New Zealand Experiences Steelband Love Through The Passion Of Marion Titmuss

written by Marion Titmuss

Marion Titmuss, musical director of New Zealand Steel Pan Academy
Marion Titmuss

New Zealand - What is a white, middle class, classically-trained flautist doing trying to get Pans going in New Zealand schools and how did she get the first University in Australasia to agree to Pans being introduced?

In 2011 following the earthquake in Christchurch my family emigrated to New Zealand and I brought with me all the Pans I had amassed over 25 years of teaching Pan in the UK. I felt that these pans had been entrusted to do good with as I had a rollercoaster of fun since being introduced to the sweet magic of steel by the bands in London UK.

My Pans were made by “Biggs” Yearwood, Tony Charles, Michael “Natsy” Contant and Toussaint Clarke. I realised that it was going to be quite a struggle to get Pan in education established, there are few if any Kiwis who know what a steelpan is!

New Zealand Academy of Steel Pan

I launched the NZ Steelpan Academy on 19th May 2012 at the Tauranga Art Gallery at which almost 400 people attended. Prior to the official launch I had sent out letters to every Senior school in the Tauranga area offering to come and teach Pan for free providing the instruments. Out of almost 50 schools, two said they would be interested - Otumoetai and Katikati College.  I taught the students at Otumoetai College for the 6 weeks prior to the launch and they performed at the event to an enthusiastic audience.

Steelband at Otumoetai College, New Zealand
Steelband at Otumoetai College
Steelband at Otumoetai College, New Zealand
Steelband at Otumoetai College, New Zealand

The management at Otumoetai College was highly supportive and keen to embrace the initiative; however the Head of Music left with no replacement and the band was closed down eventually by the school. However, before that we did take the Pans out into the community performing at the Mount, the Sir Howard Morris Performing Centre in Rotorua as well as the Greerton Spring Festival, the Tauranga Multicultural Festival, the Te Puna Quarry Festival and Whakamarama Acoustic Festival.

The lesson from this trial was that without a Head of Music in post and keen, the initiative would likely fail regardless of my enthusiasm as the students need access to the instruments during the week.

At Katikati College I taught both the school students and visiting international students from Thailand, Korea and Japan. This group performed in the North Island Music Festival at Waikato University, in Matamata, at a week-long music camp, in Auckland at the Sacred Voices Festival, as well as in the 2018 NZ steelband Festival.

Playing at the Hamilton Garden Festival
Playing at the Hamilton Garden Festival

The Head of Music Mrs. Wendy Fleming was hugely enthusiastic and supported both my teaching and the logistics of taking a school band out to perform.

With her I toured all the Primary schools in the immediate vicinity to promote pan to the incoming year 6 students, as well as taking 3 of the students to Brisbane to perform in the PANZ Festival. This group (formed in 2012) lasted until 2019, only closing when the Head of Music went on a sabbatical and a new Principal decided to re-purpose the music room. However, before this band closed Wendy Fleming commissioned a set of Pans from Lennox Jordan. These pans are not currently in use.

At the same time as these school bands I also formed a disability band for adults as part of the education programmes offered by Avalon BOP Inc.  This group performed in local venues and at the Hall in Te Puna promoting the value of Pans as an instrument for people of disability.

Avalon student playing Guitars in the Pan house in Katikati
Avalon student playing Guitars in the Pan house in Katikati

In 2013 I approached the Katikati Resource centre and offered to start an adult community band; I was enormously lucky to be lent for free the use of a house that stood empty in Katikati.

Steelband students in New Zealand

This house was sold in 2016 which meant I needed a new home for my pans! Taking a loan out to build the Pan house at home was the only way to ensure the band continued.

Building the new Pan house
Building the new Pan house

This band to date has played in over 30 Festivals and events including playing at the PANZ Festival in Australia, the Masters Games, Hamilton Garden Festival and Paeroa Highland games.

In 2019 they recorded their first album “609 Steel” (the combined ages of the band members!)

Pipe Major of the Tauranga Pipes Mr Damien Hodges with whom we performed “Pokarekare Ana” at the Paeroa Highland Games in 2019
Pipe Major of the Tauranga Pipes Mr. Damien Hodges, with whom we performed “Pokarekare Ana” at the Paeroa Highland Games in 2019

Whilst the players originally all began by using my pans, as of July 2019 - 8 tenors, 4 sets of Double seconds, a set of guitars and two sets of cellos have been bought from makers in Australia (Lennox Jordan), America (Steve Lawrie, and Panyard) and Trinidad (Gills Pans) making the number of Pans now in the Bay of Plenty to be over 50 when combined with my set.

Bay Silver Pans
Bay Silver Pans

In 2019 after 5 years of me constantly emailing the Head of Percussion at the NZSM in Victoria University, Mr. Lance Philips, I was invited to facilitate 8 sessions, a workshop and final performance at the University. This trial program if successful will be continued as a 10-point paper which any Victoria University student can take in 2020. The students are drawn from the Master Degree course In Music Therapy and Bachelor Degree Jazz students. There’s no space for me so currently I teach in the wings of the memorial theatre and the pans are stacked into a broom cupboard at the end of every rehearsal, which is not ideal as the students cannot access them during the week; progress will be slow as a result.

Lance Philips Head of Percussion, Ralph Titmuss VUW Grad, Anita Gude and Xiuyu Li (Music Therapy Masters Undergraduates) at Victoria University
Lance Philips Head of Percussion, Ralph Titmuss VUW Grad, Anita Gude and Xiuyu Li (Music Therapy Masters Undergraduates) at Victoria University

The challenges are huge in establishing any programme at degree level - not least because the admin staff here in New Zealand are completely unsure how to promote the instrument and support it, and they are really not sure why they should feel enthusiastic about it as they have never experienced the magic of an amazing steel band. Right now the contact I have had from Pan players and Pan enthusiasts elsewhere in the world has been vital to keep me on track.

I have Tracy Thornton coming from America to run a workshop and have had offers from other kind panists who wish to see this initiative succeed.  The University needs to feel its in their interest to continue the Program so any ideas on how to cement this trial are very welcome! There is no Minister for the Arts in New Zealand, nor a Trinidad and Tobago Government representative here.

Pan has grown enormously in the last 6-plus years here; I have been lucky to have arrived at exactly the moment when there are others available and enthusiastic about expanding the Pan movement in New Zealand. The support and hard work of Leticia De Klerk in Auckland have been invaluable building upon the work of Camille Nahkid and the band Caribbeanz Southern Stars. Scott Brown in the North of New Zealand is running an awesome steelpan provision in his school and the organisation PANZ supports all of us in the pan community ‘down under’ as well as Mark Loquan, Steve Lawrie and Lennox Jordan.

What has become clear however is that the biggest bar to an educational facility keeping a steelpan initiative going is not necessarily the lack of instruments (as with just one lead pan plus some other percussion, a Bass and keyboard player, it is possible to play some of the steelpan repertoire and rhythms) but the enthusiasm required from the Head of Music and also the Principal of a school/university; it’s hard for them to understand what is possible if there is nothing local to see and be inspired by. This was not an issue in the UK with some many excellent bands and plenty of Festivals, Carnivals and competitions.

What is needed now is some support from the home of Pan, Trinidad and Tobago, we need to be able to access their expertise and practical knowledge quickly, perhaps via Messenger/WhatsApp/Facetime so the students and staff can see Pan players from the home of Pan, they can then [ask] questions, listen and benefit from this connection rather than just have me telling them how much fun they will be able to have once they’ve learnt their notes!

In addition, a looming problem is how to somehow ensure that when my very old instruments fail (built in the1980s/90s), that we have someone here that can build pans and tune them, as currently there is absolutely no one in New Zealand! Schools do not have the funds to purchase commercially available pans. Are there any Pan makers that fancy a trip ‘down under’ to help train someone?? Or maybe some old pans no longer needed.

Looking ahead I hope to establish some new school bands in the Wellington region which can complement the work being done in Auckland and Northland. Ideally holding an educationally focused convention within the next year, as well as expanding the focus of Pan to include music with other instrumentalists. Perhaps there might be a band that would like to come for a trip Down Under! We could promise an amazing experience for sure as life here is unique with flora and fauna not seen anywhere else in the world.

 New Zealand Steel Pan Academy - Marion Titmuss, Musical Director


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