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Meet Diane Thomas - Indiana, USA

“Playing with others who play steel pan is really where I find my true happiness, whether it is a duo or a small group of steel pan players, or a band in Trinidad...” 

A voice with uncommon beauty spoke to her years ago. It was indeed unconditional love at first contact. Years later the love affair continues, and is as intense as ever. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - Diane Thomas shares her feelings, experiences, and passion for  Steelband music art form and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself; who is Diane Thomas?”

Diane T. - “A 57-year-old woman from Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, who found her passion and unbridled joy in life when she found Pan a short seven years back!”

WST - “How did you first become introduced to the steelpan instrument? Take us through your steelpan music journey.”

Diane T. - “I first heard the sweet sound of pan when our family was in Disney World on vacation. Over the speakers, I heard a sound unlike any other musical sound I had ever heard. I still remember stopping in my tracks and listening...and feeling an instant joy that is hard to explain. I still was not sure what it was.

“Later that day, we ran into a live steel pan player, I instantly connected the two, and I could barely tear myself away from standing there and listening, watching, observing. I knew I had found something so very special. Once home, I started grabbing CDs I could find, listening, and eventually ordered a pan online from Panyard, with no knowledge what I was doing, and ended up with an amazing pan! I taught myself the very basics (I played piano as a youngster and French horn in high school), and connected briefly with Jimmy Finnie, but family took over for awhile, and I finally found a connection in our area in 2010 with David Chase at Shepherd Community Center, who took me under his wings, helped give me pointers, and very quickly asked me to join his adult church group’s steel band. I was in absolute heaven!

“Playing with a steel orchestra became my happy place, and I worked hard to learn and keep up. In that band, I met Eric Mannweiler, who in 2012 started Skyfall Steel Orchestra and asked me to play tenor! I was honored to be playing with a bunch of young music majors, and they pushed me and I worked and worked to keep up with them, and they truly helped me grow. Without their challenging music and my drive to keep up, I never would have been able to play in Panorama. We had a couple Pan festivals locally that I played in with Shepherd Community Center and Skyfall Steel Orchestra, and at these met Liam Teague, Tracy Thornton, Josanne Frances and Angel Lawrie. I started to attend VA Beach Pan Festival, meeting more and more friends in the pan community, and then played with birdsong under Andy Narell in 2016 at Panorama.”

WST - “What is it about Pan that has so captivated you, made you passionate overall?”

Diane T. - “The sound of the steel pan makes me so happy. I am a very happy person, and this just fit with my personality. Growing up, I had always felt deep down that I should have been a percussion player. I loved the rhythm part of the songs. But not many girls did that at the time. I love the piano; the way the notes were similar on the pan, yet more challenging in their layout, was intriguing to me. The sweet, sweet sound of pan just brought me so much happiness. Playing with others who play steel pan is really where I find my true happiness, whether it is a duo or a small group of steel pan players, or a band in Trinidad. And I love playing with mallets (especially my Mallet Man hybrids)! I also was drawn in by the friendships I was forming and the close steel pan community.”

Diane Thomas
Diane Thomas

WST - “You are generally seen on the tenor pan; did you begin in steelpan on this voice of instrument, or have you played others within the steel orchestra?”

Diane T. - “Only tenor for me. I work full time, am married, and up until we recently became empty nesters, was also a full-time mom, so for me, learning one instrument that I could have at home easily and take with me was the most sensible. Never say never – the bass drums are a serious temptation to me!!!”

WST - “Have you ever had challenges in illustrating/explaining the actual concept of the steel orchestra, and/or your own role in it as a pan player - to co-workers or friends?”

Diane T. - “You sometimes have to start where they may understand the sound of pan, like - cruises, Jamaica, Virgin Islands - somewhere that they can first relate to having heard the steel pan, and from there, I explain the origins of the pan in Trinidad. I liken the tenor notes to the keys on the piano, and then relate the different voices of the steel orchestra to mimic those in an orchestra of different instruments. This has been pretty effective for me. They are always surprised to learn how easily it can become knocked out of tune and how difficult it is to find a tuner nearby!”

WST - “Are you involved in the steelband art form on a full-time basis, or do you have a parallel career?”

Diane T. - “I play as much as I can, but I am a full-time nurse case manager. I was not a music major, so all I have learned has been self-taught, tips from others, and practice, practice, and more practice! I am very motivated when I have a goal in mind. I love that I keep finding new opportunities, different opportunities, and with each opportunity, a chance to grow in my skills, knowledge, and love of pan.”

WST - “What are some of your most memorable moments in pan?”

Diane T. - “There have been many: First, just finding a link to a pan player in Indianapolis (David Chase, from Trinidad) through a random conversation at the bank, to being asked to play along with others in that first community band, to being asked to play with Skyfall, to playing with birdsong, playing with a Caribbean food truck, and being asked to play with Steel Doves under the direction of Angel Lawrie in Racine, Wisconsin, when John Patti was a guest artist, playing in both Virtual Steel Band compilations - all of these have been special to me in their own way, all have been building blocks, confidence builders, and memories I will always cherish.

“I have [met] so many important people in pan along the way, but one moment that I particularly cherish is meeting Ellie Mannette in Crystal Lake, Illinois, at a pan festival. It was held at a grade school. He walked in the front door alone, and there I was, with no one else around but Ellie and myself! I shyly went up and introduced myself, hardly believing my “right time, right place” fortune, yet knowing this was not a moment to pass up! He sat down and talked with me for a bit before being summoned to talk with a group of students. He then later sought me out, sat down again and talked with me some more. It was an extremely surreal moment to be talking to such a legend and hearing his stories. I asked if he would be so kind as to sign my pan. He told me to bring it over. As he got ready to sign, he paused and looked at me and said, “You know, I don’t do this very often” with a sweet grin, and then signed and dated my steel pan. I very much cherish that moment in time with Ellie Mannette, as well as that signature on my pan.”

Diane Thomas
Diane Thomas

WST - “If you had the ability to change one thing in Pan, what would that be?”

Diane T. - “It is a shame pans are so expensive, but it is very understandable why they are. It would be awesome to have more and more community centers that would have pan available to troubled youth, as I have seen so many programs like this that have really helped to mold kids into awesome adults, giving them a sense of self-worth, and a chance to find a productive outlet that will stay with them a lifetime.”

WST - “Have you ever experienced any challenges or ‘pushback’ because you are a woman playing pan?”

Diane T. - “On the contrary, I have gotten a lot of positive feedback. I think my joy shines through when I play, so I have not experienced negativity. The only “pushback” I have experienced at times is the fact that I am not a teacher/music major, but it is what it is, and this joy found its way into my heart and really took hold when I was 50 years old, and I have no regrets and no excuses. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished on my own through passion and hard work! I wouldn’t change a thing about my journey. Maybe because it came to me later in life, it has been all the more sweet and all the more special. I cherish the experiences I have had along the way.”

WST - “Describe your Panorama experiences?”

Diane T. - “2016 was a wonderful opportunity to play with birdsong, and the management there was supportive and kept close watch on us. Jason Koontz in charge of us stateside, was an awesome contact, and he planned an amazing week full of hard work and lots of great trips and fun, as well as accommodations that were safe. The management there was fantastic, caring, and kept our safety in mind. Working with Andy Narell was AMAZING, and I simply LOVE his arrangements. His music really connects with me. We were THE LAST BAND to play in semifinals, so we missed a chance to watch any of the other bands, but being on stage, playing in Panorama was unforgettable! I had plans to play in 2017 with Silver Stars, but had to return the day before semifinals due to unforeseen circumstances, which was a crushing blow after the months of preparation. Things happen for a reason, and we grow from our experiences, both great times and disappointments.”

WST - “What is your favorite Panorama piece?”

Diane T. - “Wow, there are so many amazing and different Panorama pieces, that I really can’t choose one. I have so many more to listen to when I get more free time! I enjoy the different composers, arrangers, their styles, and try to value each one for its unique qualities.”

WST - “From your perspective, is Panorama a blessing or a curse?”

Diane T. - “A blessing for sure, but it would be nice if there were better and safer arrangements put into place for all pan players that come to Trinidad to play in Panorama. birdsong did an amazing job of that, and I was fortunate to have such a positive experience with them.”

WST - “What does your family and close friends think about your love of Pan?”

Diane T. - “They just love that I play pan! They all think it is so unique, they enjoy that so many types of music can be played on pan, they are always intrigued by the pan layout, and they see and feel the joy it brings to me. They also love my steel pan tattoo on my foot! :-)”

WST - “If you could have a major ‘say’ in the issue - what would be your vision for the future of the steelpan instrument?”

Diane T. - “Since I really started to dig in and commit to pan the end of 2010, I have seen a lot of growth, and I hope that it continues to grow in all arenas, with the background and culture of steel pan always being remembered and taught to others.”

WST - “Are there any other steelband-related matters you would like to bring forward? ”

Diane T. - “Going to Trinidad is definitely something any pan lover needs to put on their bucket list. I hope that safety at Panorama continues to be on the minds of those in charge of the respective bands, and the country in general. I feel so blessed to have found this amazing instrument, to have had so many varied and incredible opportunities to date, to have found my passion, and to experience what makes my heart sing with joy!”

Diane Thomas
Diane Thomas

photos provided by Diane Thomas

   Diane Thomas performs with birdsong Steel Orchestra during the orchestra’s 2016 Panorama Preliminary Performance

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