Almost a decade later, community steel drum workshop still jamming
CLEMSON — Professor of music Paul Buyer does not limit his teaching to college students. Though he leads the Clemson University Steel Band and the Percussion Ensemble, he still finds time to hold his annual (and very popular) steel drum workshops.
“When we got the steel drums back in 2002, one of my visions was to offer a workshop to our community members and some of our patrons and adults who would like to learn how to play,” Buyer said. “It’s a very attractive instrument and it’s really accessible for anybody to learn how to play in a few hours. It’s been very successful.”
In their ninth year, each workshop can accommodate nine participants on nine instruments. Two workshops are held in one day, both lasting about four hours.
Before the morning session begins, a participant named Mark, who has just walked in, is especially excited.
“It’s on my bucket list,” Mark says. Though he has never attended a Clemson Steel Band performance, he heard about the workshop from a co-worker who has. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta do it. Gotta do it.’”
Mark, who loves the sound of the steel drums, said he just wants to gain basic knowledge of the instrument. He motions to the stereo, which softly plays steel drum music as participants file into the room.
“I’m just hoping I can make something that sounds as good as the recording does now,” he says with a laugh. In four hours, he may be able to do just that.
The itinerary goes something like this: First, introductions are made and participants share their reasons for learning steel drums. Then Buyer discusses the history of the drums, dating back to their origin in 1940s Trinidad. He shares photos of how the instruments are manufactured before engaging in a “show-and-tell” of each.
With the assistance of members of the Clemson Steel Band, he discusses the differences in the drums and why they look and sound the way they do. After this, the group proceeds to “play in the engine room,” which is one of Buyer’s favorite parts of the day.
The engine room is not so much a specific place, but rather a set of percussion instruments that include shakers, scrapers, cowbells, a triangle, a brake drum and congas.
“The ER is basically rhythm; they don’t have any notes (pitches) to worry about. So you can tell pretty quickly who has good rhythm and who doesn’t necessarily,” Buyer quipped. “But they learn. They get more comfortable with it, they move their bodies and they groove a little bit… That’s one of my favorite moments, to see their faces when they play.”
To get a broader view of the world of steel drums, Buyer shows videos of “Panorama,” the annual steel drum competition in Trinidad (steel drums are often called “pans” or “steelpans” because of their bowl-like appearance).
After lunch, the group has its first rehearsal. Here they learn a short piece that Buyer teaches by rote.
“I’ll have letter names and notes on sheets of paper to help them learn visually. Once they learn where all the notes are on the steel drum, they can learn the piece,” he said. “We do a lot of repetitions and gradually increase the tempo. Hopefully, by the end of the workshop, we have something that we can say, ‘Hey, we learned this in a day and we had a lot of fun doing it.’”
Buyer hopes participants come out of the workshop with a new perspective not only on playing an instrument, but performing within an ensemble as well.
“Hopefully they have an appreciation for it,” he said. “If they’ve never played any instrument before — maybe they’ve thought about that, maybe they’ve been to a lot of concerts, but they actually haven’t played or sung themselves — having that experiential learning is really gratifying and I think they’ll take a lot from it.”