- Associated Press - Sunday, June 29, 2014

SITKA, Alaska (AP) - 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.

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