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Composing and Arranging for the Steel Pan - Part I : Basics
An Overview of the Special Issues in Writing and Arranging for the Steel Pan By Richard A. Sharma


Writing for the steel pan, whether an original composition or an arrangement, presents a whole range of special problems. Chief among these are the lack of standardisation, both of the individual instruments and their ranges (and sometimes the arrangement of notes on the pan), as well as of the instrumentation available from one panside (or steel orchestra) to the next.

Two further large obstacles to the expansion of the body of original compositions for the pan are the limited ability of the pan movement to afford commissioning original pieces, and, even where composers might be interested in writing or arranging for the pan without a commission, the general lack of easily accessible information concerning, amongst others, such technical aspects as the ranges of individual instruments and the range of instruments available.

The ‘Engine Room’ or rhythm section of the steel orchestra is generally less problematic. However, there are a couple of percussion instruments that are unique to the steel band that need to be borne in mind.

Notation presents issues unique to the pan. In the first place, few panmen (and women) can read music, apart from the ‘arrangers’, who not only arrange the music but also teach the parts by rote to the section leaders, who in their turn pass the part along to the rest of the section. Then there is the notation itself, or rather, the choice of clef. While there are conventions concerning this, some of them are less than logical or even sensible, especially bearing in mind that pans are not transposing instruments.

Finally, we can only concern ourselves with the ‘conventional steelband’ or modern steel orchestra here. The ‘traditional steelband’, or ‘pan round de neck’, is beyond the scope of this article as it is just too variable in the composition of instruments and their ranges, thus presenting perhaps too many obstacles for the composer/arranger without a specific commission.

While this brief article makes no pretence at being any kind of scholarly dissertation, it is hoped that at least it will clarify the subject a little and help make this much-needed information more easily and widely available, and perhaps contribute towards stimulating a wider discussion of the subject especially outside of scholarly circles.

This article was originally prompted and inspired by a published and performed composer friend expressing an interest in writing for the pan but being unable to find relevant information such as is set out here.

A forthcoming second part of this article will deal with more specific aspects and conventions of writing for the pan.


© 2009 Richard A. Sharma / Rainlore's World of Music. All rights reserved.

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