“...I wish I would have understood fuller it would be people’s unwillingness to accept that change is coming. As a woman I’ve had to fight a lot of misogyny and sexism throughout my entire musical career and that’s just to have a spot at the table. I know that I’ll have to fight a lot harder if I want to have any voice of consequence in the pan world.” –– Alyssa Reynolds
Tuner and panist Alyssa Reynolds shares her steelpan history as she talks about her passion for playing and tuning instruments of Pan in an exclusive interview with Ms. Aisha Joseph.
Aisha J. - “Please provide a brief bio about yourself.”
Alyssa R. - “I studied percussion performance at University of Wisconsin-Platteville under the instruction of Keith Lienert. During my second semester he started a steelpan ensemble as a part of the percussion program but opened it up to other instrumentalists as well. It was then that I was introduced to pan as an extension of my existing program.
“After I left Platteville I moved to Madison, Wisconsin. By that time, I had acquired a pan of my own and was aiming to play in any ensemble that would take me. I was then introduced to Panchromatic Steel, a Madison-based steelpan ensemble. They did not need an additional lead player at that time, but they had a set of double tenors that they allowed me to borrow to learn on. Two years later and I have switched to my own set of double seconds and have plans to continue playing with the ensemble for years to come.
“Through Panchromatic Steel I got in contact with a multitude of other musicians and artists including the members of an ensemble named Shotgun Mary, a folk-rock group whom I sing and play cajon for. On top of music I also enjoy painting and in the past two years I’ve hosted a total of four galleries in the Madison area with plans for three galleries in 2020.
“I started my pan tuning/building apprenticeship with Steve Lawrie in November of 2019 and have been studying extensively with him since. My studies include tuning for schools and private customers, the start of building my own lead pan, and learning basic metalworking skills including welding. All whilst traveling around the country.”
Aisha J. - “What sparked your interest to become a steelpan builder and tuner?”
Alyssa R. - “I first became interested in tuning around eight years ago when Steve Lawrie came to UW-Platteville to tune our instruments. My instructor, Keith Lienert had told me about his time at NIU during his undergrad, and how he had watched Cliff Alexis for hours and hours trying to understand his method but to no avail. So, I asked Steve if I could sit and watch him for a while and he told me that it wasn’t a problem. I ended up watching and listening for five hours. He has told me since that it was the longest anyone has ever watched him tune. Every time he came to town after that I made a point to watch him for at least a few hours at a time.
“When he came to Madison this past fall to tune for Panchromatic Steel, we’d become very good friends and I asked him if he’d help me tune my own drum. He assisted me and I loved every minute of it (even if I was afraid to hit my drum with a hammer). After that experience he asked me if I’d like to come on the road for a tuning trip and I agreed. Since then I have been his apprentice.
“When I first started tuning, and even a little bit at this point, I had no intention of building. Building instruments is not really the end goal. I want to understand how the note itself works and understand it in every shape it takes. The crazy thing about the pan is that every one of them is different and every builder has their own style. It is my goal to understand the styles and to bring individual notes to their fullest potential on the instrument. Now that I have a basic knowledge of how notes are supposed to behave I feel like I am ready to apply that knowledge to an instrument of my own, but I will only build to increase my understanding of pan and to make use of that knowledge to create exceptional instruments.”
Aisha J. - “What are your views on female builders/tuners? Also, do you think being a female builder/tuner affects the craft?”
Alyssa R. - “I have a very strong belief that there are simply not enough female tuners/builders in the world. Like many things, pan has made itself into a male-dominated field. Tuning/building especially has been controlled predominantly by men with this very bizarre mystique around the actual process of it. Even men have a difficult time learning to tune and build because people very generally are unwilling to share what they know.
“In my opinion I don’t think that my (/others) being a female tuner/builder affects the craft at all, but it will hopefully shake up the way others approach spreading the knowledge. I’ve heard a hundred times over in my short time as a pan tuner that there are not enough of us in the world; but the only reason for that is the total lack of standardized explanation, and the lack of willingness to convey whatever knowledge is available. On top of all of that the industry can’t grow if it’s excluding 50% of its available base.”
Aisha J. - “Do you admire anyone in the field? If so, who and why?”
Alyssa R. - “I admire the people who make pan accessible and who made it possible for me to study. Of course, I admire my teacher Steve Lawrie for being the standing example of what I want to do, but I also equally admire Cliff Alexis and Ellie Mannette. Those men are two outstanding examples of doing something I hope to continue. They innovated the instrument in their own ways with the hopes of making pan better and started programs with an attempt to start spreading knowledge. In the end I hope to continue innovations for the instrument and place systems in the culture that make it possible for more people to experience pan.”
Aisha J. - “Describe a typical workday for you.”
Alyssa R. - “I don’t really have a typical day. My life is pretty crazy between four jobs but a typical day when I’m studying building/tuning looks like the following…Coffee, shop work (making stands, mallets, etc.), sinking pans (or finishing instruments), and then tuning.
“Even this schedule is not really set in stone. It really just depends on what the goals are for the week/ month.”
Aisha J. - “What is the hardest part of building/tuning for you?”
Alyssa R. - “I would say one of the hardest parts about building/tuning is the travel. Constantly being in a different place every few weeks is exhausting in almost every sense of the word. However, it wouldn’t really be possible for me to grow as fast as I have without being on the road and experiencing customers’ instruments out in the field. It has really calmed my nerves when it comes to tuning because I have to just trust myself and make whatever decision I think is best for the instrument at that time.”
Aisha J. - “What is the one thing you wish you were informed of before starting your steelpan journey?”
Alyssa R. - “I was really well informed when I started this journey. Both Keith and Steve have been really transparent with whatever challenges I may face and have both supported me fully on my journey.
“If I had to pick something, I wish I would have understood fuller it would be people’s unwillingness to accept that change is coming. As a woman I’ve had to fight a lot of misogyny and sexism throughout my entire musical career and that’s just to have a spot at the table. I know that I’ll have to fight a lot harder if I want to have any voice of consequence in the pan world.”
Aisha J. - “What do you enjoy the most about building/tuning?”
Alyssa R. - “I really enjoy the puzzle of it. Understanding how an instrument is behaving and having a bit of a conversation with the drum. Every drum is different and has its own quirks and I really enjoy figuring out the pattern. I like to compare the mental exercise to solving Rubik’s Cubes all day. Mentally draining but highly rewarding.
“I don’t know enough about building (yet) to really answer the question well.”
Aisha J. - “Do you enjoy building as well as playing the instrument?”
Alyssa R. - “Playing steelpan is one of the greatest joys of my life and I’ve had the pleasure of being a player for nearly ten years. I continue to push myself to learn and understand new layouts and play music as much as I possibly can.”
Aisha J. - “Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?”
Alyssa R. - “In five years, I see myself as a master tuner (someone who can handle any drum put in front of them) and a pretty decent builder. I’d like to have a shop setup somewhere in Wisconsin where I can build and work on pans that need more work than what I can provide in the field. I’ve agreed to work under Pan tuner (Steve Lawrie’s business) for at least the next five years but he’s encouraging me to work on making my own way in the pan world including working on pans I find and new customers.
“I will also probably continue my studies building and tuning with as many people as I can. The only way the pan community will flourish is if we talk to each other and make real attempts to learn from one another. I’d like to find a community of new and upcoming pan builders/tuners and create some sort of network between us. At the end of the day I just want to share this artform with as many people as possible.”
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