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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

1.1. The Tenors or ‘Leads’

The tenor pans (or lead pans if you’re from North America) are the soprano instruments of the steel orchestra. Generally, these are the most standardised of all pans, although a few manufacturers and tuners extend the range by a semitone or a whole tone upwards, and of course we have already noted the exception of the ‘Invaders low tenor’.

The layout of the notes typically follows a pattern of adjoining fourths and fifths as shown in Fig. 1. This holds for both the high or D tenor and the low or C tenor. As the principal difference between the high and low tenor is a mere whole tone, it is perhaps rather quirky that both have survived and prospered in the modern steel orchestra. (It is not even that one is substituted for the other in certain keys, as say is the case with the Bb and A clarinet in the modern symphony orchestra – both are used side by side.) The range of the high tenor is typically from D4 to F#6 (see Fig. 2), that of the low tenor from C4 to E6 (see Fig. 3).

Low Tenor Pan layout
Fig.1 - layout of low tenor pan

Hi Tenor Pan range       Low Tenor Pan range
Fig.2 -range of high tenor pan            Fig.3 - range of low tenor pan

The ‘Invaders low tenor’ pan follows a completely atypical layout (see Fig. 4). Its range however extends the typical low tenor by only a semitone upwards. In other words, its range is from C4 to F6. Its sonority is quite distinct from that of the standard tenor, as would be expected since the different adjacency of the notes would favour different harmonics. The instrument was designed by Ellie Mannette when he was still with Invaders and is generally highly regarded for its ease of playing. It also appears to be endorsed by some of the world’s leading soloists. However, unless specifically commissioned to write for it, the composer/arranger had better ignore this variation altogether, since to the best of my knowledge apart from Invaders no other panside uses it and would be less than likely to not only acquire it but then specially train a player or players!

Invaders Low Tenor Pan layout
Fig.4 - layout of Invaders low tenor pan

Also, Desperadoes use a unique layout of their own that is almost the opposite of the ‘standard’ layout of the tenor pan. The bright, smooth, mellow tone of Desperadoes’ front line has always been something special, and this atypical layout may well be a contributing factor.

A further variation to the standard tenor pan that has become widespread since the 1980s is the ‘bore pan’ or bore tenor. The ranges and layouts are identical to the standard tenors. However, the difference is that the notes are separated by perforations rather than solid grooves (see Fig. 5). This invention is credited to Denzil Fernandez but was further improved by the legendary tuner and pan innovator Bertie Marshall. However, it should be noted that as far back as the early 1960s, Bertie Marshall, then captain and tuner of the legendary Highlanders, started drilling holes into the grooves between notes. The reason for this though at that time was to allow the water to run off that Marshall had his pannists pour over their playing surfaces on carnival days in order to cool them down and prevent the heat of the sun, combined with the constant stick impact, from throwing the pans off pitch.

Low Tenor Pan layout
Fig.5 - A bore pan in use with Skiffle Bunch

The advantages of the bore pan are that it lends the instrument a much greater resonance, as well as a much crisper, cleaner sound. The latter is due to interference from surrounding notes being suppressed by the perforations, also making tuning much easier.

In recent years the bore pan’s popularity with steel orchestras has mushroomed particularly since the governing body of pan in Trinidad and Tobago, Pan Trinbago, reduced the maximum size of large bands competing in the Panorama competition to one hundred players only. With the greater carrying power of the bore pan, it is possible to have a much smaller tenor section than before yet still have the same ‘big sound’. (Bore pans have also been introduced for the double tenor and double second instruments.)

However, it would be impractical for the composer/arranger to explicitly specify bore pans. As for the dynamics, just trust the orchestra’s arranger and players to adjust accordingly.

The tenor pans carry the melody in normal circumstances. This applies equally to the high and low tenors.


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

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