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Toward Standardized Pans

by Bert Boldon

Republished from -  PAN -  Summer 1988 - Vol.3 No.1  

Ellie Mannette pioneered many of the standard instrumental components of the steel band

Some say that given pan music’s relative newness, which makes ongoing exploration in the tuning area a foregone conclusion, any move toward standardized instruments would be premature. For others, such talk just doesn’t wash. Today’s fast-moving, high-tech pace, they say, demands that, as a category of instruments, steel pans should be no less conventional that other vehicles of musical sound.

So the battle is joined, and associate editor Bert Boldon has here unleashed the initial broadside in what should be some interesting give and take.  More important, it should all prove to be of immense value to the art form.

Some fifty years or so down the road of steel band music, a very important step must now be taken. We have, during this time, been through a plethora of styles; different combinations and groupings of notes making up instruments of the steel orchestra.

Let us isolate the sections of the orchestra and first deal specifically with the lead instrument or soprano. In Trinidad, the steel band’s birthplace, this has traditionally been called the lead pan or tenor pan, the latter being a misnomer. There were many different combinations of note placement on these instruments. Indeed, at certain points in their evolution it was impossible to visit another band as lead player and come to grips even basically with the lead instrument in that band.

This dilemma of varied groupings of notes was a direct result of individual differences, as tuners diligently groped with the painstaking task of searching for ideal combinations to perfect their model. It is important to understand that the surface of a steel drum was never designed to be a conductor of musical sound waves. Unlike the prepared string for violin, viola, etc. or brass instruments, whose properties and qualities were understood, measured, and tested before being used, the steel pan surface was not.

Informed sources would probably have considered it preposterous, if not altogether impossible, to perfect an instrument from so crude a base, never mind the stupendous task of faithfully reproducing so-called “serious music” from it. This was the task faced by the early tuners who were actually artisans, not trained in any special way to meet this special challenge. They were learning as they went along, working basically on an extremely intuitive level on a medium (steel surface) that would baffle the most formidable formal instrument makers of today.

Ellie Mannette’s double second, showing hand movement for C Major scale

We begin, therefore, with the double negative of uninformed tuner and untried and untested musical medium: steel drum surface. In light of this background, the present day steel orchestra is even more remarkable.

Of all the sopranos utilized in the early period, two are central to our discussion at this point.

The first great breakthrough was the Invaders style of soprano instrument. This had at its height, and as is used as a prototype today, a compass or range of just under two and one half octaves (30 notes) beginning from B under Middle C covering two octaves, to a higher B and continuing on for five more chromatic notes to E.

This was a remarkable achievement. Ellie Mannette, probably the most venerable and certainly the pioneer of pan tuners was able, by diligent and painstaking effort, trial and error and varied combinations and groupings of notes in different positions, to come up with an instrument which at the time could not be matched for clarity of tone, resonance, and facility of play.

Ellie Mannette’s Invaders styling soprano pan endured for a considerable period of time while the steel orchestra grew in complexity. It endured the early, rigorous testing period of the Trinidad Music Festival with its elaborate emphasis on classical music and demanding musical adjudicators like Dr. Sydney Northcote with impeccable musical standards, demanding on tuners, arrangers, composers, and players alike.

Any attempt, some thirty years after its brilliant contribution, to speak in any critical way about this instrument is to be viewed not in a negative or dysfunctional fashion but rather to show how and why change is necessary. That change is necessary is already evidenced by the fact that fewer bands are now using the prototype as their lead instrument.

Mannette’s tone became the culturally accepted standard
and was the basis on which any other instrument was judged.

The second important lead pan model is Anthony Williams’ so-called cycle of fifths soprano. The original model started from B. The present version often starts from Middle C on the piano and moves at intervals of a 4th to the left in a clockwise direction. The note on the immediate left of each note on the instrument may not necessarily be ascending in pitch but the musical symbolic symmetry representing a fourth remains intact. C F B flat E flat A flat, etc. Conversely the note to the immediate right of any note is an interval of a fifth apart (as notated symbolically).

The Anthony Williams “Spider web” soprano, showing C Major hand movement sequence.

It is clear from the outset that the Williams soprano is loaded with advantages. If you play a simple Ionian mode on this instrument starting from C, you will discover very shortly that to achieve this, you basically have to skip a note to get the following note in the scale. The exception to this is the 4th degree and the 8th, the desired notes of the scale being C D E F G A B C.

The significant feature of this instrument is that having accomplished this for the scale of C you have the means of doing all twelve musical scales, since the basic approach is the same. This holds true for any scale, mode or classical line you can imagine. There is an automatic transfer of movement to achieve the desired musical effect from one key to the next. This is remarkable. It eliminates any additional problem of interrelationships between notes as you move from key to key.

Ellie Mannette’s instrument is just the opposite. Each new key area requires the memorization of a different sequence of hand movements. There is no consistency as you move, for instance, from the key of C to the key of F. Consequently, in the execution of similar musical scales, arpeggios or indeed any identical melodic line, there is no basic consistency of movement as is present in the Williams model.

The pioneering Ellie Mannette soprano showing C Major hand movement sequence.

The implications of this one feature consistency of movement — are quite far-reaching for performers. In an intricate area such as jazz, for example, where melodic lines have to flow profusely and spontaneously from basic harmonic progressions that are heard only for a fleeting moment by the improvising player, this feature is of invaluable importance.

It also has tremendous advantages as a teaching tool, in that it can be more easily grasped and mastered. Anyone with a basic knowledge of scales and elementary harmony can easily come to grips with the Williams prototype.

For a longtime, Mannette’s instrument dominated largely because of its more acceptable tonal color. Mannette was and still is, to a great extent, the master of “sweet pan” in Trinidad; and Trinidadians love their “sweet pan.”  It would be an error to say Mannette’s toner was superior. It would be more accurate to say that he had achieved a tonal color that appealed more to pan lovers’ and pan enthusiasts’ basic taste. Mannette’s tone became the culturally accepted standard and was the basis on which almost any other instrument was judged.

Williams’ tone, although not as popular, was in many ways a scientifically sounder approximation. It is not surprising that his band, Pan-Am North Stars enjoyed much acclaim as a concert ensemble. His group’s precision and ease of execution of difficult runs, arpeggios, rhythmic figures and contrapuntal explorations were largely facilitated by an instrument that rendered those musical functions slightly less complex.

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Time and sophistication in the tuning area have erased the illusion of Mannette’s better-sounding instrument. Competent tuners are now capable of achieving a sophisticated sound on any model. However, the relative advantages of the Williams model have remained. There is, therefore, more of a movement in this direction than any other (i.e. to use this model as lead pan in different orchestras), but other models are also used and mastered. This lack of a uniform model makes for a very disorganized pan scene.

One of the problems that militates against a complete standardization on this level (soprano or lead pan) has to do with a somewhat “macho psyche mentality” of many players and pan enthusiasts who seem to take great delight in saying “any pan is a pan, a good player can play any type.” This assertion sounds okay and may be quite true when applied to exceptionally gifted players. The argument, however becomes quite different when we are talking about teaching the instrument or in assessing what greater heights the expert player would have achieved using an instrument that allowed him greater facility and scope.


Anthony Williams (right) introduced the "spider web" lead pan.  The instrument shown off  here by Williams and Herman "Rock" Johnston was an amended version which Johnston claims to have crafted and whose expanded range supposedly was the key to the Williams-led North Stars band winning Trinidad’s 1962 Music Festival with their memorable rendition of the Strauss Waltz, Voices of  Spring.

In my opinion, the Williams model should be used as the standardized model for soprano instrument. That this will emerge eventually there is no doubt, but time that’s lost in effecting the accepting of this model is retarding progress in other areas.

The real importance of Williams’ model is not only in the fact that it is the logical choice for standardization on the level of the soprano pan but that, because of its integral musical symmetry, it possesses characteristics that can easily be transferred to other sections of the orchestra. This is extremely important, for one must remember that standardization implies more than the fact that all lead instruments be constructed on a uniform level. It also implies that instruments of different sections of the orchestra should be so constructed that knowledge and skills learned on the soprano pan can be easily transferred and utilized to master the others and vice versa. In other words, eventually the knowledge and mastery of the lead instrument should automatically mean the knowledge and mastery of any steel instrument. With other related instruments this principle applies and so should it for steel pan instruments.

Ellie Mannette perfected a double second shortly after his soprano pan was introduced. This instrument, which should really be called a soprano because of its range, was originally designed to function as a harmonic accompaniment in an orchestral context. It was a work of pure genius. It could function playing solid chords behind the melodic lead line of the soprano or it could be very energetic with flourishing arpeggios. It was quite as capable of providing straight melodic lines as the soprano, thus counterpoint lines and contrasting melodic and rhythmic variations, but because of its more interesting range, it was more versatile. Indeed, this instrument was so versatile that it soon became the favorite of any soloist or any artist functioning in that capacity.

The instrument consisted of two pans mounted side by side. Each pan possessed an extended whole tone scale, i.e. the left pan began at E under middle C and ascended in whole steps E, F-sharp, A-flat, B-flat, C, D, etc.). The right side pan began from F and ascended in similar fashion — F, G, A, B, C-sharp, E-flat, etc. It is essential to stress, however, that the whole tones were not in consecutive order on the instrument. The player could achieve a chromatic scale by simply using his left hand on the left pan and alternately doing the same on the right i.e. each successive chromatic note went from left side to right side consecutively. It must be clearly stated that when this instrument was produced, it totally fulfilled the function for which it was designed. Again, any criticism of the instrument at this point has to be viewed in an evolutionary context.

As progressive as Mannette’s double second was, we can still see certain structural weaknesses central to our argument.

In observing the hand movement patterns, for instance, for running the C-major and F-major scales on this instrument, there is hardly any similarity apart from the fact that the first three notes on each scale are on one pan, followed by the next four on the other pan, with a return to the original pan for the octave note. The linear configuration resulting from hand movement to achieve one scale bears very little resemblance, thus relationship, to the other, except for what has been noted.

It is clear that there would be no similarity other than the above as you move from one scale to another or as you tried to run the same melodic line from one key to the other. It is therefore clear that as great as the instrument is, it suffers from the same structural weakness as its soprano counterpart. Furthermore—and this is of central importance to our argument—there is positively no structural relationship between these two instruments. In other words, there is no positive transfer of linear hand relationships learned in playing the soprano that allows you automatically to deal with the double second. Everything has to be relearned.

Mannette’s model was brilliant but because of its appearance in the early era of pan tuning, the technology was not as developed as it is today. Tuners were preoccupied with avoiding placing certain notes next to each other—witness the great distance between whole tones on this instrument. There are always at least two large notes between successive tones (e.g. the distances between C and D, D and E, E and F-sharp, etc.). Indeed, a close study of the surface of the pan strongly suggests that Mannette was attempting to maximize the distances between successive tones in order to control the distortion that would ensue as a result of uncontrolled harmonic overtones. This (structural) weakness of the instrument resulting, therefore, was not of Mannette’s making. It was the accepted method at the time to control harmonic distortion—cloudy notes resulting from harmonic overtones. It is evident that a superior placement of these notes had to be sacrificed because of a lack of sophistication in the tuning technology at that time.

An interesting contrast to the Mannette instrument is provided in a prototype developed by Ed Peters, a tuner who deserves to be taken very seriously. Peters works in Toronto, Canada, but also spends much time in Trinidad. He has been in the business of pan tuning for 20 years. He has worked with many of the top tuners, especially under the late Allan Gervais, probably Trinidad’s most versatile and imaginative tuner. Peters’ greatest move was to collaborate totally in all his work with Michael Haywood, an electrical engineer with knowledge in metal surfaces; and to quantify his techniques with mathematical precision. By using a rigid scientific approach in his work, he has been able to break through in areas where other top tuners are reluctant to investigate, the latter treating certain ideas as virtually sacrosanct.

Not only are some of the most popular pan-tuning practices in Trinidad questionable, but the attitude of some leading tuners is so rigid that change must most likely come from other quarters.

At the moment, the major emphasis in Trinidad seems to be on cutting down on the range (or compass) of instruments in order to achieve better tonal color on individual notes. So there is this fanatical preoccupation with eliminating the bottom end of the soprano to start from D over Middle C, thus losing three important notes, B, C, and C-sharp. A similar elimination of the bottom end of the double second has taken place: E and F have been excluded. The rationale is twofold: (i) that these notes can be placed on other instruments of the steel orchestra, e.g. the locally called double tenor, which should really be called double soprano, (ii) that the increased surface gained as a result of such note elimination is the reason for better tonal color, clarity and volume of each remaining note.

This sounds plausible but also a bit familiar. In the old days it was the same type of argument used to rationalize the placement of notes. It was also not too long ago in the field of electronics that we heard the size of speakers being responsible for better tonal color and volume. Time and improved technology have disproved all these fallacies.

Not only are some of the most popular pan-tuning practices in Trinidad questionable, but the attitude of some leading tuners is so rigid that change must most likely come from other quarters.

Peters has not been afraid to test these “sacred tenets.” He is very successful in achieving excellent results with tonal color while adding, rather than eliminating, notes on each instrument with no appreciable loss of volume. I have seen excellent soprano instruments starting from as low as A under Middle C. On the double second instrument he has also been lowering the range, dropping it to C, one octave below Middle C. With this increased range, the instrument now falls within the valid tenor range.

However, Peters’ main contribution is that he has made significant inroads into this dilemma of a mass confusion of notes by perfecting the Williams model and applying the principle of the linear pattern gained from this original instrument to the double second. Upon initial inspection of Peters’ double second, it appears that he has used Mannette’s whole-tone concept of each side of the double second and simply rearranged the notes, placing all whole tones adjacent to each other.

Upon further inspection of the Anthony Williams soprano pan prototype we see a strange pattern emerging. What Peters must have discovered is that by skipping each adjacent note on Williams’ model and placing it in the same order on the second pan of his two-pan set, there then emerge two distinct surfaces with whole-tone separations adjacent to each other. Thus, on the left pan, you have C, D, E, F-sharp, G-sharp and B-flat, all with whole tone separations; and ditto for C-sharp, E-flat, F, G, A and B on the right side pan. The result of all this is to split the original soprano instrument into two chromatically symmetrical parts, thus retaining all the qualities of the original instrument.

Now it becomes possible to achieve the same linear movement from key to key as on the original prototype. In contrast to the Mannette instrument, the movements used to play the scale of C are almost identical to the pattern used to achieve the scale of F. Indeed, all the scales conform to the same basic movement of the hands. This also holds true for any type of melodic run or line as one moves from key to key. What is also of utmost importance is that these movements also approximate similar movements on the original soprano instrument. The double second is no longer a new instrument—it is the same instrument, it just has to be understood.

Peters has adopted this basic principle throughout the orchestra right down to the basses. My only criticism of his work is that he winds up with a bass instrument of more than 12 drums. This is too cumbersome. It introduces serious problems in the execution of difficult melodic lines played to precision because of the great distances that must be “traversed” to execute these runs.

It bears noting that Peters’ basic instrument design approach would have been impossible if he were hung up on the myth surrounding consecutive tones placed next to each other. But some 25 to 30 years of tuning technology have evolved since Mannette’s double second and this new approach has led to success.

It’s obvious that there is, to repeat, an urgent need for the standardization of steel instruments. There is, at present, a movement in this direction, to some extent, as many bands turn toward certain common types of instrument models (e.g. the cycle of fourths soprano). Because of the varied models that still persists however, there is a great deal of disorder.

Moreover, there seems to be very little effort or even thought of an organized approach to provide any structural similarities from one type of instrument to another. The physical configurations of these instruments remain “islands unto themselves” as one moves from one section of the orchestra to the other with so little structural continuity that the learning process in each case becomes another “adventure into the unknown.”

In recommending that the Anthony Williams soprano be used as the standard lead pan, the feeling here is that panists should be operating initially from this instrument and working within a context of the harmonic basis that is fundamental to melodic movement.

From there, the Ed Peters model could be the logical instrument to follow, and further research should be conducted in exploring to what extent the initial model (Williams’) could be utilized in effecting a family of steel instruments so similar in their structural configuration that mastery of the soprano instrument would be tantamount to mastery of any other instrument in the orchestra. This is essentially the approach of Peters’ work.

By way of underscoring the concerns that loom significant in any serious consideration of the standardization issue, I would therefore cite the following:

• More research should be undertaken regarding further applications of the Williams model to the various sections of the orchestra, especially as one descends to lower tonal areas.

• Certain criteria should determine what constitutes the ideal instrument, among which should be (a) optimum minimum clusters for playing scales; (b) smallest intervallic relatedness between notes; (c) least hand movement to achieve scale pattern; (d) transfer of similar movement to achieve same scale, arpeggio or melodic line from one key to the next on the same instrument or on other instrument of orchestra.

• Sympathetic resonance — the sounding of a second pitch by sound waves generated by activating an initial note—as it applies to the steel pan surface should be thoroughly investigated.

• The use of the term steel drum is misleading. Drums are basically percussive. Their principal function is to provide a rhythmic framework within which melody and harmony can flow. They are made up of skins or membranes which are struck with sticks to produce a rhythmic effect. The surface of a drum produces a single pitch. The steel instrument does not use skins. Although there is a latent, intrinsic, rhythmic quality, its principal function is melodic and/or harmonic. Furthermore, its playing surface displays a wide range of pitches. Not skin but metal — steel — comprises its surface. Dr. John A. Gibbs in his book The Unit Steel Band attempts to deal with this problem. He calls the instrument the omnivibraphone. I do not like this term, but it does demonstrate the need for a change. If we can accept the term tin flute, perhaps we can do likewise with steel pan.

Finally, although there is no problem with the terms used in Trinidad to classify instruments of the (steel) orchestra, it becomes a problem when speaking of these instruments abroad. This problem of classification must be corrected. But the recalcitrance of the Trinidadian government in not acting in an aggressive and concerted fashion toward really promoting this art form to the world is a major problem. And perhaps the thrust of real change must come from elsewhere.

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Republished from -  PAN -  Summer 1988 - Vol.3  No.1  

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Editor-in-Chief: Leslie Slater at - slater.pro40@gmail.com
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Dalton Narine at -  narain67@gmail.com

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