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The Steel Drum Movement – Part III

by Annarenda

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There are many individuals in steel pan that play mostly for their own enjoyment, much like a pianist or guitarist who makes music mostly in their own home. Some use “music minus one” backing tracks while they perform the melody on their steel pan. Others might play classical pieces, gospel music, as well as jazz and popular tunes in a solo style.   While they may not experience the thrill of performing in a steel drum ensemble, they derive enjoyment and relaxation from playing alone on the steel pan. For many younger players, the purchase of their own steel drum instrument gives them a learning advantage over players who only perform in ensembles and can only access the instrument during rehearsal. Also, these players sometimes do not play at all when school is out of session or when a band is not preparing for carnival. This could interrupt the musical development of the student. The newer generation of players in Trinidad, the US, and Europe learn music notation as a student would with any other musical instrument. However, many older players learn and play by ear and many individuals who learn to play steel pan also play by ear. This is similar to someone who plays guitar and can play songs and chords without learning to read music notation. This can work well especially for people who only want to play for their own enjoyment and not with a steel pan ensemble that may require the ability to read and learn new music rapidly. 

In the steel drum movement today, there are several key players that facilitate a successful steel pan program. Among these key individuals are tuners, bandleaders, arrangers and promoters.  Steel pan tuning is a specialized craft that requires years of training by an individual who develops the unique talent to hear multiple pitches within one note. Tuning a steel pan is many times more difficult than tuning a piano or any other pitched instrument and it requires a good deal of time to tune each steel drum instrument in an orchestra. Steel bands often hire tuners on a yearly basis to retune their instruments at a set price per instrument. Because there are so few tuners in places like the US, they often travel to the location of the bands. Often individuals who have their own pans will arrange to have them tuned when the tuner is in town. Large bands sometimes have their tuner make a certain number of new steel drum instruments each year as they retire older instruments from use. The bandleader is normally the key person who starts and keeps a steel drum band functioning. They arrange for the purchase of the steel pan instruments, which can be quite a financial undertaking. They locate, train, and encourage players to join the band. They call the rehearsals and arrange for performances. The rewards are many but it takes a dedicated individual to be a steel drum bandleader.  Steel drum band arrangers provide the music that steel bands use in competitions and performances. For large panorama and festival events, these will be custom arrangements suited to the instrumentation of a specific band. In Trinidad, the arranger is paid for this work and may also receive a large cash award if his band wins the competition. Many arrangers also make “stock” arrangements that schools and community bands can buy for use in their ensembles.  The bandleaders, tuners, arrangers, and the promoters of the various events and festivals work together to present steel drum music to audiences worldwide.


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  • minsky delmonte
    Very well written and accurate. Thank You for sharing. 
    Minsky Delmonte
    steel drum player

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