A blog post should never start with a disclaimer, yet here I go:
I do not profess to be a leading steel pan scholar, pedagogue, expert, or pan performing artist. I haven’t been to Panorama (yet!), will never publish a definitive scholarly article on the instrument, its history, or claim any anthropological or ethnomusicological expertise beyond what I’ve read and gained through experience over the past decade. There are many highly qualified experts I consider as primary sources of information. I am not one.
With that said, steel pan has made a dramatic impact on my percussion pedagogical philosophy, my studio at Adams State University, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I’m often asked how and why pan—how do you start a program and why it’s valuable. I’ll answer these two questions right here in successive blog posts.
Let’s start with the How:
Funding…this part can be tricky. I was very fortunate. I had a donor who believed in the game plan for my studio when I first started at Adams State University (more on the game plan later) and made a series of donations to the Foundation to fund the progressive purchase of pans, tuning, and later, a samba bateria. Again, I was lucky. People often ask me about grants and yes, they’re out there if you have a game plan that fits the mission of a particular granting organization (again, more on this later). Unfortunately, I don’t know of one specific place to look, and if I did, I’m likely writing the grant for one of my own projects…because…yes...I’m selfish and have more plans than money. However, look around, ask around, and think creatively.
If you’re at a university, you likely have an office that writes grants. They won’t do it for you, and nor should they, but stay in touch with them as they live in that world and may see grant opportunities pertaining to you. If you’re in a public school, network with parents and administrators to find grant specialists. Get involved in a local non-profit arts organization. I learned an immense amount about grant writing by working with a highly successful writer affiliated with my local live music association. She taught me a few simple rules that have paid dividends:
1. Read what they want.
2. Answer specifically what they want.
3. Demonstrate value and return on the investment.
4. Follow through.
Simple. Save everything you write and know you won’t always be successful. Stay on top of the industry phrases and buzzwords for the granting organizations and read their mission statements to ensure you can align your project with their goals.
When it came time for me to do the “how” part, I asked a lot of questions of pan people in similar academic and financial situations as my own. Then I bought this book and you should, too:
The Steel Band Game Plan by Chris Tanner.
You can basically stop reading this blog post now. Buy the book. Read the book.
If you’re still reading, this is what I did.
1. I decided on Gill’s Pan Shop in Trinidad.
The price worked for me, they had pans ready to ship, and the instruments are made in the birthplace of pan, employing locals that deserve to make money off of their homeland’s national creation. There are wonderful domestic builders here in the U.S., but philosophically, this settled well with me.
2. I was advised to get chrome lead and double tenors and powder coated lower pans. Also, get the cases.
3. The first order was for three lead pans, two pairs of double tenors, a pair of guitars, and a set of six basses. If I had to do it over, I would have waited on the basses. At the time, there weren’t a lot of electric bass players hanging around the university that I knew of so I got the bass pans.
4. My second purchase was for two more leads, one more pair of double tenors, and a set of cellos. I’m probably done purchasing pans and have the following instrumentation:
3 pairs of doubles
1 pair of guitars and a set of cellos
1 set of six basses
There are plenty of other options (read the book, ask around, and check out other bands live or on YouTube) but this is what I did. When I can, I double the basses with electric bass. When traveling, I often times leave the six basses behind and just use electric bass. I’ll also add marimba and vibraphone if I have more players than pans.
There's just one catch:
Pans need to be tuned. They'll likely need to be tuned more regularly than you can find money. You’ll need to hire a tuner—just like a piano tuner, only they are harder to come by. Here are some approaches to consider:
1. Network with pan people around your region. Chances are, a pan tuner will have to travel to you from somewhere distant. That’s certainly the case where I am. It seems planning for $100 per pan is a rate to start with and doesn’t include travel. If you partner with some other pan people, you may not have to worry about travel expenses if the tuner can squeeze you in on his or her trip. I had a pan tuner in this situation ask me what my budget was and he was willing to spend as much time as he could budget based on the money I had available.
2. There are many great tuners in the U.S. and if you buy your pans domestically, you may want to use that particular tuner. I’ve used Chris Wabich. He’s ridiculously busy as a performing musician in Los Angeles, teaches at the University of Arizona, and seems to be constantly traveling. It’s for this reason I try and get Chris to come out. Not only is he a great pan player and tuner, he’s a phenomenally good drum set player, percussionist, and teacher. In addition to pan tuning, he’s worked with my students and performed for us while being one of the most easy-going musicians I’ve ever met.
3. Get in touch with pan tuners around the country and ask them to keep in touch if they’ll be in your region. They will. Keep “money in the bank” for when these opportunities arise. It’s tempting to buy more stuff with your funds but tuning is so valuable. As a matter of fact, my pans are in desperate need of tuning right now…!!
What to play?:
Music is the easy part. Pan ensembles are relatively simple to arrange for. The pan community is very warm, connected, and willing to share. There are great publishers online where you can get everything from beginning arrangements to extremely difficult originals. You can use lead sheets to make your own arrangements on the fly, teach by rote, develop a systematic procedure for learning pan, or do any combination of the above. This all ties into your philosophy and game plan.
1. Decide on your game plan (the next blog post!).
2. Make a budget.
3. Tell everyone about your plan and ask questions of pan people, grant people, and potential partnering organizations.
4. Get a few pans—as many as you can afford. Once people hear pans, they are sold and will want to be a part of your group and want to listen.
5. There’s no “one way” to start a pan group. Buy Chris Tanner’s book.
6. It’s worth it. You’ll be happy. The members of the band will be happy. The audience will be happy. We need more of this in the world.
Stay tuned for what you can do with a steel pan group that is far reaching, inclusive, musically and educationally rewarding, and so much fun. Part 2 will address what I've been able accomplish with a steel pan as one facet of my program.