The Beatalk Technique – thinking out of the Beatbox

Dr. Michal Icht

Dr. Michal Icht has joined the Beatbox generation to develop innovative tools for speech impairments.

“Traditional speech treatment methods involve repetitive verbal and non-verbal exercises and may not be fully suitable for intellectually disabled adults who tend to lose interest and motivation facing the demands of a typical speech therapy session. Human beatboxing, however, is fun and relatively easy to learn and practice. The results are promising.”

Michal Icht

Department of Communication Disorders

Dr. Michal Icht, a senior lecturer in the Department of Communication Disorders, has spent most of her career studying the many facets of speech production and therapies for a vast range of speech disorders and pathologies.

She recently received a phone call which opened the possibility for a brand-new approach to treating speech problems. On the other end of the line was a young man by the name of Isato, who introduced himself as a Beatbox virtuoso. He contacted her because of his interest in understanding more about the intricacies of how people produce vocal sounds. Their ensuing exchange of ideas sparked a whole new approach to the development of a novel tool for the potential treatment of certain types of speech disorders.

Dr. Icht was inspired by Isato’s beatbox music and tutorials, in which he breaks down sounds into simple, basic elements that are easy to repeat, learn and integrate with one another. It occurred to her that this technique might be a way to approach one particularly challenging population, intellectually disabled (ID) adults with a variety of anatomical and functional limitations affecting clear speech.

Adults with Intellectual Disability (ID) typically show poor motor functioning, including motor control for speech production. The increased incidence of hearing impairment in this population (approximately 10%, and even higher in severely to profoundly intellectually disabled individuals) may also contribute to their speech problems. The prevalence of combined sensory impairment (both hearing and visual impairments) is also high, especially in adults with severe or profound ID.

According to Dr. Icht, “Traditional treatment methods involve using repetitive verbal and non-verbal exercises, may not be fully suitable for the adult ID population (from the age of 18 onwards) since they tend to lose interest and motivation facing the demands of a typical speech therapy session. Human beatboxing, however, is relatively easy to learn and practice and is also considered ‘fun’.”

Based on studies that demonstrate that music-based interventions have positive effects and benefits for people with ID in the areas of cognition, physical and emotional development and communication, Dr. Icht embarked on a study to test if Beatbox could be used as an effective method to improve the speech intelligibility of young ID adults. The results of her unconventional collaboration with Isato, gave way to “The Beatalk Technique” which uses beatbox sounds and rhythms to improve speech characteristics of adults with ID who demonstrate speech impairments and reduced intelligibility.

beatbox

Human beatboxing is an a-capella art of producing vocal percussions and non-verbal sounds to emulate musical instruments. It is a relatively new urban artform belonging to hip hop culture, starting in the 1980s in New York City. Beatbox artists replicate a variety of instrumental sounds, such as drums and percussion, guitar, trumpet and saxophone using the mouth (lips and tongue) and the vocal cords. At the same time, the beatboxer produces a rhythm and other sound effects very similar to instruments in a band, although instrumental accompaniment is absent. Beatbox sounds are essentially speech sounds, or “phonemes”. For example, the sound of a kick drum is very similar to the “P” sound, and the sound of hi-hat cymbals corresponds to the articulation of the sound of “T” or “TS”.

The sounds and rhythms of beatboxing music offer even greater advantage to ID adults with speech impediments. Actively making music has been shown to positively affect listening and aural processing skills, literacy skills, auditory memory, spatial reasoning and mathematical performance, intellectual development and creativity. The benefits of active engagement with music on psychological well-being across the lifespan are also well documented. Music, in general, offers the potential for enhanced self-efficacy and self-esteem, improvements in mood and behavior, reduced anger, and increased motivation.

The Beatalk technique affords many advantages:

  • Intense orofacial vocal exercise to promote speech-related skills
  • Safe and harmless exercise
  • Easy to learn
  • Enjoyable to practice
  • Cross-cultural nature
  • Does not necessitate any professional musical education, and it can be easily achieved via media (internet resources such as YouTube)
  • Low-cost
  • Can be done in an interactive social group framework or independently
beatbox

The study was conducted at Beit Amichai, a nonprofit modern adult daycare center in the town of Hod HaSharon in central Israel, which provides comprehensive, state-of-the-art, optimized and fully accessible facilities for adults with developmental disabilities of various types and levels. Beit Amichai’s program provides a wide range of rehabilitative activities, including speech therapy, focusing on communication abilities, augmentative and alternative communication, feeding and swallowing. Inclusion in the study was based on the level of speech impairment. The main exclusion criterion was the presence of severe behavioral problems. The daycare center’s speech pathologist identified 17 participants as verbal, yet with low speech intelligibility. The parents or legal representatives of these potential participants received written information regarding the study, and 12 gave their written consent.

The participants were given oral information about the study and invited to attend the intervention program. The sessions were conducted by Dr. Icht, Isato and research assistants from Ariel University’s Department of Communication Disorders. The participants formed six pairs, with pair members matched for functioning level (cognitive impairment severity) and speech abilities. One member of each pair was randomly assigned to the Beatalk group; the other member was assigned to the traditional speech therapy control group. All participants received treatment for a period of 6 weeks. Each weekly individual session lasted 40 min. All sessions were conducted at the daycare center, in a quiet, comfortable room with which the participants were familiar. Each therapy session (day 1) was followed by two short practice sessions (days 4 and 6). Pre- to post-treatment changes in speech intelligibility (via transcriptions of the practice sessions) and voice measures (by voice recordings of spontaneous speech, responses to simple questions and sustained phonation in the therapy sessions) were evaluated.

The results of the study demonstrated that both types of therapy groups resulted in improved performance in articulation accuracy and voice measures, yet the Beatalk technique yielded larger gains. The results present initial evidence for the beneficial effect of the Beatalk technique as an intervention tool for speech deficits of ID adults. It is an easy-to-use technique in the context of speech therapy and may enhance verbal communication skills in this population. (At the end of the study, participants in the control group also received the Beatalk intervention, with very favorable results.)

The positive results of this pioneering study, and the benefits of the Beatalk technique may guide future studies with other populations, such as teenagers and adults with mild ID; individuals with speech disorders due to craniofacial defects, such as cleft palate or cerebral palsy.

The study was published in The International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders in May/June 2019 (vol. 54, no. 3, 401–416).

Aside from the Beatalk Technique research, Michal’s current areas of research include developing and adapting speech evaluation tools to the Hebrew language. “There is a limited number of evaluation tools available in Hebrew. Most of the tools available are appropriate for English speakers and need to be adapted to the Hebrew language. There are many English language tests, but they do not lend themselves to Hebrew translation. Translated English word lists used to evaluate difficulties in speech production among people affected with neurological disorders such as dysarthria in stroke patients, are simply not appropriate in Hebrew.”

In other areas of research, Dr. Icht is working with Dr. Yaniv Mama, the Head of the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at AU on the advantage of the “production effect” for improving memory by uttering words aloud, as opposed to sight-reading. She also collaborates with Prof. Boaz M. Ben-David from the IDC in Herzliya on adapting tests for aging and cognition. A young speech pathologist who recently made Aliyah from the US joined Dr. Icht to do a post-doctorate on the Beatalk project. She has also introduced a new facet of speech therapy, called “Clear Speech”.

From a young age, Michal knew she wanted to work in some field of therapy, and she made her choice to study Communication Disorders early on. “It’s one of the few occupations in which once you graduate with a bachelor’s degree, you can begin working in the profession – and there is a great demand for speech therapists.” After completing her undergraduate studies at Tel Aviv University, she decided to continue for advanced degrees. “I finished my PhD, but wanted to stay in an academic setting, so I answered a call from Prof. Esti Ben-Yitzhak to join the department at Ariel University, where I am able to incorporate all the things I love: practicing in our university clinic, teaching and continuing my research. I even have time to run a small private clinic at home.”

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