Friday, May 30, 2014

A Sense of History - Perseverance and Determination

I recently wrote up a history of steel pan for the website and an upcoming event. Not the easiest task to say the least, but still very interesting. Aside from the basic facts of people and times, there is more to the steel pan story. The common theme you read about is of perseverance. It is the willingness to do whatever it takes to overcome and get something done. It is also the desire to not settle for what was done in the past, but the willingness to try something new. When it comes to steel pan, the people involved in the community were and are some of the most determined around.

Steel pan history is rich with stories of oppressive laws, rival gangs, tamboo bamboo and iron bands. But the richest history starts when a few young men take the initiative. They decide to find a way to get more than one note out of discarded metal containers. Names like Andrew "Pan" De La Bastide, Victor "Totee" Wilson, Winston "Spree" Simon, Ellie Mannette are part of that early group of pioneers. They persevered when others said those containers were not musical instruments. Their persistence and determination led to two notes, then four, and soon the full musical scale. Their innovations led to the first steel pan orchestras and eventually the recognition of the steel pan player as a true musician.

Determination is part of steel pan short history and legacy. Those in the community tend to reflect it as well. You see people learn a complicated piece of music by rote, he though they never had a formal music lesson. You see individuals starting up programs where steel pans are more of an oddity than a way of life. You hear about composers willing to break the boundaries of traditional steel pan music because they too are driven. What is it about this instrument that makes people push themselves? Is there a spirit (a Pan Jumbie) inherent in all that surrounds the steel pan? Is it that we see ourselves as being as tough and solid as the instruments we play on? Who really knows?

We recently interviewed Tom Miller and SPC members George and Ruth Parsons for an upcoming Pan e-Newsletter. Both interviews reflect each person's willingness to either find a way or make one. The Parsons spent 15 years in Trinidad. They played in several steel pan orchestras in spite of a lack of musical training. Miller is a world renowned musician, Pan Ramajay Productions founder, and steel pan instructor at the University of Denver. He runs an annual steel pan camp attended by players from around the world. All have taken their passion for steel pan, mixed it with perseverance and determination, and came up with rewarding experiences for themselves and others.

So whatever it is that drives us as a community, it is based in determination and perseverance.

Skip Waugh
Steel Pan Collective

Friday, May 23, 2014

SPC News and Updates

We accomplished some major goals this week.

First, our website is up. It seemed like a Herculean effort at the time - and it was. I am deeply grateful to friends, family, and the Board for their help. It was truly a community effort. Check it out. Sign up to be a member or get the free updates. The website is

Second, our social media platform and channels are set up. We are on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ now. I am currently working on a social media schedule. Like others, we are not fans of random posts. I'd like to at least plan out what gets published and when. Hopefully, this helps cut through the enormous amount of information out there. We are already seeing people clicking on our pages and liking them. (Hint: Make sure you know someone who is active in social media. Otherwise, you'll feel like you've been thrown in the deep end)

Third, we applied for our 501(c)(3) tax exemption as well. That was huge for us - mainly because of the amount of information requested and the fee involved.

Fourth, our first members signed up. That was way cool. Now we get to deliver on those benefits we promised.

Fifth, we will have two blogs going forward. There is this one which is for the general public. We'll address more general topics and ideas here. The other is the member blog which is on our site. It is called the Engine Room blog and will deal with more member focused topics. You'll have to be a member to view it though. An added bonus is members can post on the blog as well. So, continue to read this one and/or become a member.

It has been a good week. We are exhausted, but happy.

Skip Waugh
The Steel Pan Collective

Friday, May 16, 2014

What Should I Be Listening To When Not Playing?

What you listen to when not playing steel pans impacts your growth as a steel pan musician. I was lucky enough to have this discussion about a year ago with Paul Munzenrider, SPC Board Member. I was struggling with playing solos at the time. He suggested taking the time to figure out what I wanted to accomplish and to know my goals ahead of time. Here are some of the additional tips he suggested:
  1. Finding musicians who are good at what you want to do - Doing better solos was my goal. So I listened to a lot of jazz done by steel panists and other musicians. I discovered the importance of practicing my scales, knowing what key I play in, and how to listen for the melody and reinterpret it into an effective solo. I'm still not there, but I feel I am heading in the right direction.
  2. Listen to calypso or pan music Steel pan was born in Trinidad. It makes sense to listen to the music written for it. No matter if it is Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow, Ray Holman, or full steel pan orchestras like Phase II, Carib Tokyo, or Exodus, you learn a lot about arrangements and how all the instruments fit together in a composition. 
  3. Find your instrument in the song -  This step has been the most fun. What you try to do is to find your instrument in the music and play what they are playing. I tune into the melody more since I play tenor. Copying what they were doing and playing along has helped. This step deepened my appreciation for music overall. 
  4. Listen to other music too - The steel pans are versatile instruments. There is something that can be learned from all kinds of music. You can learn as much from a Sly and the Family Stone tune as you could from Claire de Lune by Claude Debussy. It is not uncommon for the steel pan to play classical, country, pop, rock, or jazz. You improve your playing just by expanding your listening repertoire to include additional music you like. 
Hopefully, these suggestions will help you.

Skip Waugh
The Steel Pan Collective

Friday, May 9, 2014

Practice - Does It Really Make Perfect?

Practice is not forced labor; it is a refined art that partakes of intuition, of inspiration, patience, elegance, clarity, balance, and above all, the search for ever greater joy in movement and expressions. 
- Yehudi Menuhin, violinist

I'm not going to pretend I'm an expert on practicing. Any advice you get here is strictly from my own experience. I like to practice steel drums because it gives me the confidence to play in rehearsals and performances. It is different for everyone. Your goals might be different if you are rehearsing one song for Panorama vs. practicing twelve for an upcoming two hour performance. Here are a couple of suggestions:

1) Get a Plan and Stick to It - Know what to work on before starting. Is it Scales? Memorization? Troublesome song parts? New material? Your solo? I work from a list usually split between new material, stuff I know and try to memorize, and songs I know cold.  Dedicating time to each works for me. I move on when time is up in each section.

2) How much and How Often - When I first started out with the tenor pan, I would get into a flow and could play for a couple hours easily. Now, I set aside a specific day and time to practice. This way, I stay in the good graces of others in the house and don't miss dinner. What works for you one hour per week or one hour per day?  How are you playing when it comes time for rehearsal or a performance? This influences how much you should practice too. 

Practice is so important. It makes a big difference in your confidence and competence as a musician. 

Skip Waugh
Steel Pan Collective

Friday, May 2, 2014

Preparing Your Band for the Summer

Music is a performing art....It isn't there in the score. - Michael Tippett, composer

Elite performers plan assiduously and prepare in depth before, during, and after their performances - Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas, performance coaches

We are starting to put the the cold weather behind us. After months of steel pan practice indoors, we are ready to take our instruments to the streets and the public. Our venues will vary this year. Chances are good you'll see steel pan at a farmer's market, music festival, or fair near you. We are excited because this is one of the tenets of the Steel Pan Collective's vision - to encourage steel pan players to perform.

In a book by Gerald Klickstein called The Musician's Way, he emphasizes how artistic performers are prepared performers. He offers some great suggestions that not only cover performance, but practice techniques and wellness.  I like the book because it helps you not freak out in rehearsals and during performances. Here are his five facets of performance preparation.

  • Artistic Preparation - Klickstein talks about choosing music high in quality, within your or your band's capability, and arranged in a lineup that engages listeners. Your practice skills should encompass the music you will be playing and enable you to learn and interpret the music deeply. Your presentation style should also be polished before stepping on stage.
  • Technical Preparation - He adds technical prep is born in the practice room. It covers everything from having proficiency with your instrument to being able to easily set up and modify your concert environment when you get on site. 
  • Mental/emotional preparation - Klickstein talks about recognizing your feelings prior to the performance date. Are you nervous, excited, worried, or ambivalent? He says thorough mental and emotional prep arm you with positive feelings and helps you generate clear thoughts on stage. His book offers several suggestions on things you can do. 
  • Physical preparation - Being physically ready to perform is especially important for pan players. Not only is strength required to cart our instruments around, but we still have to go out and perform. If we show up fatigued, injured, or starving, we'll have nothing left to give to audience. Klickstein says physical preparation entails coordinating your rest, diet, exercise, and practice schedule similar to the way athletes do. 
  • Organization preparation - Once your performance date is set, getting organized begins. In addition to the things mentioned previously, there are scheduling rehearsals, arranging transportation, printing programs, and lining up publicity. Knowing what you want to accomplish and organizing for it is key.  

I highly recommend you get a copy of his book or go to his website for more details on preparation.

Have a great performing summer. Look for more news from the SPC in the coming weeks. Some good stuff coming up. (Hint: Think Website!)