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I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Michael Bump, Associate Professor of percussion at Truman State University, a couple of weeks ago. He talked about his experience in Trinidad and Tobago during Panorama 2011. Michael recently performed with the Invaders Steel Drum Band while on sabbatical at Truman State.

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Dr. Michael Bump Got it Right


A very interesting and telling interview. Dr. Bump has gone a long way towards understanding the oral tradition and the true power of Pan and the Panyard.  Reading and writing music is a great tool and skillset to possess, as it can facilitate almost every aspect of the musical experience.  However, there is no substitute for the musician who ‘lives’ the music through his ears and develops those cognizant skills to recall and execute while simultaneously becoming one with the music.


In addition, an even far greater benefit of the oral tradition of teaching music, is the human interaction that must take place for the unit (orchestra) to learn and share information.  In the age of texting and one-person-per-automobile with all the windows up – self-imposed isolation - and the music blaring - the western civilization has become increasingly individualistic and unfeeling.  The Panyard still compels people to remain human and interact with each other, ultimately slowing down the ultimate dehumanizing of the human race.


While it sounds great in theory I personally dread the day when everyone will walk into a Panyard two days before the annual National Panoramas, whip out the music sheets and an hour later be ready to take the stage.  Those musicians will not ever know the name of the player next to them or in their racks, because there would be simply no need to ever interact on that level.  The Panyard will become a cold and unfeeling machine-like environment.


And we will lose that ability to listen (play by rote), or just simply watch over a person’s shoulder - and after two ‘passes’ be ready to go.  It was not too long ago that we had the ability to communicate through a drum – for the most part that ability is gone now.


In the urban setting where life can be as hard as the concrete sidewalks folk walk on, the oral tradition of and in the Panyards mandates human interaction in a humane and social manner in spite of the hostile surroundings.  It makes us better human beings overall.


Original text on PanOnTheNet

not only that... scoring music was meant to RECORD music... not to teach it...


if you give the same score to 10 different bands to play, youw ill get 10 different interpretations... expression, phrasing, etc.


some ppl have even said that it's almost impossible to score some of the panorama pieces... if it was reduced to scoring alone, that would take away from the music...

I so agree with Pan Times review of this podcast that I wish was sufficiently literate to have written it myself!

How interesting, ironic and sad, as most of Trinidad & Tobago ‘music intellectuals’ would most likely fall over themselves not to ever elevate and validate the “people’s approach” to communal practice and learning, (taking music by rote and sight) in the panyard, as Dr. Bump from truman state so clearly picked up on and understands from his time in Invaders panyard.

Oh well.

The interesting question for me is the implication for music education.

Music literacy is a "good thing". Certainly a music score is a useful way to record a song for posterity. Of course, nowadays, we have audio and video that serve that purpose. Also, a music score is a useful way for some people to quickly absorb and to learn a piece.

But equally, learning by ear and by rote is a "good thing", for all the reasons mentioned by Dr. Bump, and in the excellent synopsis given up above to kick off the discussion. Certainly, no performance truly rises to the highest height unless it is performed without benefit (?) of a written score. For in that case, the performer is mere machine: the score is expressing itself through him -- the music is playing him, in a sense. The virtuoso performer would have dispensed with the score long before walking on the stage, for the virtuoso plays the music; the music does not play him.

I happen to believe that virtuoso performers may be equally good coming from a tradition of rote and ear as from a tradition of literacy. If anything, literacy can get in the way of listening. The real master of the craft hardly needs it to perform. So literacy as crutch could be dispensed with.

But literacy as a language of communication is still essential for any musician seeking to function as such in the Western world. Even so, learning by rote is a huge discipline that would provide those coming late to music literacy with a huge advantage if they would accept the different (left brained, logical) discipline required for literacy.

Hence my question: which should come "first"? Music by score, Western style; or music by rote, panman style. I take it as a given that the virtuoso must in any case play by rote, and that the "professional" must learn the code (literacy).

- Big Sid

Having been a classically trained musician involved in teaching music for 39 years and teaching pan for 26 of those (in the curriculum of the school) I have been on both sides of this argument. Having traveled to Trinidad and Tobago six times for Panorama, I am amazed at the thrust of those in Trinidad and Tobago who believe pan will only progress once pan players become musically "literate." I am equally taken aback when I run into the prejudices of classically trained musicians who believe that one who learns by rote is not a "true" musician. 

Music Literacy is a term involving many skills, the reading and writing of music being two. Reading/writing music are only two of the tools available to an accomplished musician. Even within the Western classical training of musicians, the argument exists as to which is better: to read first or to play first. The Suzuki method of teaching string instruments (introduced by Sinichi Suzuki in Japan) begins with listening skills and does not introduce reading until much later. The result was generations of musicians who played beautifully. The method produced such fabulous results that it was studied and implemented by many institutions in the United States and throughout the world. This same argument ensued: was it better to learn by rote first or to learn to read first.

I taught my string orchestras exclusively by reading, at first. I taught my pans with stick notation, at first. The pan stick notation was more a crutch for me as the teacher than for the students. It was for MY comfort leveI. I soon discovered that the students had no need to read. I then bagan to teach pan in the tradition of the culture in which it was born: by rote. I could always tell the difference between a pan group that had music between the eyes and the hands and one that learned by rote. There was always at least small glitch when the music was placed between the eyes and the hands, even with the best of groups. Eventually, I adopted some of the rote techniques I learned from teaching pan and applied them to my orchestra classes which proved quite successful.

I don't believe there is any one correct answer for every situation. I believe we all keep learning as we expose ourselves and our students to additional methods of learning and additional cultures. No two students learn in the same way. If there is anything I learned as a teacher, it is that I had to teach in every style (visual, aurol, oral, kinesthetic) to make sure the proverbial lightbulb went on above EVERY students' head. And believe me, there is nothing more rewarding than that "Aha" moment, be it a result of reading or rote or some other method.

Many of my orchestra students went on to memorize solos and improvise. Many of my pan students went on to learn to read music. I see both methods as a "good thing." I see combining them in different ways as not only the next step, but as the future. As to which should come "first?" I am not at all sure there needs to be a first. They can be combined quite successfully.


this is a silly notion at best....


I remember once trying to teach a song to an academic musician and she couldn't play it... I've seen MANY academic musicians make mistakes where those who allowed themselves to feel the music (whether through reading, rote or a combination of the two) would play pieces perfectly....


a musician is simply someone who plays music (one definition as offered by the merriam webster dictionary as posted by John Ford). Once you play music (consistently, I'd say), you are a musician....


punto final



Thanks for that thoughtful reply. It is so well considered that it almost ends the debate! I can almost accept that "different strokes for different folks" sums it up.


In my own experience, I studied piano as a child, and failed terribly. My very sweet and kindly grandmother was my teacher. She and my grandfather were accomplished pianists, but in a very church-y kind of way. My father was a virtuoso pianist that came up in the Western tradition, who could read and write music, but who played by ear. As a child he had won all-Caribbean music competitions in piano, clarinet, and violin. But he had hated piano lessons, and for his children, he determined that we would not be forced into it as he was. So when piano lessons interfered with my football (soccer) and cricket, it was my choice, and piano was out. 


I regretted it later in life though. I remember going once to an Earl "Fatha" Hines performance in Toronto (where I did my undergraduate work in engineering). Now there was a virtuoso! My father was good, but not that good! And I wondered, what if I had kept up with the piano...


Now I have a grand-nephew who is winning piano competitions in Trinidad, and at the age of nine plays an excellent rendition of "The Entertainer", that famous ragtime piece by Scott Joplin. But guess what, I have seen him come to tears going through the "piano lessons" discipline T&T style (meaning Western traditional, with English adjudicators brought down to judge competitions etc.) with a very strict (but excellent) teacher.


Which brings me to my point. Under the system where literacy is put first, the joy of music is almost withheld, as a tantalizing, deferred reward to be enjoyed after first mastering the decoding of squiggles on a piece of paper. There is even the suggestion that playing the music while dispensing with the piece of paper is "not music". That's the problem, I think. Certainly for Caribbean kids, it's a huge turn-off.


By contrast, the panyard dispenses with the piece of paper as irrelevant. It's a "creatory", not a conservatory, for one thing. And every member of a Panorama panside is rendered a virtuoso performer by virtue of the discipline of learning a piece by rote. You can actually have fun learning to play real music from the very beginning. There is no need for tears! Well, unless you are a total failure and the captain or drill-master breaks your sticks and sends you home! LOL! 


So for Caribbean kids (and evidently for Japanese kids also), it is to me a foregone conclusion. Learning first by rote is better. Learning to read is for the musician who wants to be a professional and needs the literacy skills for the purpose of communicating with his musical peers world-wide. Even then, a genius like Boogsie can get by without literacy. His music speaks for itself, and lesser mortals will accommodate themselves to him, rather than the reverse.


But I do not say that to set off an endless debate. Discipline may not be its own reward, but any serious art requires the application of serious discipline. And the heights reached by the very best practitioners are for sure the result of dedication, and discipline, using whatever approach. What works for some may not work for all.  And that I must accept.


I would make another point about performance. You are right that one can always tell a performance intermediated by written score. As long as that score is needed, the performer may be doing a good job, but his performance will never soar. The heart and soul will be lacking. So music literacy, used as crutch, is the bane of the really serious musician. At some point he must throw that away, like Earl Hines on the piano, and let the fingers fly, or like hundreds of T&T panists, and just beat pan. When that happens, the joy is palpable, and the sheer exuberance that follows is what makes pan and Panorama the global phenomenon that it has become.


- Big Sid


I have allways maintained that if you need a chart to play a song then you don't really know it. One might well ask if those who use that approach are real musicians. I have much more respect for a cat who can hear something and figure it out than one who relies on sheet music (which, often times, is incorrect anyway) where somebody else did the work. Being able to read music has its advantages, like learning songs you've never heard or learning a paricularly difficult passage, but once you've learned it put the damned chart away!

I know some "professional" musicians who won't play a live gig without lead sheets, and though they are, without a doubt fine musicians, it amazes me that they are not embarrased to do so. Some of the best players I know can't read a lick and to hear them play I'd say they're not missing anything. To each his own I say, but to insinuate that one must be able to read music to be a musician is ridiculous.

As a consultant, I am a performer of sorts, so I understand the value, and pitfall, of having a crutch. Powerpoint is a wonderful tool for making a presentation, but if you cling too tightly to it, you're not going to get your point across too well. At some point, you have to disregard the "sheet", and just tell the client what you think and why.


I remember as a young engineer having to make a presentation to a former minister of government, then at the time company chairman of a huge state-sector enterprise, and himself an engineer by background. After a lot of, well, engineering analysis put forward by me, rather brilliant but quite intricate, and me clinging to my notes as if for dear life, the kindly old gentleman interrupted me, "Look, just put aside the notes and tell me what you think."


Later, I met a jazz musician at a club, and in conversation with him at the bar in between sets, I asked him how come he doesn't have stage fright. He said he had had it at the beginning, but a mentor he had had told him that he should never be intimidated by an audience, that all he had to do was get ready, i.e. learn the music, and then just stand and deliver. Don't worry about mistakes, few in the audience will even know when you make one. Basically. Cool dude. I think he had fun intimidating the audience he was so good! LOL! Anyway, I remember thinking at the time,  remembering the experience I'd had with the state-enterprise chairman, there is something in common between music and engineering. In both there is a point where you must simply stand and deliver.


That I'm sure is sound advice for any prima donna in any walk of life. Then of course there are the back-up players, who may be called upon to do a gig on a moment's notice. Well if they're literate, and they're professional musicians, they're supposed to be able to competently perform with the aid of a sheet. But they're not the ones called upon to take anybody's breath away.


The beauty about a Panorama performance, unlike that of a classical symphony orchestra, is that everyone must know the piece by heart. And it shows. I think that is partly why so many musicians, amateur and professional both, are drawn to pan and Panorama: to experience for themselves some of the sheer joy  -- and it's real, not faked, though possibly overdone at times -- they see on display during a Panorama performance.


-- Big Sid

"Are pan players true musicians?" What a silly question. Implying that you are only a musician if you can read music?! How absurd. Shall we check Merriam Webster? "Musician:  a composer, conductor, or performer of music" As if you could stand, unmoved, at a steelband performance, and say "Wow. Too bad they're not PERFORMING MUSIC. Too bad they're NOT MUSICIANS."  . . . vfeho'qhbvtoqe'bhte ihe piep VEQPIJ9948jvpICHDWej bwaaAAHHH  GIMME A BREAK!!

Unfortunately John this question is not silly? Yes, I agree the thought of such a thing should be absurd, but it is not.  I have heard many great pan players say, "I am not a musician" or "I don't know music" because they had no formal music training or could not read or write music. They were beaten into this thought process by the society they live in.

It is great that Dr. Bump, WST and others have put this out there so that this nonsenses can finally be put to rest. 



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