When Steel Talks

Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music

Dear pan community, during the ninth century, Guido d’Arezzo invented western music notation. In the twentieth century, Trinidad and Tobago invented the steel pan. Western music notation took hundreds of years to arrive where it is today. Brass and combo bands read music notation to accompany calypsonians. Philharmonic orchestras read music notations when performing in concerts. Police and military bands read music notation in march parades. Many steel orchestra arrangers read music notation to teach pan players their parts.  Western music notation system has been highly beneficial to countless musicians. Therefore, this era may be the right time to redouble the efforts to teach steel pan players to read music notation on steel pans. Here is my question: What are the advantages or disadvantages of reading musical notation on steel pans?

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Comment by merrytonestothebone on June 16, 2021 at 9:50pm

Internationally acclaimed panist Victor Provost recently and quite aptly described pan as a “communal” instrument. He was giving an account of his introduction to pan and thus explained how he was taught to play his first tunes by rote. This tradition of learning tunes by ear, also referred to as audiation, has been with us from the genesis of the instrument and it the important and undeniable advantage of developing the panist’s “ears”. 

Pan is an instrument. Learning music on any instrument can be accomplished by listening to and memorising the required notes. It is high time that writing music for pan be regarded as no different to writing words. Just as we write ideas down for recall at a later date, we should embrace writing musical arrangements for pan. From my experience, audiation was an important introduction to the instrument in that paved the way for embracing formal music theory and notation. To preserve pan music for posterity we have three options: 1. Record it on some electrical device. 2. Write it down…or 3. Remember it and pass it on to other panists.

Learning pan by rote will always be with us. It is my belief that much more could be achieved by embracing music theory. Consider the time that could be saved when learning even the simplest of tunes. The abundance of music notation software available, coupled with the internet for access to and distribution of music gives panists little excuse for tip-toeing around the subject. 

Comment by Hiram Edwards on June 16, 2021 at 11:36am

There is a lot of history that has been lost by many indigenous peoples because they failed to put their history in writing. also, the music compositions are made more mobile.

Comment by George Rampersad on June 16, 2021 at 10:15am

I don't see any "disadvantages"...knowledge about music notation is a good thing for anyone playing music.

On the other hand, just as being able to read/write is not necessary to speak/tell a story, in the same way being able to read/write music is not necessary to play music. 

In my humble opinion, it would be better if pan players were taught not to jump up, act like clowns, and beat up their pans. Pan is not a Good Friday "bobolee"...it is an instrument just like any other.

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