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For Better or Worse: Standardizing Pan

Who’s version of a double guitar pan pattern is most common? If you master the double seconds in high school and seek to play pan in college, will the notes in the pan be even close to the same on their pans? How should I prepare for travel to Trinidad to play in a band for Panorama if I don’t know what pattern of double tenors they will have? These are all legitimate questions that we have as pan players, and they all lend themselves to the issue of standardizing the note layouts of the instruments in the steel orchestra.

The steel pan is still in its infancy compared to other acoustic instruments. Its discovery and development began only ~70 years ago. Because the instrument is still so young, arguments have been made that the best note patterns for ease of playing and quality of sound have yet to be discovered. However, the popularity of the art form and the music being written for the instrument is growing exponentially. Does this mean that it is time to decide on a standard note pattern for each of the different pan voices? This continues to be a dispute among pan players, builders, and tuners because of the countless hours they have devoted to mastering their way of doing it.




Viewing pan through the lens of an educator allows us to see the pedagogical benefits of note standardization. It’s no secret that it takes many hours to become proficient on a musical instrument. Musicians learn the intricate movements idiomatic to their instrument as they develop fluency through scales, exercises, and repertoire. This progress is essential for cultivating musicianship, both individually and in an ensemble. It is unrealistic to expect much in the form dynamics, tempo, phrasing, and other musical concepts until a student has achieved a level of comfort with where the notes on a pan are located. Giving students the best chance to succeed means preparing them for what they will experience next on their musical path. Maximizing this potential is not possible in pan education without comparable pedagogical concepts through the means of similar pan layouts.


Composers and arrangers of steel pan music also take into account note layouts of pans to allow performers to play with as much ease and accuracy as possible. While this is not the end-all be-all of making decisions when composing for pan, it is a beneficial consideration for how fluid the music will sound, especially in small group and soloistic settings. As pan continues to gain momentum in public school and higher education settings, we will continue to see a wealth of instruction materials being released, including method books, etudes, and idiomatic pieces. The purpose of these materials is to aid the learner in acquiring specific skills and techniques for more proficient playing. This function is lost, to a certain extent, when applied to different versions of the instrument not taken into consideration during their creation.




During my years as a pan player and educator, I have played many roles in the planning and execution of clinics, competitions, and performance-based festivals. The biggest headache during these events has always been organizing the movement and use of instruments. I believe participation in these events has been limited to groups who are in close proximity to the venue and those that have the means of transporting their own instruments. Any of us who have had to schlep large bands of pans know that this can be very expensive and a logistical nightmare that has been know to cause flashbacks and PTSD in the following months and years. I believe involvement in educational and performance events would increase greatly if participating groups could use a set of “house pans.” Not only would this concept allow for more consistent adjudication, it would also support the growth of pan programs who don’t currently have access to quality instruction. This would be extraordinary for the cultivation of the pan art form and community across the world.


While my focus here has outlined the positives we would experience from standard instruments, we can’t forget that pan wouldn’t be where it is today without the continuous experimentation and revision of building and tuning practices. The pioneers of the instrument were very creative in developing what has become a serious art form for us to study and enjoy. I believe that pan is still in its youth, and much has yet to be discovered to continue its development.


What are your thoughts on how standardizing pan could help or hinder the art form? Leave some comments below.


Andrew Neldon

Paul Munzenrider

So, you want to buy some pans, bro?

Those of us who are pan players, the lucky few, have all found the instrument in our own unique way. Whether it was a call deep in your soul that you promptly answered, you’re 4th generation Trini, or just a parrot head, the jumbie has hit us deeply and compels us to do somewhat crazy things. Buying one single steel drum can be a costly and time consuming endeavor, so how the hell do you put together an entire steel band? These questions, and more, will be answered pan heads, so read along with me and let’s look at a few realistic scenarios that can help you find the way to salvation, and teaching pan to the masses like we all know you should be doing.

Freakin’ Money

Let’s tackle this one first. Pans are expensive! Even if you get an instrument of, let’s say ‘lesser’ quality, you can still pay $1000 and wait 6-12 months for the thing. Oh yeah, and you definitely have to buy a stand for it, and if you want to protect this fragile slice of heavenly metal, it’d be wise to grab a case for it. There’s another $500. And that’s a quote for a tenor pan. Grab some doubles or triples and you’re talking much more cash.

It’s important to acknowledge the fact that, like I sort of alluded to above, everyone has their specific scenario and circumstance, and pan embodies the ‘situational’ aspect of music and art as much, if not more, than any other instrument. So, if you live in a town like Morgantown, WV, or Port of Spain, Trinidad, you lucked out with shipping fees and pan tuners that are in your close proximity. Nonetheless, this is going to be a piece of broad spectrum advice, and I’m generally speaking to people who are in the U.S. that want to bring a pan program to their community.

A full steel band can easily cost $50,000 (a 20-25 piece band) and that’s not including the aforementioned cases, stands, sticks, etc. To buy it all at once is a tall task. Even if you can order it all at once, it ain’t going to get to you in a month or two. Be patient in this process, plan ahead, and if you get pans in 6 months, you’re lucky as hell.

You can choose to fund this thing in a variety of ways. If you’ve got the personal capital, buy them with your own cash. Done, easy. End of blog.

There have been many cases, believe it or not, that I’ve heard about a principal at a school fronting the $50,000 – $75,000 to buy a full steel band, because said principal was really enamored by the sound of pan, the community engagement aspect and ease of playing, and the long list of benefits to having this kind of thing at your school. I personally have never met one of these magical unicorn principals but I’ve heard legend of their existence. This can also happen through the right kind of PTA organization, with proper funding, who all get the big picture together. That one is a bit more realistic and I’ve seen it work. It’s definitely the gift that keeps on giving and when these PTAs get a steel band, they can bask in its glory for years to come and the upkeep can be relatively simple (tuning expenses each year of $500-1,000, instruction and supplies like sticks and percussion for the engine room).

Down the list we go, and I’ll throw the idea out that you could write a grant for your pans. This is a viable option, so if you have a good grant writer and the right pieces, get to work and get yo grant on. There is, however, no question that grants are competitive and require you and/or your organization to have their ducks in a row. But you’re a pan player, right? I’m sure you’re incredibly organized and know all the inner workings of grant writing (I sure don’t, you’re going to have to go elsewhere for deep info on grants. That’s a whole different beast).

That previous one was more of a non-profit approach, and if you’re doing the for-profit thing, and you’re making any amount of money from your labors, you need to reinvest some portion of your income back into the music and buy your instruments. This could be a one-at-a-time kind of thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Say, for instance, you start out as a drum set teacher, and you’re teaching students all year and manage to save up $2500 for a new pan. Buy yourself a set of doubles, and you’re on the way. I said doubles as an arbitrary choice, if you’re first starting out, you can really buy any drum. I would advise you get a set of double seconds or tenor, because those are gigging instruments and you can earn some money more quickly if you’re on a pan-buying mission. Good luck lugging your triple guitars around, trying to play solo gigs for cash, when you needed a melody instrument for this purpose the entire time. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll need to buy some sort of guitar or cello pan eventually, but if you’re doing it one at a time, work with the most useful voices in the pan orchestra. You can even get going teaching lessons to people on your tenor pan or double pans, and that’s a great way to not only gain some capital, but also to get your teaching chops going and spark some interest in these people’s dreary lives that you live around (I’m joking, the people in your community of course have really exciting, secret agent-style lives that they lead).

My pan journey, for example, was rife with day jobs throughout my pursuits to get some kind, any kind, of music career going. I first bought a set of double seconds as a junior in High School back in 2003 from a Trini living in Canada named Earle Wong. It was about $900 or $950 for a chrome set of low F# double seconds, and brother, those were the DAYS. I’m pretty sure everyone’s prices, including Earle’s, have increased substantially since then, as they should have. The way I funded that first pan purchase? I got a seasonal job at Toys R Us of all places, during the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it was pretty hellacious. And by that time, it was my 2nd or 3rd summer/seasonal job already. If you’re not earning money in some form or another, GET TO WORK.

My next pan was a tenor, which was a Guppy (rest in peace) C tenor from my first voyage to Trinidad, Carnival of 2012 (I was broke and in college during that big gap of ‘in between’ years, but you bet I was making money with my doubles all along the way). By American standards, the transaction for my tenor was sketchy at best, and consisted of me meeting a guy named Fat Larry of Exodus (also rest in peace) with some friends in an alley somewhere off Eastern Main Road, and handing him an envelope full of cash, trusting that he would have a pan for me by Carnival time. The funding for this pan, and my T&T trip you ask? More day jobs: music library, concierge, security, and the random gigs and students that I could get my hands on (which really weren’t substantial and thus necessitated the day jobs). I lived in a cheap apartment with roommates, expenses were pretty light, and most of all, I knew the purpose all along was to gradually accumulate drums. Who else was going to fund this endeavor? The unicorn-style generous principals who loved pan were nowhere to be found. My master plan was to gather up a 15-20 piece band, and pitch it to a local high school (where my buddy worked) and try to sneak in that way. Believe me, it’s not as terrible a plan as it might sound…


Sorry to bore you with my own story but it’s a pretty decent example of how to do it the slow and steady way. Eventually, another music contact of mine had pans stored at the high school that he worked at, and sold them all to me for a lump sum. They were desperate to get rid of them and I was ready to pounce. C’mon, you didn’t think luck played a factor in this at all? After a little luck, a lot of work, and years of hustle, I had accumulated 3 or 4 tenor pans, 2 sets of double seconds, 1 set of double tenors, and some goofy double guitars. The next step of course was to grab a bass instrument of some kind. This is one example of the pan purchasing progression and by no means is there one way to do it. On the contrary, I’ve just laid out 4 different ways to skin this cat!

The massive landscape of pan varieties


Steel pan is by no means a standardized instrument, so when buying, you have a number of choices like what specific instruments to get, what style you want, and what range you want them to be. Take the double second instrument as an example. There’s the “Trini Style” double seconds, which have F# as their lowest note, anywhere from A to C/C# above treble clef as their highest note, and certain notes in the middle of the treble clef located on the rim of the drum rather than slightly inside. Then there’s what we’ll call the “Ellie Style” (homage to the great pan builder Ellie Mannette, an absolute bear of a man and a name you need to know) which have a low E, and the highest note can go all the way to the F above treble staff. That’s a pretty huge range, and substantially larger than the “Trini Style,” not to mention big differences in exact placement of notes. Neither pan is ‘better’ per se, but if you’re buying pans for a band, you should probably stick to one type of double second, so that your section players can easily switch between drums as needed. Make this easy on yourself and have pans standardized within your own steel drum universe. Pan players, especially beginners, can be really finicky about the exact way their pans are tilted and this and that, and they can’t play for crap if everything isn’t absolutely PERFECT and in it’s right place. Oh and by the way, those are just two versions of the double seconds in an ocean of different takes on the same great pan. Get into the variety of ways the pan can sit on the stand, due to the exact location of the holes drilled into the side for hanging wire, and the possibilities are endless my friends.

I’ve mentioned Ellie Mannette, and his company is called “Mannette Instruments,” but there are many pan builders out there nowadays. To name a few there’s Gill’s Pan shop, Panland, Mapco (from Trinidad), Panyard, and many independent builders like Glenn Rowsey, Billy Sheeder, Emily Lemmerman, Darren Dyke. That’s just a small slice of the builders and tuners, please comment if you want to shout-out another pan builder.

Instrument Types

The standard steel band consists of the following instrument types: leads/tenors, double tenors, double seconds, guitars/cellos (double, triple, or even quadruple), in addition to tenor bass and 6-bass. If you want to get fancy, there are even more steel pan voices that you’re free to add like the quads, invader leads or 9/12 bass, but I would start with those initial 5 or 6 sections. I listed out those voices first because they satisfy the necessary parts of melody and harmony that have been established and found to give the most variety and color to a band, while also being reasonable drum styles that you can actually find. How many of each of these pan types, you ask? Well that depends on the money part, but let’s build it from the ground up. A small beginning band might be one of each type, 1 lead/tenor, 1 Double Second, 1 Double Tenor, 1 Guitar/Cello, 1 6-bass, and a drum set player. You can play a tune with just that. You might sub 2 sets of DS (double second) for your double tenor. You could also do 2 leads instead of double tenor. Choices, people. There are a few sample configurations below. As you gradually increase your melody section, you’ll need to slowly build up your low pans as well to keep the balance. Even though it’s financially responsible, it’s not terribly exciting to have a band with 7 tenors, 1 DS, 1 guitar and 1 bass. That’s lopsided and goofy, and your band would be the equivalent of the extremely muscular dude who only pumps his upper body and has skinny little chicken legs. Don’t be the guy with the chicken legs, people!

Small to mid size band: 3 Tenors, 2 DS, 1 DT, 2 Guitar/Cello, 1 6-Bass

Mid size to big: 4 Tenors, 4 DS, 2 DT, 2 G/C, 2 6-Bass

Big band: 6 Tenors, 4 DS, 2 DT, 2 Guitar, 2 Cello, 1 Tenor Bass, 2 6-Bass.

Huge Band (I’m thinking of you, Humboldt State): 10 Tenors, 6 DS, 3 DT, 4 Guitar, 4 Cello, 2 TB, 6 6-Bass

Now, I’m sort of spitballing the exact instrumentation on the Humboldt band, but I’ve heard they have 6 sets of 6-bass and it sounds pretty glorious. Hell of a band to transport I’m sure, but a huge band like that is kinda the goal, right?

(Just for Fun) 100-ish Piece Trini Band: 25 tenors, 18 DS, 10 DT, 15 Double Guitars, 6 4-cello, 4 quads, 6 TB, 12 sets of some kind of Bass (anything goes here, could be 6, 7, 9, or 12)

Yes I know the aforementioned equals out to 96 but you get the idea. Again, I’m spitballing, these are general figures.

As you can see, there are so very many aspects to consider in this whole thing. We don’t have a lot of published material that guides people through this process, so hopefully I’ve answered, or begun to answer, some of the pressing questions you might have about how people go about getting a steel drum band together. Comment below if you have thoughts on this, or think I’m full of crap, or if you’re a jilted pan builder that I didn’t mention above. Happy purchasing, everyone!



Paul Munzenrider

Read, Write, and Rote

The Basics

As a pan player or arranger, there’s more than just one way execute your art form. Many fall back on the method of ‘rote,’ learning through memorization via repetitions of passages. This is the origin of pan playing and steel band instruction, and part of the reason why it’s such an accessible instrument to the masses. But there’s a growing number of the scholarly pan players in Trinidad and around the world, who apply all the knowledge of the academic music world to the pan, writing and teaching via scores and notated parts. Here in the U.S., there’s a very large number of bands that perform exclusively using sheet music. This is still a hot topic in the pan world and worth further discussion.

The Magic of the Rote Method

As a section player in a steel band, the rote method is the simplest way of learning and teaching parts, and requires each player to fully internalize the musical content by memory. This incorporates your visual, aural and muscle memory and skills. It requires extra time for teaching and repetition, but when done correctly, leaves a lasting impression of the music in each player’s head. Players can recall parts that they learned years ago when it was done through the rote method, allowing their arms to do the work of dusting off old motions that they long ago perfected and refined. It requires no formal musical knowledge, just raw talent and skill, and brain power, to maintain. The player is able to focus more on accuracy and touch when performing music by memory, and their only other visual resource is their peripheral vision as they match their movements with the movements of other members in the section.

Drawbacks: The Rote method is as strong as your weakest player. It can work well for people who are used to the routine of learning in the style. When it’s introduced as a brand new concept, especially to kids, it can require an adjusting period to allow them to understand how to learn this way. The rote style also demands focus and attention from your band. As a director, if you can’t command the attention of your class, the band will not properly progress and the music will not be digested. These days, kids attention spans are at an all-time low, and the rote method demands that the students actually hear the messages that you’re communicating to them. It can get slow and tiresome when you have to constantly repeat yourself, or re-teach parts of the tunes.

The Efficiency of Written Music

Conversely, the practice of teaching and learning music via written notation offers a number of distinct benefits of its own. The most obvious one is the rate of learning, as it allows the entire band to learn their music independently and simultaneously (if they’re all musically literate). While the rote method can sometimes end up relying on a few, or even just one person who knows the music, notated parts can drastically reduce the time of interpreting and putting together each tune. It unlocks a lot of versatility in your band’s set list and helps maximize the use of your rehearsal time. Written music undoubtedly plays a very important role as a preserver of the music and a means of keeping a chronicle of pieces through the years. It’s an invaluable resource for arrangers and composers as a means to organize the music.

Drawbacks: If sheet music is to be used during performances, it can affect the planning and execution of the gig, especially when considering the requirement of a music stand for every player. It also impacts the audience’s perception of the performance, as some see the music stand as a barrier between the performer and audience member. Certain pan players can overcome this by dancing like a champ behind their music stand, but overall this can be a valid criticism of sheet music in the pan world.

Different Strokes

A beautiful part of the pan world is that you can choose how to navigate these subjects. A large variety of situations and circumstances exist for every steel band. Different pan players have different strengths, and ultimately we all have to play to our strengths and work to improve our weaknesses. We all have to do what works for us in our individual pan scenes. Many bands here in the U.S. play exclusively using sheet music, and the players have no interest in trying to memorize a tune. On the other hand, there are countless pan talents who never have and never will read a lick of music in their life (see Holman, Ray in your pan dictionary). It also has to do with your answer of the self-posed question: “What kind of pan player do I want to be?”

More Than One Way to Pan

From the standpoint of someone who wants to be a serious pan player, the solution is clear: practice both methods. A balance of both the rote method and musical notation will give you the most complete level of ability and fullness of understanding. While musical notation has been an important addition to the world of pan, the practice of rote never should and never will disappear.

There are circumstantial questions that answer themselves: You’ve got a band full of little kids who don’t know much about music? Teach them by rote and you’re off and running. Or maybe you run a high level college steel band that rips through charts and plays a huge amount of repertoire? Go with sheet music. Not every situation is so clear, but you have to start with what you know, and always consider what’s the most logical choice along the way (weighing your time, financials, patience, etc). For some, it may be your safe zone to use sheet music. You’ve really got no choice in this instance, but that should be a call to challenge yourself to explore the rote method in order to grow as a pan player. Pan has a certain degree of magic and folklore that plays into the art form, and performing a tune in a full band by memory is just one of “those things.” You can’t truly comprehend the Panorama experience without playing it by memory. It’s a degree of intimacy with a tune that can’t be matched in any other way. A lasting experience for an entire lifetime.

Modern Rote

During my years as a young pan punk, at the Mannette workshop in Morgantown, WV, I jumped in on a performance of Andy Narell’s “Coffee Street” during the Jam Session. I was particularly obsessed with the tune at the time, and we happened to have recently performed it at my fledging undergrad steel band’s spring concert. I was playing by memory and caught the attention of some of the pan instructors, including the man himself, Robbie Greenidge. While some of them started to clown me for having the whole thing memorized, Robbie stepped in and basically explained that the sheet music is there for that purpose: to show you the notes in order to allow you to internalize it all. I took his advice and ran with it as a belief, that the sheet music is best used in this capacity. Since then I’ve kept true to the balance of knowing music theory and notation, but never straying too far from my beginnings with the rote method. It’s still the original ‘storytelling’ method of teaching and communicating pan music, and there’s still that social aspect to it and a perfect simplicity that will forever go unmatched. In a way, even though pan has grown up and spread its wings, it will always be rooted in rote… (lame joke)

Modern Resources, People!

How can you improve your skills as a rote musician? And where will you learn music theory and notation? There are many resources out there, on the great and powerful interwebs! I can’t stress enough, especially to you young pan players, that you must go out and seek information about the things you’re interested in. That’s not to say that you can get away with just checking out a few things on wikipedia. You have to research these pan subjects, and research the subjects that those lead to (and stuff that the google robots recommend to you). Check with sources both online and in-person (if you have a teacher) to make sure you’re getting the right stuff (you could even e-mail me, paul@panassociation.com). There’s a wealth of pan knowledge out on the internet and although it may not all be perfect, it can be a great way to gain some basic knowledge about the art form. And as you go, you’ll find that there are different subjects in the steel pan world that can be disputed more than others. While there may be 10 different stories about who invented the steel drum, you can’t dispute the priceless collection of youtube gold out there, in the form of the many panorama and calypso recordings. The best part about training your ear can be that it involves listening to sweet pan music for hours on end. Here’s one to get you started, Boogsie’s version of “The Archbishop of Pan” from 2012, my first visit to Trinidad: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnHl74M5Wg8.

Improve your Rote Skills:

Ear Training all day baby: Learn about intervals and notes, and teach your ears how they sound

Singing: Try to match pitch on the piano or steel pan with your voice; learn to sing a scale; learn solfege!

Watch and Listen to Panorama recordings until you feel the riddim

Improve your Music Notation Skills:

Identify notes on Treble and Bass Clefs (both will apply in pan music)

Memorize the key signatures

If you want to get deep, jazz theory will unlock all the mysteries

Here are some links to get you started on these subjects, these are just the very tip of the Iceberg!

The basics of music theory: https://www.musictheory.net/lessons

Ear Training and Interval Exercises: https://www.teoria.com/en/exercises/

Solfege Intro on google (Do – Re- Mi stuff): https://blog.key-notes.com/solfege.html


Let’s hear some opinions about this subject? Are you a die-hard for sheet music? A pan purist who’s rote all day? Or maybe a moderate like me?



Paul Munzenrider