- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2007

Brian McAlpin likes to move to the rhythm of the steel drums. After hearing the instrument at Discovery Cove in Orlando, Fla., he was so inspired that he decided to learn to play the drums himself.

“My favorite thing about the steel drums is how they sound,” says the 14-year-old from Arbutus, Md. “It reminds me of tropical islands.”

Brian, who already plays the trumpet in the Catonsville High School Band, hopes the lessons he has been taking for the past few weeks help him become proficient on the steel drums as well.

Learning to play the steel drums requires an understanding of melody and harmony, but with patience and practice, beginners soon will be playing their own tune. The instrument also introduces musicians to the culture of Trinidad and Tobago.

Anyone can learn to play the steel drums, says Kevin Martin, owner of Rockcreek Steel Drums in Arnold, Md. Brian is a student of Mr. Martin’s.

Mr. Martin holds eight-week steel drum classes at Mill Creek Studios in Arnold on Monday and Tuesday nights for adults and families. Each session has a final performance with his band, the Geckos, at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.

The tuition is $200 per person, which includes a steel drum rental for the course. Mr. Martin also offers one-day workshops called the “Steel Drum Experience” for churches and corporate team building and builds steel drums for his students and other customers.

His students have varying abilities, he says.

“People who are good drummers are good at holding the mallets,” Mr. Martin says. “Piano and guitar players understand chord changes. People who are good singers understand the melody lines.”

The steel drums can be a good first instrument, says Laura Whittaker of Rockville. The registered nurse has been taking a course with Mr. Martin.

“I can’t read music,” Mrs. Whittaker says. “I just like being able to play an instrument. I thought about the piano, but I decided to play the steel drums. It’s fun.”

More experienced musicians will enjoy the textures of the steel drums, says Kevin Muhitch, 15, of Arnold. He also plays the guitar and bass and has recently been taking a class with Mr. Martin.

“It’s an easy instrument to pick up,” Kevin says. “I love Caribbean music and world music. I thought it would be fun to learn.”

One of the first things Mr. Martin teaches his students is to get a feel for holding the mallets. Because the steel drum pans are really strong, but also really sensitive, a player has to hit the pans so that they give the best ringing sound.

Sometimes, students try to hit the pans too hard, producing a dull sound, he says.

“After we practice for about five minutes, students can make a nice tone on the instrument,” Mr. Martin says. “With a violin or trumpet, you would spend a whole semester trying to get a tone that’s not displeasing to the ear.”

When a strong tone is established, Mr. Martin then teaches the concept of a melody line. To reinforce the melody line, he asks his students to sing while playing the tune. By the end of the eight-week course, they are not only able to play the song on the steel drums, but also sing it.

“Singing helps them to get the right phrasing when they play the drums,” Mr. Martin says. “We break up the phrases. We learn the piece in little chunks.”

Instead of using sheet music, Mr. Martin gives his students the lyrics with the melody notes written over the top. Each drum is marked on the area of the pan that will produce the corresponding note.

“In Trinidad, where steel drums come from, they will have 100-piece steel drum orchestras,” Mr. Martin says. “They don’t read music. They teach by repeating a phrase over and over. They teach by rote.”

As the students advance, Mr. Martin also teaches them to play chords. For instance, half the class could play C and E notes and the other half could play C and G notes to make a C major chord. When additional notes are required, players can use two sticks in one hand.

The class recently worked on Santana’s “Evil Ways,” Roaring Lion’s “Marianne,” and Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” By the end of the session, the students perfect five songs for the final performance set.

Each student starts with a single pan, and they can move to double seconds, or two pans, if they are ready for more, Mr. Martin says.

“In a steel drum orchestra, they have nine different kinds of instruments,” Mr. Martin says. “They are meant to mimic instruments in a traditional Western orchestra.”

The sound of the steel drums is captivating, says Kevin Grant, owner of Kevin Grant Steel Drums in Mendocino, Calif. He has been building steel drums for 11 years, charging from $1,000 to $2,300 per pan.

Mr. Grant’s love for steel drums started when he saw a set in a store window. He couldn’t afford to buy one, so he took the measurements of a drum in the store and built his own. After a year of building his first steel drum, he began to learn to play it.

“I probably played the lead drum for about a year and learned all the different scales on it,” Mr. Grant says. “Then I made a set of double seconds. I’m more of a doubles player now.”

Learning the steel drums exposes students to a new culture, says Alison Tunison, instrumental music teacher for fourth and fifth grade at Lutherville Laboratory Elementary School in Lutherville, Md.

She teaches a 32-student steel drum band. About 200 children have gone through the program so far. Mr. Martin made the pans for her ensemble.

“We talk about how the steel drums were created in Trinidad and Tobago,” Mrs. Tunison says. “They learn a whole new set of rhythms that isn’t in their regular repertoire.”

Practice is the key to being a successful musician, says Orlando Phillips, a solo steel drum performer from Annapolis who taught himself to play. He has been playing Caribbean music for 18 years and also plays the saxophone and sings. His father was born in Trinidad.

“I love the sound, and I love the reaction I get from the audience,” Mr. Phillips says. “It’s a good instrument to express positive feelings. It’s just fun.”

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