Students at the International School of Minnesota (ISM) are learning to play steelpan instruments while exploring the drums’ cultural history, thanks to a partnership with the music education program Pan Outreach.
Several sets of steel drums arrived on the ISM campus in mid-December, where they will stay on loan until the end of January. Steel drums are percussion instruments that originated in the West Indies. They are also known as steelpans, or pans.
Jackson Lee, a music teacher at ISM, said, “The goal is to create a deeper appreciation for music through an instrument that is rarely played by the general population. I hope above all else that the students have fun making music on such a unique instrument.”
Earlier this month, Pan Outreach’s Jeremy Kunkel began teaching ISM students in grades 1-12 the elements of music, including note reading, rhythm, playing in a multi-part ensemble, and improvisation. Over the next few weeks, students will learn to play various styles of music on the steelpan.
Kunkel said students are also “exploring how those elements were developed in a different culture, drawing parallels to Caribbean/world history with our own, and having fun playing an instrument that few people ever get to experience.”
He added, “The importance of instilling a confidence in learning with elements of cultural empathy cannot be overstated, and the steelpan instruments are a wonderful vehicle for that journey. Judging by their smiles so far, (students) might have some fun, too.”
Steelpan lessons dovetail with existing curriculum
Lee said that Pan Outreach’s program integrates well with ISM school’s music program.
“One really great part about the drums is that Jeremy has color-coded the notes, which correspond very closely to the solfege syllables I use in my Lower School classroom,” he said. “This will help the students jump right into any melody with ease.”
Musical difficulty will be scaled up or down depending on student’s proficiency. Since ISM’s high school students are already reading more complicated melodies and rhythms, they should be able to play more intricate songs once they understand how the steel drum is laid out, Lee said.
“I am looking forward to watching students play the drums who normally play a melodic instrument (one note at a time) in my band such as a clarinet, saxophone, or trumpet,” Lee said. “With the steel drum, they have the opportunity to play melodies as well as harmonies (two notes at a time).”
Lee said this program also presents a unique opportunity to have all of his students start a new instrument at the same time, “which will hopefully make learning a new instrument a less stressful task and will help strengthen relationships.”
About Pan Outreach
Lee said he first learned about Pan Outreach in 2019 and thought it would be a unique opportunity for ISM students. After a pandemic-enforced delay, he said, they were finally able to make it happen this winter.
“I am so thankful to have Pan Outreach come to ISM,” Lee said. “I am very excited to see it finally come to fruition and I cannot wait to hear the music that our students will create.”
Pan Outreach is part of Chops, Inc, a 501(c)3 non-profit that strives to improve lives through music and the performing arts. Pan Outreach offers residencies to schools throughout the Twin Cities, allowing students to explore world music and learn about the cultures from which they originate.
Pan Outreach offers other opportunities to play and perform on these instruments throughout the year. More information about this free program, performance ensembles, lessons, or how to support the program can be found at Pan Outreach’s website.
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