Chris Tanner is the founder and director of the Miami University Steel Band. He is the author of The Steel Band Game Plan: Strategies for Starting, Building and Maintaining Your Pan Program, a comprehensive resource covering all fundamental topics relating to the development of a steel band program, and the first of its kind to be published through a major firm. In 2011 he released his debut recording of original music for steel band and jazz soloists, titled First Impression. He has served as a guest clinician or performing artist at numerous festivals, workshops, high schools and universities. He is a frequently commissioned composer/arranger, and his works are published through Pan Ramajay Productions, Engine Room Publishing, and Panyard, Inc.

The Miami University Steel Band has appeared on three occasions at the prestigious Percussive Arts Society International Convention (2011, 2005, 2002), and have also twice headlined the annual PANorama Music Festival in Virginia Beach, VA. The ensemble has released five studio recordings since 2001, all produced and distributed by Pan Ramajay Productions.

Tanner serves as President and is a founding member of the National Society of Steel Band Educators (NSSBE), a non-profit organization created in 2016, dedicated to advancing steel band education in the United States.

Overview

The name says a lot.  You need a plan to create a steelband and Tanner lays it out. He takes you from the question, “What is Pan?” to coordinating rehearsals, performances and developing the engine room.  At just 112 pages I was impressed at how insightful and concise it was. Topics include how beginners may react, understanding the wide range of costs, manufactured vs. hand made instruments, assigning parts to people, arranging, tips on describing the mallet grip, preparing for performances, running rehearsals, choosing repertoire, teaching repertoire and the benefits of note vs. rote, to name just a few. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the engine room complete with notated examples of different “need to know” groove patterns.  Tanner even suggests taking an extra set of mallets on gigs in case of emergency.  I remember one of my first gigs when I played in a youth band where the stick box was left in the rehearsal and the gig was over an hour away.  An adult bought some timpani and marimba mallets at a local music store, while the tenor players made do with rubber-band-tipped pencils. Not a good look.   

Let’s dig in.

What I liked and Wondered

First thing is that many scholars conclude Steel Band is one word, and I will use that for the remainder of the review.  In the “Personnel” chapter Tanner points out the pros and cons of an inclusive vs exclusive recruiting approach.  What interests me hear is that on one hand many band directors choose to choose steelband route because of the fact that it looks fun and can be very inclusive. On the other hand  he states that the idea of “community building” can be essential for some directors focused on inclusion and therefore in some situations is more important than the music making. “Playing music is a mere by-product” he writes.

Community building is essential with music-making period.  What the community looks like is different for each ensemble.  This idea of community building is often questioned when we look at some European practices (or Euro-American) practices, as Patricia Campbell points out in Teaching Music Globally.  Making music is an essential part of society in general. The steelband  develops the community vibe immediately. With all of the learning, practicing and creating as a group, it is inevitable.  Now, his view does not kill the book. Seeing that this was published in 2007 I am sure that he would update some sections with new ideas if there were to be a second edition.  I wonder how it would be different.

He does a great job of stating what to do, and some best practices. I wish he listed absolute “no-nos”.  For example he discusses different instrumentation and classroom setups, including managing an over-enrolled band. Tanner suggests having students rotate through the rhythm section parts, creating a band A and B (with different rep) or the simple instrument rotation approach where students watch while another person plays before rotating.  

But there is still room for interpretation on how to accomplish any of these ideas.  It would have been useful to state categorically:

DO NOT  

  • Disassemble an instruments configuration to create a “1 person, 1 Pan/drum” situation.
  • Have students split up sets of sticks so that “everyone can play”.
  • Allow students to play on instruments with the wrong mallets due to a shortage.

He is particularly stern when it comes to tuning:  “Thus, directors or players with no tuning experience should never attempt to take a hammer to their instrument”.  Yes! Tell dem’.

Most experienced pannists can list the different “creative approaches” inexperienced directors have employed. The resulting bad habits and deficient technique are difficult to undo.  Something a little more stern throughout could have a different effect. It’s as if he needed an anger translator. “When a pan is purchased, a stand should come with it” means, “tables are not stands, nor are chairs, couches, vibraphone stands or anything else that is not a pan stand.”  And then list the reasons why.

There were definitely a few minor things that I did not agree with,  such as the suggestions on the voices of a beginner ensemble, or the statement that the layout of notes “defies logic”.  Yes the layout of notes defy logic in a linear sense but there is a pattern that exists, especially those instruments that have configurations based on Western Music theory.

Most of his suggestions on instrumentation state 2 basses, and make a lot of sense from a teaching stand point. Students in pairs can work together. Although it is scary to have one student on that part in the beginning the arrangements can be created where the bass is doubled rhythmically in a middle part.  The only reason I bring it up is because cost and space are always a factor and the bass, especially the 6-bass is a hard sell for any administrator who has to sign a check, and isn’t past the “What is Pan?” stage.  Also it is stated that the tenor bass is not a substitute for the 6-bass which is true. It is still something to consider strongly for young students, and again, limited space. You can also fit two tenor basses where only one 6 bass may fit. All details that instructors will have to sort out on their own!  

The other issue shows up in the repertoire section: “All soca and calypso makes Jack a dull boy.”

The steelband tradition is to perform. ALL music. He uses the analogy “a piano teacher would never allow his students to study and perform only Bach Fugues” to support his point.  He goes on to say that teachers of piano would have their students perform music of different periods and composers. In my experience and that of my colleagues, learning popular instruments (piano, strings, woodwinds, brass), being pigeon-holed within a style is the norm.  Another approach to the analogy would be: a well-rounded pianist should study all music, not just music written for the piano. Yet, that still isn’t relatable. Musicians playing conventional instruments typically DO focus on a specific style.  The variety of repertoire experienced in a steelband is unique. Here is my question: if we can attend an orchestra concert without saying “Can’t they play more than classical music?” then a steelband CAN solely perform calypso. Instead of trying to compare, state that unlike many other conventional ensembles, the steelband can, and has traditionally performed, a variety of styles, even if they are all Caribbean. After all it is one of the main selling points.  He also states that a band can “mature” faster playing different styles. Maturity (musicianship?) has to do with the instruction and the types of arrangements, available. A calypso can still develop techniques such as rolling. Directors will need to decide early on what the focus is for the ensemble and type of repertoire. These are useful and interesting discussions to bring up with colleagues.

He later describes different striking techniques named “Above the rim and below the rim”, whether to learn a Panorama-style arrangement or not, and dedicates a chapter to the engine room including notated groove samples.  Finally at the end he offers a list of the other resources that were available at the time.

Many years later this is still a valuable resource for the non-specialist steelband director.

It’s short (read it in a day) and available used on Amazon starting at $25. AMAZON. Every person new to pan should have this in their toolbox

The can of worms

I will restate that there is a ton of useful information in Tanner’s book.  Some I would have thought useful when I was first starting to teach. Unfortunately there is one major issue: “What is Pan”? – Chapter 1.  At the end of this chapter I had to start again. My second time through I looked for specific words. It hit me. A book about the steelband had been written that did not include the following descriptive words:

Africa

Afro-Trinidadian

Black

African

Diaspora

Words he does use, however, include:

European

French

Trinidadian

Slaves

Elite class

Poor

The omission of race, nationality or ethnicity in history that is directly related to interactions between races, is also its oppression. An explanation of Afro-diasporic music is not complete without mentioning Africa. In addition there are no images in the book to even suggest what Trinidadians might look like.  Not even of the icons mentioned such as Ellie Mannette, Lord Kitchener, Anthony Williams or Ray Holman. Three years prior to this publication, Shannon Dudley published Carnival Music in Trinidad, where history and music is described in terms such as:Afro- Trinidadian, Indo – Trinidadian, Poor blacks, White, African descent.

Now you can envision this world. This was one of the aspects of history that I began to focus my ideas on as far as curriculum.  How do I instill in my students an understanding of different cultures, not just the music and the lifestyle but what the people look like, dress, eat, dialect and how all of this impacts their politics, education social status, culture and music.  When teaching music of a cultural minority, imparting knowledge about races and cultures is also an important of being an ally, in the struggles of those same people.