How to Teach a Vocal Percussionist (even if you aren’t one)

Vocal percussion has made its way into the mainstream of contemporary a cappella. You would love to incorporate it into the high school group you direct, but you don’t really know where to start. Does that sound familiar? If so, here’s what you need to know, courtesy of an interview with vocal percussionist, arranger, and clinician Charlie Arthur.

How can directors help their students learn vocal percussion techniques?

To teach vocal percussion, directors have to know how vocal percussion works.

Sounds obvious, right? But you don’t have to become a stellar VP (vocal percussionist) to teach one. If you want to guide your students as they learn, figure out 1) where your skills are now, 2) what you need to convey to your students, and 3) how much that has to do with the refined sounds and patterns of vocal percussion. If you can provide even a basic example of sounds or rhythms for your students, that will help them further their skills.

Core sounds: Just like a drum set, VP’s work with certain sounds – kick drums, snares, toms, cymbals, etc. – to create music. Learn how those sounds work by listening to vocal percussionists and using resources like Acappella.how, which features dozens of tutorial videos for core sounds.

Rhythmic patterns: Whether your group performs Top 40, jazz, R&B, or whatever, learn about the basic patterns of that genre’s percussion. Your musical experience gives you skills and insights that your students may not have yet, so use those insights to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

Auditioning: If you’re auditioning vocal percussionists for your group, be prepared. If you ask them to just “beat box for you”, the results may not demonstrate if they’d be a good fit for the group. Prepare rhythmic patterns and/or core sounds that will be used in your arrangements and demonstrate them for auditionees. If they can imitate those patterns and sounds, that’s a good sign!

One of the tutorial videos from Acappella.how’s vocal percussion section!

How do you tailor a vocal percussion part to a particular song?

Most a cappella arrangements don’t feature any guidance for the VP, whether that’s notated rhythms or style suggestions. If your vocal percussionist doesn’t know where to start for a song, you can help by listening to music from that genre and picking up the patterns and intricacies of that style. Then apply those patterns with different sounds. It’s okay to experiment with different sounds and combine different influences and styles to develop your vocal percussionist’s unique sound.

As far as the nitty-gritty details of the arrangement, look at the bass part to find accents and rhythmic motifs. For example, if the bassline is heavily syncopated, a four-on-the-floor kick drum might not be the best approach for that song. Once you’ve identified those accents and motifs, look for “moments” – those sections of the song where each voice part is singing a unified rhythm, or arpeggiated chords, or something else that stands out from the rest of the arrangement. Accentuate those moments with the percussion by following those rhythms.

Start basic. Learn a lot of patterns and practice applying them to the songs in your repertoire. Your VP can do a lot of this on their own, but guidance and support from a knowledgeable director makes a huge difference in their learning experience.

Does your VP read sheet music? If so, notating parts is a great visual aid. But if not, you can use plenty of other visual or audible aids to help them learn or create their parts.

What resources can help me develop my vocal percussion skills?

We already mentioned Acappella.how, an AEA resources that provides articles and videos on a wide range of a cappella topics. Beyond that, here are a few helpful tools:

  • Free Drumless Tracks provides both free and premium (paid) tracks with little or no percussion in a wide variety of styles. It’s a fantastic resource for practicing your core sounds and rhythms with an instrumental track. Although intended for “regular” percussionists, it’s perfectly suited for VP’s as well.
  • DrumTrax is a free mobile app that serves the same purpose. You can download it on the App Store for iPhone or on the Google Play store.
  • The A Cappella Education Association exists to develop a cappella artists and educators like you. Become a member to access resources, free arrangements, personalized advice from experts, and more!

This article is based on an interview with Charlie Arthur. Charlie is a vocal percussionist, arranger, and clinician, and one of several a cappella personalities we interviewed in our Summer Series! Stay tuned for more articles on what YOU need to know about a cappella education, every Tuesday for the next few months.

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