The Steel Drum Movement – Part I

The steel pan, commonly referred to as the “steel drum,” is recognized worldwide as the most important acoustic instrument to be developed since the 1800’s and the only family of instruments to be invented since then. The origin of the steel pan dates back to 1940’s Trinidad. Today there are thousands of steel drum bands worldwide, many of which comprise over 100 players performing full symphonic works, jazz, calypso, and other music from around the world. In the United States, a recent phenomenon has been the formation of many large steel drum orchestras that serve as not-for-profit community institutions that are also dedicated to serving and uplifting economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. While the strikingly beautiful sound of the steel pan draws participants from all ages and races, the core of most of these orchestras are youth and teenagers who feel cultural pride in being able to express music on the steel drum instrument which was recently developed by peoples whose heritage they are closely related to. Consistent hard work is required to produce the professional sounding results necessary for them to compete in steel band competitions, yet the bands often also provide academic, cultural, mentoring, and social activities to their youthful members. The Steel Drum Movement has been vital to transforming the lives of many of these youth by offering a positive, disciplined, drug-free environment on a daily basis to its participants.

In the United States, many people have begun to develop an appreciation for the steel drum. For these people, there are not-for-profit community orchestras. It is common to see young adults to older adults, as opposed to teenagers and youth, in community steel pan orchestras. This is an opportunity for the Pan enthusiasts to gather on a weekly basis not for competition, but simply for the love of playing the steel pan. Many participants in the community orchestras comment on the sheer joy they get from playing steel pan in a large group of twenty to forty people. Though these groups often have many members, there may be one experienced steel pan player that leads and rehearses the community orchestra. There are also community bands that grew out of smaller individual groups. It is also common for community bands to host regional steel pan festivals. Orchestras from all around the region get together in a non-competitive, festive atmosphere and play steel pan for each other.

Music programs in schools from elementary to university level are also embracing the steel drum. While any well-trained school music teacher can rehearse and direct a steel band, often the school will employ an experienced professional steel pan player to work with the teacher and students. There is a unique set of knowledge for steel drum maintenance and care as well as mallet techniques and other considerations that are specific to the steel pan instrument. New school steel band programs are often very surprised at how quickly they can achieve an acceptable concert performance result. While there are techniques such as rolling and dynamics, which are central to fine steel pan performances, an acceptable sound can be achieved almost instantly since there are no embouchure requirements as with brass and reed instruments and no steep learning curve to create good sound as with most orchestral instruments. Players learn almost intuitively to play on the sweet spot of each note. Because the sound of the steel drums is so resonant and rich in tone, even a smaller group that is just beginning will produce results that will thrill many audiences.