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Read, Write, and Rote

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
Paul Munzenrider

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