WST - “Tell us about Amanda Duncan?”
Amanda D. - “I am a professional percussionist and music educator based in Southern California. I have been playing drums and percussion for 20 years, and steel pan for 12. I am a freelance musician in Los Angeles/Orange County, and I’m also the Director of Percussion (a full-time faculty position) at Santa Margarita Catholic High School (SMCHS) in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. At SMCHS, I teach three classes of steel band/percussion ensemble (two of which are honors-level), two classes of beginning handbells, and AP Music Theory. I am also the faculty advisor for our Jazz Club, and I am the coach for the front ensemble section (all the non-marching percussion instruments) of our marching band. I’m the former Director of Lakewood Steel (worship steel band) at Lakewood First United Methodist Church in Lakewood, California. I’ve taught pan privately, in a high school setting, and in an adult community band setting. While I play and love drums and percussion instruments from many different cultures and regions, one of my passions is steel pan.”
WST - “When and how did you first become aware of the steelpan instrument?”
Amanda D. “I first heard the steel pan when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I remember my dad coming home with a CD from a busking steel panist, and I listened to it, intrigued, but I never thought about the possibility of learning to play a pan. Years later, in 2004, I began my undergraduate degree in percussion performance at California State University, Long Beach, where in the 1980s, the late Dr. Michael Carney had started one of the first university-level steel bands on the West Coast. As part of the percussion program, all majors were required to be in the Percussion Ensemble, the World Percussion Group, and the Steel Drum Orchestra every semester. August 2004 was my first up-close exposure to the steel pan, and I was quickly captivated by the sound. Within a couple of years, pan had quickly become one of my loves in the immense world of percussion instruments.
“After I earned my bachelor’s degree in percussion performance, I went to Northern Illinois University (NIU) for my master’s degree in percussion. NIU was the only place I wanted to go for grad school, and a primary reason was because of the NIU Steel Band, Cliff Alexis, and Liam Teague. While I wasn’t a steel pan major, I played in the NIU Steel Band every semester, and played pan in every capacity I could while I was there. I worked with Mia Gormandy in private lessons for a semester (we overlapped for a year in our respective master’s degree programs), played pan in jazz combos, in my recitals, and in as much of my creative output as I could. I met so many great people at NIU and made lots of friends, and from my NIU connection I’ve been able to meet many other panists from across the country and the world.
“Since graduating with my master’s degree in 2012, I moved back to Southern California and have been there ever since. Along with other percussion instruments, I play pan as much as I can, and I also teach my three steel band classes five days a week.”
WST - “You are an organizer, performing artist, educator, steelpan player. Which role defines you best?”
Amanda D. - “Every time I play steel pan, I wear all of those hats. Every time I teach steel pan, I wear all of those hats. Every time I arrange music for my classes or my own smaller groups, I wear all those hats. I am, and must be, an advocate for the pan every time I pick up my mallets, direct a rehearsal at school, or talk to someone about pan. While beloved by so many players and enthusiasts around the world, the steel pan is incredibly misunderstood by the general population in the United States. Stereotypes keep the instrument from gaining the respect it deserves, and I see this on gigs. Any time someone comes up to talk to me, I always find an opportunity in our conversation to tell them: 1) the pan is from Trinidad (most Americans still think it’s from Jamaica), 2) it can play any style of music, and 3) anyone can learn to play pan, and the steel pan can be used to teach the fundamentals of music in school, just like the piano, trumpet, violin, or clarinet.
“In my classroom at SMCHS, from day one, I tell my students about the versatility and beauty of the pan, about its history, the struggle of its pioneers, and the current struggle in today’s world for the instrument to be viewed on equal footing with other instruments and types of music. I tell my high school students: “Don’t you ever take this class or this instrument for granted. You don’t realize how rare it is for a high school to have three steel band classes fully integrated into the curriculum, let alone any music program at all. Some Trinidadians don’t have this opportunity, and they live in the country that gave the world this gift! Of the billions of people on this planet, very few will ever have the chance to do what you’re doing in this classroom. So respect the pan, respect its origins and culture, respect the music, respect what we’re doing in class, and respect the opportunity you have to learn and play it.””
WST - “Who is your favorite arranger and why?”
Amanda D. - “To be honest, I am still exploring the output of all the great arrangers, and I don’t yet have a favorite.”
WST - “What is the greatest challenge facing this current generation of steelpan musicians from both an educator’s perspective and that of a player?”
Amanda D. - “From my humble educator’s perspective, the greatest challenge facing this current generation of steel pan musicians is the lack of respect given to the instrument, in that the pan is not viewed as a vehicle through which music fundamentals can be taught. If an American elementary school has a music program at all, the instruments taught primarily include violin, cello, and maybe trumpet, flute, and clarinet. Perhaps a school may have a choir. With all due respect to my violin/cello/trumpet/flute/clarinet/singing colleagues, I strongly feel that the steel pan is an excellent first instrument, especially for elementary children, through which to teach music for the following reason: it is relatively easy to make an acceptable sound within one class session. Let me be very clear, as everyone who is a regular visitor to When Steel Talks knows, it takes years and years of practice to become proficient at steel pan, just like every other instrument. However, to the untrained ear (and certainly to a child), simply striking the pan is very fun, regardless of tone quality, balance between the notes, or dare I say, even correct notes!
“There is a tremendous curiosity that surrounds the steel pan, and in almost every instance where I’ve taught absolute beginners, being able to learn one song in a single sitting is incredibly gratifying. It gives a sense of accomplishment, because from a purely mechanical point of view, it doesn’t take much to play a note on a pan - a note that not only sounds pretty, but is in tune (unlike the first notes on a violin!)! But because of ongoing stereotypes, misunderstandings, and lack of awareness about steel pan in this country (not to mention so many other factors in the American education system, which I will not go into), the instrument is not even given a chance to compete for equal footing with more “traditional” instruments like the violin or piano. Of course, there are fantastic exceptions to all of this, but for the most part, I believe steel pan won’t be able to be included in school curriculum until administration, teachers, parents, students, staff, and the general populace are exposed to the instrument and what it’s actually capable of. This all goes back to breaking down the misunderstandings and stereotypes of the pan.
“As a performer, the greatest challenge I face is availability of gigs. Fewer and fewer opportunities are available for live musicians of any genre. Lately, I’ve been finding myself more and more focusing on arranging music for pan (all creativity and performing aside, this is a practical, day-to-day matter for my SMCHS classes), and also on improvising. Having said all that, I don’t gig as much as other panists in Southern California, simply due to my full-time teaching job. There are others who are more qualified to answer that question.”
WST - “What keeps your passion for the instrument and music going?”
Amanda D. - “I’m still just as captivated by the pan today as I was when I first started playing it. There is something indescribable about the instrument that has me hooked. I can’t explain it. Part of it is the tone - pan has such a magical sound.
The same goes for all drums/percussion, and for music itself. There is always something new to learn, and there is beauty and comfort in knowing that you can and never will master anything in music. We never “get there.” We are all students, exploring the possibilities, and that is very exciting to me. If I ever do get a little burnt-out of one genre or instrument, there are literally thousands of others in the percussion family and the world of music that I can start to learn about.”
WST - “Do you play any other instruments?”
Amanda D. - “In the percussion family, I play just about anything (drum set, orchestral instruments, Afro-Cuban instruments, Brazilian instruments, jazz vibes/steel pan, auxiliary percussion, solo marimba, etc.). Again, the world of percussion is immense, and there are tons of percussion instruments that I would love to learn. My very first instrument (at 8 years old) was violin, and I wasn’t very good at that. I took piano lessons for a few years as a child, and also played bassoon for 6 months in high school, but for the most part, I am just a percussionist. To an extent, I can do some basic ‘comping’ on jazz piano, but I have little technical dexterity on that instrument. That’s my next long-term project: technical proficiency on the piano. I’ve recently started to work out of the Hanon book, and I’ll be doing that for many, many years before I could even think about saying to someone, “yeah, I can also play the piano.””
WST - “ If you had the power to change something in Pan immediately what would that be? ”
Amanda D. - “Standardization of note layouts, without a doubt.”
Amanda D. - “I’m proud of how much pan brings people together. The steel pan is such a joyous and communal instrument.”
WST - “What disappoints you the most in the steelpan movement?”
Amanda D. - “I’ve heard that many Trinidadian youth don’t know much about the history of the pan - if that’s true, then that is disappointing.”
WST - “What would be your advice to the thousands of young female panists all over the world who are dreaming of becoming involved with the steelpan instrument as a career move?”
Amanda D. - “Become an advocate - for the pan, for the pioneers, for the music, for the culture, but also for yourself. Put yourself out there, make connections with other musicians, arts advocates, educators, business and community leaders, administrators, etc.”
WST - “This year you experienced Panorama in Trinidad & Tobago - describe your personal journey with Panorama?”
Amanda D. - “This was my first year playing in Panorama, and also my first trip to Trinidad. Ever since I first began playing pan, I always knew I’d eventually make my “pilgrimage” - it was just a matter of when. I’d been wanting to come to Port of Spain for years, but 2016 was the time when everything - schedule, finances - finally lined up for me. Trinidad was everything I’d heard about and everything I imagined it would be, and so much more. I’ve fallen in love with the culture and the people, and my passion for steel pan has only been further invigorated! I know I will be returning in the future - hopefully next year!”
Amanda Duncan (in black, second from left) practicing with Silver Stars Steel Orchestra in Trinidad for Panorama 2016
photo © Amanda Duncan
WST - “What is Panorama to you?”
Amanda D. - “For me personally, Panorama is Mecca of steel pan. It is the place to experience all that steel pan embodies. It’s been a long-held dream of mine to play in Panorama, and I can already see that my life has been changed because of my experience.”
WST - “Is Panorama a curse or blessing from your perspective?”
Amanda D. - “A blessing, despite all of the politics that have been brought into it. ”
WST - “As an educator what have you learned from approaching music and Panorama the ‘Trinidadian’ way?”
Amanda D. - “In any subject or discipline, experiencing something is the best way to learn about it, as opposed to reading about it in a book or watching a video. I’ve known for a long time about the Trinidadian way of approaching music and Panorama, but I couldn’t fully absorb and deeply internalize what I knew to be true until I experienced it myself in the Silver Stars yard. I now feel like I’m slowly starting to “get it” on a deep internal level, and in my classroom I feel like I’m starting to teach this music with less of an “accent.” I will never know the steel pan, culturally-speaking, as deeply as Trinidadians because I am an American, of course, and wasn’t born into the culture from which the pan was cultivated. I will always “have an accent” when I play and when I teach. However, approaching music and Panorama through the Trinidadian lens, after having been to Trinidad and performed in Panorama myself, feels more intuitive than it did before. I’ve slowly started to absorb a bit of the “Trinidadian way” into my teaching language and foundation.”
WST - “How has or will your Panorama experience impact your job as a director and educator in the future?”
Amanda D. - “Panorama has already impacted how I run my classes at SMCHS, and I’m inspired to create more Panorama-style arrangements for my kids (scaled down, of course). A long-term dream of mine is to take a group of students to Trinidad to play with a steel band.”
WST - “What is your vision for the steelpan instrument?”
Amanda D. - “In the United States, I want the stereotypes and misunderstandings to continue to break down. They can never fully go away, but the more we panists educate our audience, the more respect they will have for the steel pan. I also want to see more steel bands being formed in schools, especially at the elementary level. From an artistic standpoint, I want to continue to showcase the versatility of the pan in the music I play and arrange, and also explore creative possibilities of arrangements with other instruments and genres (rock, Brazilian, jazz, etc.)”
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