The Steel Drum Movement – Part III

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.
The Steel Pan Instrument Family

The steel drum instrument family is comprised of different instruments in different ranges. In the soprano range, there is a Lead pan (also called a Tenor pan). This is similar to a flute, trumpet, or soprano sax, with its lowest note at middle C and rising chromatically two and one half octaves. The Lead pan is the main melody voice of the steel pan orchestra. They are tuned in the cycle of fifths, which is a consistent arrangement of notes that places notes that are most consonant to each other next to each other. This makes chord and scale patterns the same for the player in all 12 keys.

Like an alto saxophone, the Double Second steel pan is also in the alto range. They are two and a half to three octaves chromatic and it takes two barrels to hold all of the notes of a Double Second. Each barrel of this steel pan is tuned to a whole tone scale. The six notes of each whole tone scale make up the twelve notes found in a chromatic scale. While still an effective melody instrument, the Double Second steel drum is more capable of playing harmony and chords than a Lead pan due to its lower notes.

In the baritone range, there are quite a few steel pan instruments called Cello steel pans, or Guitar steel pans. For the purpose of illustration, we will discuss the Triple Cello. This steel pan is in the baritone range and has the tonal characteristics associated with a trombone, baritone sax, or the cello string instrument. It’s warm, full sound is perfect for stating chords in rhythm. In steel pan music, this is also called “strumming.” Cello steel pans are also referred to as Guitar pans since the 6 string guitar is often strummed. Sometimes, a Cello pan will have a longer skirt length on the barrel than a Guitar pan, giving them a somewhat deeper tone. A Triple Cello usually starts from B note, slightly more than an octave below middle C, and has two octaves chromatically. Each of its three barrels is tuned to a diminished seventh arpeggio. While strumming is its main function, the Cello is very effective for chord arpeggios.

In the bass range, the most popular steel drum instrument is the Six Bass steel drum. The Six Bass consists of six full-length barrels and provides a deep rich sound. Each barrel has three notes for a range of one and a half octaves starting just over two octaves below middle C. It can be compared to the tonal and sustain characteristics of an acoustic string bass that is plucked, but can produce a louder and more vibrant sound that can often be thrilling when standing close.

The Lead pan, the Double Second, the Triple Cello, and the Six Bass are sometimes used as the only instruments to start a steel band. To create an effective balance between these instruments, there might be four to five Lead pans, three Double Second, two Triple Cello and one Six Bass pan. This is called “four-voice” and is similar to a string quartet or a vocal choir in that four distinct voices are used. For a steel drum band being taught by an instructor new to steel pans, this is easier, since it’s similar to other types of ensembles they may teach, and there are only four different instruments to learn. Next, we will discuss adding the color instruments, such as Double Tenor and Tenor Bass, which expand the timbral expressiveness of a steel band to make it a “full-voice” ensemble.