful. You guys are beatboxing. So you put those all together… Buh, kuh, tss, kuh.
NIAMH - Buh, kuh, tss, kuh.
JAMES - Beautiful.
SOPHIE - I'll have you know, I've beatboxed at conferences. I've had my microphone turned off because I've beatboxed at a conference and the sound guy said I'd lost my mind.
JAMES - I mean, we've been beatboxing for the last what, 20 seconds and you guys are already doing it, like buh, tss, buh, tss.
SOPHIE - Reeps One, eat your heart out. [laugher]
JAMES - Look out Reeps, we're coming for you, we're coming for you. Because you can also put like baselines and stuff, buh, um, buh, um, buh, um, buh, buh, buh [continues beatboxing]. All right guys, that's all I've got.
NIAMH - Bravo, bravo. [applause] Something tells me I should stick to the day job. A huge thank you to James Kim who spoke to us all the way from New York City, and of course to Professor Sophie Scott from University College London.
Next week we have our long talk show with Simon Minty, who this month is joined by actress, Shannon Murray. We've got a jam packed show for you all, so you've got a real treat coming ahead of you. Don't forget, you can get in touch with us on all the usual platforms on social media. We're @bbcouch on Twitter. You can search for BBC Ouch on Facebook, and on Instagram you can catch us on BBC_Ouch_Disability. Of course you can go through the more traditional mediums such as email. We're firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Niamh Hughes and playing us out is Reeps One.