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.
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.
One fact of acoustic physics not commonly known. To make something twice as loud, it is 10 dB louder, 4 times as loud, 20 dB. To make your tenor section sound twice as loud as a soloist, it takes 10 tenor players, at the minimum. To make it 4 times as loud would take a minimum of 100 tenor players playing together.
I say a minimum, because that assumes the players all hit the notes exactly in sync, perfectly "tight", which in reality never happens. In fact adding players in a section usually makes the sound "fuller", not much louder, as the players are not exactly tight, and players rolling notes aren't at all in step.
So adding one or two "average" players in a section of the typical panorama side has no significant effect. Having a "crackshot" who is able to play loud without the notes "breaking" has more effect. Yes, that is all technique. Some players play louder by pounding harder. Some know how and where to hit the notes precisely to play louder without "beating" the instrument.
The other way to "balance" sections is to move them closer or further from the audience (or the microphones). Cutting the distance between the player and the audience (or microphone) in half increases the volume 6 dB, somewhat less than twice as loud.
The sound system in Brooklyn this year was so badly equalized and miked/mixed that even the sweetest player would sound like they were beating the pan. This discussion, while important, is therefore rather academic. I want to try to get a copy of Adrian Lovell's recording and do some post production on it, to see what can be done. Since the sound system was clean, not distorted, but badly equalized, I might be able to make the recording sound better. I don't know unless I try.
The other issue is the lack of middle pans in the mix, although again the sound system was so messed up any change would have been academic. But I have some feelings regarding the arrangement of the instruments on the stage and the resulting sound. As a hint, study how a symphony orchestra, or even a rock and roll band of any size, is laid out and compare that to your typical steel orchestra. More on my obviously controversial opinion later.
Seeing that pan is played with mostly two sticks and music is all about timing I would say the more pans you have and the faster you play makes it difficult to touch the notes, some of the best players when playing fast slam the notes.
I don't know about steelbands throughout the world. But I do know that steelband music in Trinidad and Tobago came from a musical culture of NOISE. So the perfection that this article strives to achieve is a bit idealist for me. (Luckily I will be dead and gone long before Trinidad panmen get this message and implement it.) In the era in which I grew up, noise was integrated into pan music with all that excessive percussion and half-tuned pans. I could say that it was part of my culture and i developed a likeness and tolerance for it. Some players have a way of hitting the note and it just seems to crack/crash half-way through the decay -- I have always personally liked that ... don't know why. I never did like the iron in the steelband from small and still don't. But that raw cacophonous reproduction of a calypso or a pop song coming from the steelband out in the open air is still sweet music to my ears.
Now I know that there is a LIMIT to everything, so that is implied in my enjoyment of pan music by good players -- so BRADAM BRADAM BAM is still BRADAM BRADAM BAM.
To me, the ideal PAN SOUND, the soul of pan music is best heard when pan is on the move (ground or truck) and the band initially begins to move away from being directly in front of you and the sounds of the rhythm section just blend into the fading tones of the pan. You get snippets of this when watching PAN ON D AVENUE. But the very best example of it, in my books, is the TTT footage of Carib Tokyo moving off stage and leaving the savannah with their backs to the camera playing PAN IN DANGER (I still have the VHS TAPE). It is a very short piece of film but it touches the soul of steelband music NOISE or NOT.
And if the premier pan player (Mr. Merrytones) ever wants to compose a piece of PAN MUSIC that is sure to gain GLOBAL ACCEPTANCE then he should study and analyze THAT VIBE and express it musically with its calypso foundation, a little bit of R&B flavoring and a touch of JAZZ. But don't try to do it by yourself. Work with two African American music producers from those two genres and you are sure to have a hit.
In my view indiscriminate "beating pan" is a result of carelessness and anyhowness…plain and simple…much unlike a rehearsed fff passage in a piece. Unfortunately even longstanding professionals are sometimes guilty…and you would think they know better…..Maybe sometimes it's just the "vibes" that a tune gives I suppose.
One has to consider the sticks a player uses too. Nowadays we have surgical rubber tubing. Back in the day we used rubber strips. Unfortunately the art of wrapping sticks has been lost due to rubber tips. But it's all good, I find rubber tips work quite well. The weight of the stick is most important. I have seen arrangers pelt away bad sticks in my time. It is absolutely important that the correct sticks are used to get the best out a pan.
Often overlooked too is the business of handing. Just as fingering is to the piano and guitar, correct and efficient handing is to playing pan. The problem is that handing is best taught outside of Panorama. Once the Panorama bell sounds there is little time really to teach that important element of playing pan. From recent experience I can tell you it's like pulling teeth to convince novice players to "play" notes with the "correct" hand. Say what you want, to get the best out of the instrument you have to play it correctly…
At the end of the day playing pan is an art…as it always was…it's not simply target practice…leave that for archery at the Olympics...
Good differentiation, Patrick. If you want people to dance or you want to impress a Panorama Audience yuh have to JAM DEM PANS and REV UP the RHYTHM SECTION. Noise becomes inevitable under those circumstances. But I don't know what people complaining about as if this is something new. That article was written almost 20 years ago and nothing eh change yet. So we good for ah next 20 years -- by that time all the old expats dead and leave everything the way we meet it. THAT'S REALITY!!!
This is a very important topic because I believe the sweetness comes out when plan is played and not "slammed" or "beat". I think the emphasis on playing Pan as opposed to "beating" it was something I picked up from Ray early on. Also, playing the Pan saved money in terms of how frequently we had to tune Pans...however, there were times when players would try to compensate for low sound (due to the surroundings) and would overplay anyway. So, depending on the venue I would mic the Pans or leave them be...for example, some High School auditoriums have great acoustics, so mic'ing the Pans is not necessary.
I was listening to this classic from yesteryear , and the thought occurred to me that part of the problem may indeed related to panorama.
Unless the culture have changed drastically , most new players are attracted to steelbands at carnival time , and their first major experience is the panorama tune , where the emphasis is on speed , power , accuracy , and not necessarily on control ,smoothness, or timbre.
We forget that panorama is a descendant of road steelbands , where some of the pans added for the carnival were not as finely tuned as the pans used by the stage side.
Indeed I would suggest that part of the problem may stem from a combination of the less experienced players and the possibility that some of the pans that may make up a panorama band., may not be as finely tuned.
Most of our judgement about steelbands nowadays are based on panorama bands and panorama music.
IMHO , a far better assessment of the state of the art-form , regarding quality of the players and of the pans should be made by judging the stage sides of the top bands.