Archive for November 24th, 2020

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Steel Pans

November 24, 2020

Such a sound they make!!

This blog post is an interview with John Kollman, music teacher in the Hermon School District. John’s passion for steel pans is alive and enthusiastic! His students in Hermon are fortunate to have him as a teacher!

John grew up in Bar Harbor and played drums and sang all through school.  He got my music performance degree from U Maine and music education credits from USM. He went into music because I really have never been interested in anything else. John has have taught at all three schools in Hermon at various times for the past 14 years including General Music k-5, Choral Music 5-12, and Guitar and Steel Pans 9-12. He currently teaches guitar, choir, and five sections of steel pans at Hermon High School. John lives in Bangor with his wife and four children.

How did you get started with steel pans and providing a program at the schools in Hermon?

It all started when my wife and I were attending the Robinson Ballet’s spring show in Bangor in 2005.  The high school-aged steel pan band from Blue Hill “Planet Pan” was providing accompaniment for a few of the dance numbers plus playing a few on their own.  When I heard the band playing this music I felt a musical joy that I had not yet experienced in my life.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  The music was so exciting and new to me.  I was floored.  I instantly knew that I had to be a part of it.  A few weeks later we attended a street-dance featuring “Flash in the Pans”, the community steel band also based in Blue Hill.  We danced all night and had an amazing time.  Later that summer, I contacted the director of “Flash in the Pans”, Carl Chase, and he pointed me toward an adult beginner class happening at George Stevens Academy.  Playing the music was even more fun!  I purchased my own set of pans and joined “Flash in the Pans” the following spring. Playing in a big steel pan band with hundreds of people dancing in front of you is like no other musical experience that I have ever had. And 15 years later I can say, it never gets old!  The power and raw sound of a steel band is unmatched. Needless to say, I really wanted to start a steel pan program where I taught music in Hermon so that these musical feelings could be spread far and wide. So I pitched the idea to our newly formed arts boosters organization and we quickly got working on it and put together a proposal. I’ll give some strategies on how to do this a little later.

Tell the blog readers about the steel pan program you’ve established.

We were lucky enough to start our program in 2009 with 14 sets of pans.  It started as an after-school program for four levels, 3rd and 4th grade, middle school, high school, and adult.  The following year we were able to offer it as a regular high school class for a fine arts credit.  Since then we have been able to add instruments (all from after-school lesson fees and gig donations) and we can accommodate 25 players.  The first high school class started with one class of eight players and has since grown to five sections with around 125 students involved each year.  The after-school programs continue to thrive as well (temporarily on-hold for obvious reasons).  Our community band, PanStorm, plays parades, festivals and dances throughout the greater Bangor area.

What are the benefits of providing the program?

       Steel pan music is the only form of music that I have ever seen small children, teenagers (always a hard group to please), and adults of every age dancing together and having a wonderful time. The music seems to speak to everyone from all kinds of different backgrounds. Another key element is the accessible nature of the instruments. You can take a group of people that have never played an instrument or sang in a choir before and have them playing something that sounds pretty good in about an hour. People have a good time and gain confidence quickly. Especially at the high school level, I have seen lots of students who never got involved in the traditional ensembles (which I also love, don’t get me wrong) having a lot of success in a pan ensemble. On the flip side of that, I have been able to get students into my chamber choir from the pan program who normally would have never thought of it before.  Steel pans reach some of the students who were not reached by the traditional paths which equals more kids involved in music.

John Kollman on the left in this photo next to his son

Describe a moment or opportunity when the value of the program was made clear.

Early on in the program, our elementary groups performed at the regular elementary school concert.  Afterwards, I was approached by an audience member who said he was amazed that students that young could actually play music at such a high level.  He was bracing himself beforehand and then couldn’t believe how good they sounded. The value of the program is clear when you look on the faces of the players and the audience members and see pure joy.

Are there connections to be made beyond the school for students?

       A lot of students that started playing in school are now in the community band playing at festivals and parades. Pans also have a rich history coming from the island of Trinidad deep in the Caribbean that can be explored. Steel pan bands are emerging all over the world. It is a fast-growing art form.

What are your suggestions for others who are considering starting a program?

First I would say, you definitely should!  What we did in Hermon was:             

  1. Have a steel band perform for the school, a concert and a workshop (nowadays, a video presentation might be the only option).             
  2. Circulate a petition and have students who might be interested in playing sign it (with no firm commitment, you get a lot of signatures).             
  3. Put together a proposal using video and signatures.  I pitched it as financially self-supporting due to after school lesson fees and gig donations after the initial cost (and this has turned out to be very true).

What are the costs to start a program?

The initial cost can be a little daunting because all pans are hand-made by a highly skilled craftsperson and the cost reflects that.  You can find pans for $800 to $1500 depending on the kind and quality.  You can start with just a few sets and get it rolling that way.  People love to play them and love the sound.  They sell themselves if you can set it up right.  If anyone is interested in starting a program and needs help or ideas, please feel free to email John Kollman at john.kollman@schools.hermon.net.  Below is a video of the PanStorm community steel band performing in the July 4th parade, 2019.    

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