Teaching Pan in the Modern Band

Mike Lawson • • June 6, 2019

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Balancing a traditional approach to music education with up-to-date musical trends is no simple task. Respecting and acknowledging the traditions of a musical form is important, but we must also recognize that music grows and changes.

Nyasha Rhoden tackles this challenge every day at Philippa Schuyler Middle School in Brooklyn, New York with her steel pan-infused modern band classes.

Even though the steel pan is a modern instrument and is less than 100 years old, its music use has changed dramatically in its short lifespan. Pan comes from an oral tradition, where songs were learned when one player showed another how to play a melody by rote. More recently, pan literature has grown to include a large library of written music. “I try to give them a nice balance of learning by ear as well as learning through reading off paper,” says Rhoden. She also understands the various skills her students will need to be successful in future music programs. “I always try to emphasize reading as a part of it because the students are getting ready for high school,” says Rhoden.

The history of the pan itself is an important element of teaching its music. “Steel pan comes from a history of young people in the inner city of Trinidad and Tobago. It was the disenfranchised, the social outcasts, the ones who weren’t getting the opportunity to learn what others were. It comes from a very similar background to the music from right here in New York City, like hip-hop.” Rhoden makes sure her students see this connection to get a better understanding how, though the styles are different, pan music grew from creatively using limited available resources in the Caribbean just as hip hop did in the Bronx: “The instruments are all based off of resources that were availability: bamboo sticks, oil drums. The mentality is just finding a new way to think about music, which is just like our modern band.” With this mindset, Rhoden hopes her students will better understand how music is not stagnant, and it can grow from whatever resources musicians have available to them.

Just like the musicians she teaches her students about, Rhoden uses the materials she has available. “Modern band doesn’t have to be confined to the guitar and the keyboard and the drums, it can be so much more in addition to those instruments.”

She hears the influence of pan in a variety of modern music. “Spyro Gyra, Grover Washington, Mint Condition, Andy Narell, French Montana. It was in the latest Star Wars soundtrack,” she says, and uses that to spark ideas for her and her students. “That’s the thing about modern band: It’s international. It’s not just rock or hip hop, there are so many facets depending on where you live.”

Rhoden instills in her students a mentality of limitlessness. Before students even play the pan for the first time, they watch videos of performers playing the instrument across the globe in a variety of contexts. “It’s not something that can be confined to a box. It can play all styles and we should treat it as such.” Once students begin playing pan, they play everything from traditional soca music to reggae, hip-hop and pop. With each of these styles they work on varying elements of musicianship.

“My students are arranging ‘Happier’ by Marshmello. So, I’m asking them, ‘Ok, how can we take this song and take it to the next level, musically? Dynamics, there have got to be dynamic changes! Tempo. What would be the best tempo that would keep the song moving but not sound nervous or rushed?’ These are all musical choices that the students are making.”

To simultaneously teach the origins of pan while keeping up with its ever-changing role in music, she focuses on both student- selected and teacher-curated repertoire. “Everyone has their preferences, so I’m trying to speak to every child that I can.”

Even though her modern band class looks different from many others, she holds a modern band mentality. “The philosophy that we have as modern band teachers – that students already have the tools within them in order to play and create music – is an innate part of steel pan music.”

Nyasha Rhoden is a full-time music teacher at Philippa Schuyler Middle School in Brooklyn, New York. Spencer Hale is a modern band specialist at Little Kids Rock, a non-profit organization focused on music education.

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