All-school performances are still on hold thanks to Covid. So an 8th Grade Steel Pan ensemble recently set up in the Twichell Room to perform the song they spent the fall term learning for a video recording.
As they unpacked the instruments to set up, there was something noticeably different from past steel pan ensembles at Foote: there were a lot more pans. Rather than the usual eight players, the 8Z ensemble had 18.
It's the result of a new schedule that is giving every 8th grader the opportunity to participate in the popular steel pans elective. In past years, 8th graders would either learn steel pans, handbells or guitar. But the semester schedule meant that steel pans couldn’t accommodate every student who expressed interest in joining. Now that Foote is on trimesters, and thanks to some creative scheduling by Music faculty Tina Cunningham and Deadra Hart, every 8th grader will play steel pans for one trimester.
“We used to hear from a lot of 8th grade parents that their kids had looked forward to playing steel pans from when they were in Kindergarten and didn’t get picked for the steel band elective,” says music teacher Debby Teason, who founded and directs Foote’s steel pans program. “For some of those 8th graders, it was their last year at Foote and they never got to play pans and that was a disappointment.”
One key to the steel program’s success is that students choose the material—frequently a contemporary pop song—making them more invested in the learning process. This group of 8th graders chose the song “Tongue Tied” by Grouplove, which appeared on the television show “Glee” some years ago. “Not all songs translate well to pans, but this one did and it’s a very interesting song,” says Debby. “It has fabulous bass parts!”
To accommodate larger groups, Foote purchased an additional 5 pans, bringing the school’s collection to 13. Those pans, plus five from Debby’s personal collection, provided enough for the 18-member ensemble this fall.
Another upshot from the schedule change is that 9th graders now take steel pans all year long, rather than just for one term. That has expanded the scope of what students can learn, Debby explains, both in terms of songs they play and about the history and cultural significance of steel pans. Students will still play a song of their choice, usually a pop song, but will also have time to learn a calypso or soca tune (traditional forms from Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of steel pan music) and an arrangement of a classical song.
Ninth graders also dive into the history and culture of pans, learning about the role they play in Caribbean Carnival celebrations; how pans were created from oil drums that were stored at the U.S. naval base in Trinidad; watching videos of one of the original steel pan inventors, Ellie Mannettte; even Zooming with Liam Teague, a Professor of Music and Head of Steelpan studies at Northern Illinois University.
“We are able to cover a lot more range by having them for a full year,” Debby says.