Victor Prescod - Performer, Educator and Adjudicator - In the Spotlight - UpClose!

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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Bright, articulate, immensely talented, intellectual, down-to-earth and forthright are all words that can be aptly applied in the description of this young man. He is a music educator and a much sought-after music lecturer and adjudicator of steelpan and other music-related competitions. He has been involved with the steel pan instrument for over twenty-six years and hails originally from southern Trinidad. 

An Exclusive Interview with Victor Prescod
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Meet Victor Prescod, project coordinator of the “Pan in the Classroom Project Unit” in the Ministry of Education of Trinidad and Tobago. This unit is part of the curriculum development division. Its main focus is having the steelpan used as the primary instrument to teach music in schools. In an informative and personable exclusive interview, When Steel Talks captures Victor Prescod’s insight on music education, adjudication and adjudicators.

As Victor travels throughout the Caribbean, he is heartened by the youth involvement with the steelpan instrument in all the islands. The future looks bright, according to Prescod, because the people are not only passionate about pan but also about music in general, and are musically literate in a number of areas. “With the advent of the Caribbean Examinations Council exams in music - at the end of high school. We have a number of persons who use the steelpan as their principal instrument for examinations. And the examination is not only about performing, but it’s also about arranging, composing, listening and appraising - so it develops the ear - it develops their composing and arranging we have in Trinidad and Tobago - probably about fifty to sixty percent of the students who enter the examination - use the steelpan as their principal instrument...” says Prescod. 

On judging, Victor believes that one of the things that needs to be looked at is the criteria for judging. “Many times persons fault the adjudicators for results, but the adjudicators can only work within the established criteria. And - competition is a strange thing when it comes to music. Because, there are some who say competition stifles creativity - and in a sense, it may. Once you enter a competition there are criteria. And if you are hopeful of being successful in the competition, then you need to address the criteria. What I have found is very often - the arrangers of music for pan, may not fully understand the criteria under which they are being judged. So that - arrangers are creative, so they get into a lot of the creativity which does not necessarily address the criteria...”

In speaking directly to the competing arrangers, Victor goes on further to say that “the tendency - for most of the competitions I’ve has judged - you have 40 points for arrangement, 40 points for general performance, 10 - tone, 10 - rhythm etc. But under arrangement you look for things like melodic development, motific development, and re-harmonization. A number of times, arrangers will move the melody around, within the pans. So you play the melody with the front line pans, you move it into the midrange, move it into the background, you bring it back, you might change the key - but you still have the same melody. You’ve never developed the melody. While you’re doing this, there’s lots of lovely things happening around the melody with the other pans - but the melody itself has not been developed. So that the music sounds good to the average listener. But melodic development never happened. So you’ve lost points there, and your band does not win, and you say ‘But de judges tief!!’....”

Performer, Educator and Adjudicator

Victor explains the similar misconceptions arrangers and fans have with harmonization and the jam session. “Sometimes - arrangers simply change the key. So you have the same basic chord structure - in a new key. You have not re-harmonized... or you go into the jam session - (this is my favorite one, lots of - lots of creative music happening in the jam session, that has nothing to do with the piece that’s being arranged. So that if you take a jam session from Phase II, and you drop it into an arrangement by Renegades that happens to be in the same key, it will work - because it’s just music that has no reference to [the] tune. And that may be - a minute and a half of music that really, does nothing towards the criteria, and no marks are really given for it - but it sounds good!....”

Victor is most proud of the explosion of pan music worldwide and moreover, the way in which the world has embraced the steelpan instrument. “It (pan) is on an upward trajectory” says Prescod. He believes there will be much happening in the next few years, along with greater recognition of the instrument as an instrument. Among the things he finds disappointing are the ‘egos involved.’ Prescod additionally states, “too often, within the pan community, we let very petty issues get in the way of the development.....” He also laments the “insufficient emphasis placed on [music] literacy. Because I think (as a musician), you are handicapped if you cannot read and write music. But I also think you are handicapped if you cannot play music by ear, and improvise music. So I’m not knocking that part of it - because that’s critical...There are some folks who are content to exist on their skill and their technique alone. But if we are to move forward with the instrument on a global level, we need to have performers - who can - really - just pick up a piece of music and play - regardless of where you are....”

On the question of: are all judges created equally? “No two human beings are created equal. And everyone will differ in terms of their range of experience, and their levels of competence. And it is for this reason, that, over the years I have been strongly advocating, training in assessment [for the judges]....It is critically important once we speak about criteria, that, for the sake of objectivity, everyone comes to a competition with the same understanding of the criteria. So that if we are looking for color, or texture, which are some aspects of the criteria, that’s now appearing in some of the adjudication score sheets - then all of the adjudicators need to understand - ‘what are we looking for when we speak to color; - what are we looking for when we speak to texture’....” explains Prescod. He strongly feels there must be a common understanding of this principle - no less. And adjudicators need to subsequently interact with arrangers and communicate that clarification of the various criteria. For the sake of the competition, the training in assessment could help reduce the innate subjectivity in those adjudicating. In the final analysis there could be created, a situation that eliminates opportunities for biases to show themselves in the overall adjudication process, which is the ultimate goal.

As to what the judges are hearing, and advice to arrangers? Victor maintains that “...a number of times, arrangers try to do so much with their music, that it may be difficult to discern, exactly which range of instruments is playing what, at what point in time. I have spoken with arrangers over the years, and one of the things I would say is, as an arranger - you need to step back from inside the band....step back a bit and listen to what is happening....- because an adjudicator is listening to that piece have one opportunity to hear it from beginning to end - and make an assessment. No human being can listen to everything that is happening simultaneously, and identify everything that is going on. Arrangers, drill masters - whoever they need to be - need to be able to - point the listener’s ear to what you want them to hear - [and ‘say’] ‘this is what I really want you to listen to at this point in time....’”

On “Pan in the Classroom” Mr. Prescod is concerned that, particularly in Trinidad and Tobago, pan is thought of ‘a number of folks’ as an ‘extracurricular activity.’ “....we [Pan in the Classroom] are about teaching music - during the regular school day as a music class - and especially at the elementary level....” In some schools, having ‘music’ on the timetable sometimes merely means that such classes consist of singing ‘a few songs’ - but not necessarily including even the most basic form of music theory - with the end result that students are not musically literate. He adamantly stresses the exact nature of the “Pan in the Classroom” concept.

“....As a music educator, I am passionate about music education. But all of the research that is done, tells you that the earlier a child begins to learn to read and write music, the better they perform across the board (academically). The three main areas that children really need exposure to within the first six years of life - music - well the arts, but music in particular, physical education and sports, and languages. Those three have been shown to be, the best areas in terms of developing the brain - making the connections around the neurons and synapses and so on; growing connections in the brain....”

“They found out, within recent times...there’s something that’s called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). And with fMRI, you can examine different areas of the brain, whilst someone is actually doing something - so you can see what area of the brain ‘lights up’ [where the activity is stimulating]. And one of the ‘buzz words’ in education for years has been ‘whole brain learning.’ Not ‘right brain’ not ‘left brain.’ And music and the arts have always been considered ‘right brain’ activities.”

“What they have been able to show, is that persons who are musically literate utilize both areas of the brain when they are processing music, so that someone who is not musically literate will listen to a piece of music, and it will show up as a right brain activity. Someone who has been trained in music - when they are listening to the same piece of music - both halves of the brain [light up]. The area of the brain that connects both halves is called the Corpus Callosum. Scientists have shown that the Corpus Callosum in musicians is thicker than in non-musicians, and they theorize that this is because of all of the inter-hemispheric traffic that is going on....More connections are grown. The greater the connections - the better processing of put something to music, it’s easier retained. You think of the little infants learning their ‘ABCs’....But the research continues to demonstrate that. Reading, science, mathematics, languages - a child exposed to music education in the first few years of life, performs better than someone who isn’t.....So this is why we stress “Pan in the Classroom” - because the objective is to teach music - and ensure that music is taught. But we use pan as the principal instrument - not as the only instrument, but as the principal instrument....”

Over the last school year “Pan in the Classroom” has placed instruments in over sixty elementary schools in Trinidad and Tobago. Prescod expects to cover all of the schools in Trinidad and Tobago with the next three to five years. He reminds us that there still remains many challenges as there are still groups in Trinidad and Tobago who do not see music as an educational function or tool, and do not want music taught in their schools.

Of Moods of Pan 2008 - in part, Victor had this to say: “...this was my first Moods of Pan - so I was very is an event that can be marketed internationally....beautiful event.”

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