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Is there anyone else on this forum who is concerned about pan players beating rather than playing pans? Brooklyn Labor Day Panorama provided numerous examples. And the panorama in Trinidad is not much different. Is it that the focus is on learning the panorama tune so that little, if any, time is spent on teaching young pannists how to play rather than beat the pans? Whatever is the reason, that’s an area steelbands need to urgently address. I am taking the liberty to post a 1997 article from Panyard-Lime:


Shelly Irvine, “Sweet Pan or Beat Pan: Are Steelbands Playing Too Hard?” Akron, Ohio: Pan-Lime (Published by PANYARD, INC.), May-June, 1997.

Fact – pan is a fun instrument to play. Fact – many pannists get excited and play the instruments too hard. Fact – if a pan is overplayed it goes out of tune. From listening to over 200 steelband recordings in our library at PANYARD, INC. and from witnessing countless steelband performances in the last fifteen years I have become concerned about pannists overplaying. It occurs at all levels of performance: high school, collegiate and professional, and in all size ensembles form combos to larger steelbands of thirty players or more.

Drumset Volume

This is one of the single most significant performance problems plaguing steelbands throughout the world. Forte on a drumset is much louder than forte on a pan. Pan cannot compete “and win” in the volume game that is created by a loud drummer or overbearing percussion section. Of course, the smaller the steelband the greater the potential balance problem.

A drumset player must adjust to the size of the ensemble and play differently in a four piece combo than in a big steelband. This does not give him/her license to thrash in the big band. Consider that the bands in Trinidad have over one hundred pan players and only one drumset player. Yes, pan music is exciting and energetic and tends to entice the player to hit hard; however, directors cannot allow drumset players to force pannists to overplay and compete in the volume game.

A general guide that works well is to always ask the kit player if he/she can hear the melody or part of the arrangement that should be the focus of that particular phrase. Have the band play the same phrase again and stand by the kit player and evaluate the volume for yourself. Repeat until satisfied. Once an appropriate level has been attained some occasional reinforcement will be necessary.

Balance of ensemble and dynamics

Once the drumset volume has been adjusted to an acceptable level, then it becomes possible to begin the evaluation process of balancing the pan voices. Ask any section player (like a bass player) if he/she can hear the melody or part of the arrangement that should be the primary focus of that particular phrase. Of course each director must decide where the focus should be for any phrase and then manipulate the ensemble to produce that focus.

Due to improper balance inner harmony parts are often totally lost for the audience. Of course each band has its own uniqueness in the type and number of pans. These “numbers” initially set the balance of the ensemble. It is how each director adjusts the level between the sections that creates the true balance.

The most important place to evaluate the balance of any band is from the audience’s perspective. Have the band play a phrase or entire tune and go listen from where the audience will be listening. Utilize a pre-performance check list of balance questions. What is the overall sound of the ensemble? Too loud or too soft? What is the drumset volume? Can I hear the melody, counter melody, harmony, bass? What adjustments should be made for the players to feel more comfortable with the listening environment for that venue?

These final adjustments are made just moments before a performance but draw from a mindset that is created through attention and reinforcement during rehearsals. Balance is achievable only if the players know the difference between piano or forte and are able to adjust as needed.

Quality of sound – pan technique with regard to overplaying and striking area

Yes, pans are made of steel, and yes the large bands in Trinidad play hard. However, there is a limit to the amount of force that can be used to strike any percussion instrument before the sound distorts.

Pannists should never use their arms as a source of force when playing a steel drum. The arms should be used exclusively to navigate from note to note. The wrist and only the wrist produces the necessary force to strike a pan note. Tuners cannot be expected to maintain these instruments at a good level of intonation if players continuously damage the structure and shape of notes by overplaying.

A good way to develop your individual players’ sense of dynamic range for their pans is to have then practice a few scales that encompasses the entire tonal range of their particular pan. Make sure that each note is clearly articulated in both the low and high registers. The player should quickly become aware that the higher notes require much more force than the lower notes to achieve the same dynamic level.

A general misconception that many pan players have is that “my high notes don’t work.” Physics dictates that these small high frequency portions of steel cannot produce the same quality of sound as their relatives in the lower and mid registers. We all accept that the upper register of pianos are plinky and dry and we all accept that the upper register of a trumpet section will be thin. The same realizations must be made about the sound and performance of extreme registers on pans.

With regard to playing area: Every pan is unique and furthermore every pan note is unique; however, certain general rules apply. The sweet spot or striking area should be directly in the center of the note.

The physical nature of a pan note dictates that the fundamental and octaves are generated, in most cases, along a parallel line. The secondary harmonic, fifth, third, ninth octave, whatever the tuner created for that particular note, should exist perpendicular to the fundamental. The intersection between the fundamental and the harmonic is the note’s sweet spot and is general y the center of the note segment as outlined by its groove.

All of this technical jargon means that if a player does not strike in the center of a note they are exciting the harmonics and other tones that reside on the edge of that note and this equals a bad steel drum tone.

Execution suffers greatly when students use their arms as a source of force to strike a pan note. The distance from the stick to the surface of the drum is inconsistent therefore each attach and articulation is inconsistent. In the case of the band that reads music all of the time this problem is further complicated by the additional thought process involved in viewing another surface other than the drum during performance. Reading all of the time has its advantage because you can play a much larger repertoire than memorizing every chart. Every director must decide on their own concepts but I believe that a mixture of reading and memorization can achieve the best of both worlds.

Kinesthetics dictates that it is not possible for triple cello, tenor bass, or bass players to actually view their playing surface and their music simultaneously. Therefore, their striking area suffers and in turn tone quality suffers. Additionally if players are mentally occupied with reading and striking it becomes increasingly difficult to pursue other musical concepts like ensemble cohesiveness, tempo control, dynamics and projecting the performance to the audience.

Evaluating and adjusting performance attitudes to best utilize any given venue

Pan has evolved primarily as an outdoor instrument and moving performances indoors, as is often the case in North America, creates new challenges in balance. Each venue presents its own problems and each director is ultimately responsible for evaluating the venue and taking any actions possible, within reason, to improve the experience for their audience.

Basic educational media such as developmental method books and videos on pan technique and performance are very much in need. Today’s steelband leaders are charged with the responsibility of training young players with the right skills so in the future we can all play sweet pan—not beat pan.                                                                                                           


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ZAjamu, who is Shelly Irvine? Panyard inc? A brief bio/history? Wouldn't it be great if PanTrinbago could bring Shelly Irvine to T&T to teach 'em "how to play" the national instrument?
BTW Shelly knows what he is talking about, though.

Panyard, Inc is out of Akron, Ohio. More likely than not they are the world largest steelpan enterprise. Their web site www.panyard.com

If Patrick Ramdoo does not know about Panyard he should be on the forum discussing PAN.

Claude, if you look at my Facebook picture, I am wearing a Panyard T-shirt bought in the nineties. One of the first ones sold. My comment was not for my edification.

Experienced players soon learn not to slam their pans.( We used the term "Beating pans" back in the day because of the pan's origins from the drumming culture of T&T , not as a literal term).

In the old days , when steelbands added pans for the road , some of those pans were not as finely tuned as stage pans and gave the bands a rougher sound.

Unfortunately , there is a tendency for less experienced players to adjust the force of their playing based on the environment , whether indoors or outdoors.

Playing at moderate levels  is something that must be taught to young players.

This is not new , and is something that we always have to be aware of , and even some of our top ,experienced soloists have been known to slam their pans at times.

And BTW , I'm not anywhere near an expert on tuning , but I do remember the days when those "high notes didn't work", and it had to do with the skills of the tuner.

I remember when Southern Marines of Marabella was known to have the sweetest pans in South Trinidad , and part of the reason was because the great ( but unrecognized ) Milton "Squeezer" Lyons was one of the few tuners around to get those high notes to work in those days !

Well yuh khar be in Boogsie band if yuh doh bore ah hole in de pans on final night to create d excitement! Yuh aint go get paid.

This is a fantastic and mind-expanding topic!!! It would be nice to see some sideline readers and many regular posters delve into the intricacies of the issue.

If one should take the time to listen to Andy's music, Redon's music, some of Andre White's music, one gets a perfect example of what Shelly is talking about. I think most foreigners "play" and the music is easier on the ears.

Our culture from ever since Pan begun, is not to play the Pan, and it may never be. So it was in the beginning.

Bertel Gittens: Yuh make meh write ah whole long passage and then you summarize it in two short sentences. But since you emboldened me with your response, I will summarize that whole Shelly Irvine article with seven words: That instruction set is for WHITE PEOPLE.

Do we tell the Africans how to beat their Drums?? Of course not! Yuh could tell ah Trini anything an get away with it. Show him how to sneeze an he go follow!

…and patrick ramdoo that is so because these people probably insist that their music is "played" and not "hammered" out...


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