James W. Doyle


In Part 1 of Steel Pan Banding 101, I addressed how I came about implementing a steel band and how you can, too. In this post, I’ll share my “why.”


There are three convergent reasons I started a steel band after arriving at Adams State University. I’ll briefly explain:


1. To build a percussion program, you need a program.  A product.


2. Traditional music programs struggle to be inclusive.


3. Students not involved in jazz have few outlets to learn popular music form, improvisation, arranging, and performance practice.


 Building a Product


Implementing a steel band gave my percussion students an opportunity to study percussion while combining with students who possessed less technical skills in the field of percussion. We could put 15-20 musicians together on stage and play great music for appreciative audiences in a variety of venues. Immediately, percussion studies were happening in quality, quantity, visibility, and with educationally sound strategies, while providing service opportunities to the university and greater community. That’s reason enough!


The more experienced musicians could perform complex solos, create their own arrangements, and gain teaching and leadership opportunities while other students with less formal percussion experience could play a part contributing role to the whole. Everyone could share the stage, experience the intrinsic value of music, learn about culture and style, and express her or himself in a positive manner.


This leads to the topic of inclusion.




Music schools typically require a series of barriers to participation. To study music, you must pass an entrance audition. To play in ensembles, you must pass an audition. In fact, the ensembles available for audition typically require students to have a formal background in reading music, private lessons, and the long-term availability of a personal musical instrument. THEN, the music that’s performed is likely derived from Western-European music traditions and performed in traditional concert hall settings. By nature, there is competition for membership and often times, a separation of the “haves” and have-nots.”


A steel band is an equal playing field.


Few students arrive to my program with actual steel band experience. Most everyone looks into the face of a tenor pan with the same perplexed look, as though peering at IKEA assembly instructions. No experience is necessary. From the beginning, everyone is learning by rote. Reading music is not an initial barrier. The music can be derived from anywhere and be appreciated by musicians and audiences alike.


My band has performed traditional calypsos, challenging Panorama charts, arrangements of Beethoven piano sonatas, pop tunes of today, modern compositions, jazz standards with significant solo opportunities, and even an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with cannon fire cues with onstage explosions executed by my colleagues in the Adams State University Chemistry Department. Anything goes, we can perform anywhere, anyone can be involved, and everyone learns.


A Valuable Opportunity


Even within the standard collegiate music program, it’s interesting how often a student may graduate with amazing knowledge of counterpoint, figured bass, set theory, and if they’re lucky, ii-V-I progressions, but little applicable experience creating arrangements and improvising with popular music. Throughout the years, some of my best and most dedicated steel band students were clarinetists, bassoonists, and flutists who never played in a jazz or popular ensemble. I distinctly recall “classically-minded” students being distressed when I would say a section would be “open” for solos, or I’d change the form/arrangement on the fly in order to suit the mood of the gig. I’m happy to say those students are better musicians and more flexible artists as a result. In fact, throwing curve balls on gigs has become a favorite pastime of mine and I’m never more proud of my students than when they nail it.


A Few Additional Thoughts:


--Non-western music ensembles are a must for music schools. At Adams State University, I’m happy to say that in addition to “traditional” ensembles, we have the steel band, a mariachi band, have created and performed at the state music conference with a salsa band, and regularly host guest artists with expertise in “non-western” music, dance, and culture. My percussion students frequently perform traditional Guatemalan marimba music on instruments from Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango, Guatemala, perform samba with a complete bateria, and study Ghanaian singing, dancing, drumming, and gyil with an annual residency by percussion great, Valerie Naranjo. However, we can always do better. We should always look outward to suit the needs of our students, their culture, the cultures beyond our realm, and the music and culture of our ever-changing worldwide music industry.


--I recently met and performed with Marilyn Clark Silva who wrote her DMA document on steel band pedagogy. I love her vision of music/percussion education and look forward to future collaborations. The official title of her document is “Alternative Pedagogy for Beginning Steel Band for the Use of Underprivileged Schools and the Advancement of Widespread Affordable Music Programs.” I hope she turns this into a book. Seriously. How many struggling band programs do you know? Struggling band programs are often eliminated. But why must “band” be the standard? Steel bands can be the way. Check out Marilyn’s work.


--My steel band has created leadership/teaching and career performance opportunities for my students.


Three points to make here:


1. University graduate percussion programs often offer steel band graduate assistantships.


2. Everyone loves steel pans. Performing as a soloist, with audio backing tracks, with a small combo, or a full band…the sky is the limit for pan and it’s a legitimate gig.


3. My students get valuable experience by leading, directing, teaching, arranging for, managing, and touring with my steel band.


I’m going to leave you with this video. This past spring semester, my students gave twelve performances in three days in all-school assemblies at elementary, middle, and high schools. Here’s a video from a 7:30am performance sponsored by Music in the Mountains somewhere in the Four Corners of Colorado. Junior music education/performance and future music therapist Isaiah Pierce fronted the band for the tour. Take a look and listen:




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