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Meet Amanda Lawrence of Dominica

From the Caribbean island of Dominica to the Ivy League walls of Princeton University, the pan has always been by her side. It is simply her joy. Her romance with the pan and pan culture has had a lasting global impact on those she meets on the roads she’s travelled, and those who find the steelpan “strange, amazing and beautiful.”  In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, Amanda Lawrence of Dominica shares how her life revolves around the steelpan.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “You are from Dominica and were part of the Brizee’s Drama Club, and its steel orchestra. Were you introduced to the steelpan as part of the club?  How old were you?”

Amanda L. - “Oh gosh, let’s see. I was about 7 years old when I joined the Cultural Drama Club. I joined because I saw a skit that some members performed and wanted to get involved. It so happened that around that time, the club was becoming more and more popular and with the influx of children, the Drama Club expanded to include not only drama, but activities like traditional Dominican dance, drumming and of course steel pan. This was my first experience with pan, and actually, I can’t say that I immediately fell in love with it. I actually left the Drama Club in grade six to take the exam necessary for entrance into high school, and in my second year of high school, I realized exactly how much I missed playing pan. That was when I fell in love with the instrument:  in its absence. From that moment on, I sought out every opportunity I could get to play pan, whether that meant playing in St. Lucia and Antigua Panoramas or playing in a marching band of brass instruments, and it’s brought me so far from that time. I cannot place a value on the friends I have made and the experience I have gotten through playing pan.”

WST - “Your instrument of choice in the steelpan family is the double second; is there a reason that you gravitated towards this particular pan?”

Amanda L. - “Double Second is actually the first pan I ever played in the Drama Club. My memory is failing me, but I don’t believe I chose it; I think the instructor placed me there. In the Drama Club, we didn’t do too much moving around on pans, so when I started playing in other bands, it was the pan I felt the most comfortable and learned the best on.

“Now, I can say that I have a particular reason for liking Double Second more than other pans. It’s a rather nerdy reason, but bear with me. I actually think the Double Seconds have the best pattern because the two pans are roughly mirrors of each other, transposed by a semitone. Basically, the fact that I can play a chromatic scale without having two consecutive notes on the same pan coupled with its great range are key reasons why I love the instrument, and why I think it is the best in the family.

“Recently, I have taken a liking to the Quadrophonics, which I was exposed to in Pantime Steel Orchestra (St. Lucia). I just think it’s an amazing instrument. It’s been described to me as an extension of the Double Second (I won’t take credit for that description, but I think it’s a good one). Maybe it’s the fact that it is four pans with an AWESOME range, the fact that it has a similar mirrored characteristic to Double Second, or the fact that it seems a bit virtuosic to be a good Quadrophonics player, but it’s fighting (and winning) a hard battle against Double Second for #1 in my books.”  

WST - “You have always been a confident young lady, evidenced when When Steel Talks interviewed you in Dominica in 2008. Have your steelpan performances empowered your self-confidence in any way?”

Amanda L. - “First of all, thank you! And definitely. It’s always great for people to have something they love to do. In my case, I am lucky enough to say that I am fairly good at it, and having the opportunity to play pan in big bands in St. Lucia and Antigua and hold my own against some of the region’s great players is definitely empowering.

“Outside of the Caribbean, my performances are typically an audience’s first experience with steel pan. Although it is somewhat bizarre to be looked at as “exotic”, especially when I come from a place where steel pan is far from that, it is empowering to know that I have a skill that others find strange and amazing and beautiful.”  

Amanda Lawrence, as part of the Princeton University Marching Band
Amanda Lawrence, as part of the Princeton University Marching Band
photo by Nicole Rafidi

WST - “You are at Princeton University in the United States. When you first left Dominica to further your education, you insisted that your double seconds were going with you. How was your love for steelpan viewed at your school in the US?”

Amanda L. - “At my boarding school, Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts, it was primarily seen as exotic. At the beginning of my first year there, I auditioned for a group called World Music Combo (WMC). The director of this group saw my instrument, and though I didn’t have any audition piece prepared, he fell in love with the instrument immediately. He asked me to play something, anything, and just told me to keep going. As a member of the group, I was among other world instruments that seemed exotic to me, and we played music from all over the globe. Everyone ended up loving the instrument, although I don’t think they ever really understand my complete love for it.

“At Princeton, the reception was similar in that most people who saw or heard my instrument were amazed by the unfamiliar sound and sight. People who heard me practicing in my dorm would ask to learn something or for private shows, and in the end, everyone loves the instrument as much as I do.”  

WST - “At Princeton, you joined one of the musical bands on campus - with your double second, the only steelpan instrument in the ensemble. How did this come about, how was it managed?”

Amanda L. - “Yes, I joined the Princeton University Band with my steel pan. The band is a typical marching band consisting of woodwinds, saxes, brass and marching percussion. I would never have thought that there was much place for me in the band, but one of the first people I met at Princeton, upon learning that I had musical talent, insisted that I join the band (and in retrospect, that was good advice as I went on to become the first-ever Caribbean President of the Princeton University Marching Band). As a freshman, I figured I should be willing to try things, so I joined the band playing flute. I played flute and bass drum throughout the football season because I could not march with my pan, but as soon as the winter came and the band was playing at basketball games where we don’t move around, I was encouraged to pull out my pans by officers in the group. It was a bit of a hassle moving them around because I had to carry the stand and two pans, and could only play flute music because it was the only music in the right range and key. But people liked them so much that they tried to find a way for me to play them while marching. That never quite worked out.”

WST - “What is the reception to your appearance with the band when you play Pan, by those who may not be familiar with the instrument, or the fact that you were the only one playing Pan?”

Amanda L. - “Within the band, people have definitely gotten used to it. Spectators, however, do a lot of staring and pointing. Every now and then, they’ll actually come over and ask about my pan or ask to try playing it. They’re often amused by the fact that I’m playing such an “out-of-place” instrument, but it’s okay; I enjoy spreading the word about it.”  

WST - “Have other musicians expressed the desire to play, since you’ve been on board with your double seconds?”

Amanda L. - “Most definitely. People within the band have repeatedly asked about playing, and I’ve given mini lessons to several of my friends. I actually founded a group this year at Princeton, Princeton Steel Orchestra, along with two other players here at Princeton. We envision the group growing once we get the funding to buy instruments, because they’re sure not keeping mine!”  

WST - “What is your field of study?”

Amanda L. - “I am currently a senior studying music composition, so maybe I’ll start arranging soon! Who knows.”  

WST - “Have you been able to play in a full steel band, since leaving your days in Brizee’s Drama Club?”

Amanda L. - “How could I not?! I’ve played with Pantime Steel Orchestra in St. Lucia every summer since 2005 and with Ebonites Steel Orchestra in Antigua every summer since 2010. Those two opportunities are literally the highlights of my year, and it feels as though I’m living from Panorama to Panorama. It’s probably not a healthy mindset to have, but what can I say? This is what I love doing, and it’s absolutely incredible to do it in a large band. The entire process of learning a panorama tune in a few days, drilling and then getting on stage stimulates me. The music of 70+ instruments is so powerful.”  

WST - “There is a young crop of highly intelligent, talented, very motivated and educated young women emerging all over the Caribbean, North America and Europe with steelpan music backgrounds like yourself. How do you expect this will change the face and fortunes of pan?”

Amanda L. - “On one hand, this is fantastic for encouraging young girls to get involved in steel pan at an earlier age. It is always inspiring and encouraging seeing people like oneself that one could relate to - involved in an activity, and seeing young women involved in pan will do that for young girls. It’s great that the playing field is beginning to be evened out. This means that the future face of pan is anyone and everyone, and that is so vital for a cultural symbol and pastime, especially a relatively new and growing one like pan.

“In terms of the fortunes of pan as it relates to global growth and musical development, women’s increased role will generate a larger number of talented panists working on developing and spreading steel pan and pan music. Men aren’t doing anything that women can’t for steel pan, or vice versa. The most important aspect of steel pan’s future and development is the force behind it, not necessarily the gender.”  

WST - “You have traveled to St. Lucia over the years to perform with Pantime Steel Orchestra, the 2013 Panorama champions. Talk about your experiences there over the years.”

Amanda L. - “Well I sort of covered this in question 9, but I’ll say a little more:

“Playing with Pantime has been one of the most formative experiences I’ve had. At this point it is the most constant thing in my life beside my family, and I most definitely feel like Pantime is my band, just as much as any local player. I’ve been playing with them for almost half of my life and almost everything I know about being a performer comes from my experiences with Pantime. Panorama had always been an opportunity for me to play, and I was grateful just to be able to do that.  Winning Panorama this year was fantastic, and I was so proud of the group, but I also realized that the competition was never what was important to me; it was the music I learned and the friendships I made. I feel like I am waxing poetic, but I honestly feel like St. Lucia is my second island. That panyard is my second home.”  

   Amanda Lawrence performs with Pantime during the orchestra’s 2013 Panorama Performance in St. Lucia

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