Steelpan Lessons: Just Play!!!
This is a series of thoughts, insight, paradigms, solutions?, and general discussion on the art of playing the steelpan. At least, these are my thoughts and my take on what I’ve learned along the years. It’s a discussion of the approach that I have taken toward the instrument and a sharing of some of the successes and mistakes that I’ve made along the way. Some topics will be about patterns and exercises, while other topics will focus on some of the more “ethereal” or intangible subjects that I feel we all tend to take for granted way too often…
You know, I’ve really been thinking a lot lately on what would be entailed in a steelpan curriculum? I was never actually formally trained on the instrument. Currently, there are a few universities (to my knowledge) that actually offer degrees in Steelpan performance. Hopefully someday I’ll get to sit down with someone that either teaches this or is a student and gain some insight as to what goes along with earning this degree. For me, it’s been quite a bit of learning things myself and a WHOLE LOT of listening. Let me emphasize that a bit more in case you didn’t get it: a whole bunch of LISTENING.
I’ve been wanting to get my own “curriculum” together for quite sometime, so this series of writings will much in a way be an ongoing “lesson” on playing pan. As the first paragraph points out, not every one of these lessons is going to be a specific exercise or written example of what you can practice. Whether you are playing the steelpan or any other instrument, there are very basic components that every person must learn and master (and it’s not just scales and patterns). Ultimately you must become a musician first and foremost. It’s not the notes that you play; it’s how you play them that people remember!!!
This first lesson is something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Awhile back I penned this “quote:” Pan players: allow your hands to catch up with your minds. We must exercise patience and be willing to learn from a beginner’s perspective This really is sage advice for just about any musician, but what I meant goes much deeper than a 140 character ‘tweet.’
I was really trying to analyze what has given me the most problems with pan over the years. I have exercises that I do, I play out quite often, I constantly try to push the boundaries…but there was a different way of looking at it that I didn’t really think about. If you’re reading this and you’re a pan player, when did you start playing? If you were born in Trinidad and Tobago or anywhere in the Caribbean, you can most likely stop reading and hopefully catch me on the next one. If not, let me break it down this way:
I’d be willing to bet that maybe only 5% of you or less started playing pan as your first initial instrument. THIS was your first experience diving into the world of music…
I’d be willing to bet that maybe only 10% of you or less started it as a secondary instrument in either High School or Junior High…
The MAJORITY of us, myself included (probably 80%-90% of us) started in College. We started at a time when we not only had a pretty good working knowledge of the basics of music and music theory, but also at a time when the steelpan was at best a secondary instrument or just something we learned in an ensemble class. In other words, from the very get-go, our minds were working wayyy faster than our hands could possibly go. Obviously in general this is always the case, but what I’m trying to say is that we started with a certain level of musical maturity, while physically (on the instrument) we were still on a Kindergarten level.
OK, big deal; so what does this really mean? For me it means a whole bunch of things. Mostly, it means to slow down. That’s the hardest thing for us to do. Don’t get bored with practicing. We all know how to spell an F# major scale; but can you play proficiently in that scale? Can you solo in that scale? Does it cause sweat to form on your brow just thinking about having to perform in that key?
It’s frustrating, isn’t it? I often site one of the greatest pan lessons ever given to me. It was by Tom Miller. I was a Freshman in college and I asked him how to get better. I was eagerly awaiting the “holy grail” of answers to spew forth. Surely this was the greatest question he had ever received and was worthy of expounding a litany of exercises and secrets of the trade!!! With much anticipation, his mouth opened and the words came out: “You just have to play!” That was it?!? THAT was the million dollar answer? C’mon man; give me something!!!
You know what – he was right! Sometimes there’s no great mystery. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the simplest things, because our minds have already went past it and have moved on. Unfortunately our minds usually leave our poor hands and muscles in the dust to fend for themselves. To truly execute what you hear in your mind, you have to have the muscle coordination committed in your innermost psyche. Sure there are exceptions; there always are. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself by playing something completely new and off-the-cuff. However, I wouldn’t always bank on it happening, especially when you want it to happen!
So the lesson to learn here is patience! You’re most likely far more mature, musically speaking, than your pan mallets are able to comprehend. So be the teacher to your hands and go back to the basics. Brush up on the basics if you’ve already moved past that part. How’s your tone? How’s your note accuracy? Are you trying to learn something new EVERY time you step up to the instrument?