As a steelpan enthusiast who has thrived and sometimes barely survived, while consistently relying solely upon on the pan as a means of material existence, many topics of discussion related to this life present themselves daily for sussing out. One such topic is that of the proper calibration of one's sticks.
Sticks Should Be Calibrated According to the Unique Properties of Each Pan
Every steelpan instrument has a unique individual voice. The quality of pans according to their makers runs the gammut as with any instrument, and the quality of steelpans naturally range from very high to very low according to the skill and expertise of their respective makers. Being fond of excellence, let us use an excellent example in order to expand on this point.
While there may be many arguments in the steelband community, usually there is no argument surrounding the legend of Herman ''Guppy'' Brown (R.I.P), and the fact that his pans sing the sweetest. Hands down, the best steelpan maker was ''Guppy''. His legacy lives on in the no doubt tens of thousands of instruments he churned out during his time. Guppy's instruments are like wine in that they get better with age. Yet no two Guppy pans are the same even though all of his instruments possess brilliant tones and bright sonic colors. In order to get the best sound out of each of his pans, the sticks and the rubbers have to be calibrated properly, and there is no such thing as ''one size fits all'' where pan sticks are concerned, especially when speaking of sticks for a particular section, like the tenor section for example. Sticks that bring out the vocal qualities in one tenor, will not necessarily have the same effect on another tenor, even if both tenors were made by the same maker.
As a youngster entering the Rising Stars Youth Steel Orchestra, my introduction to the steelpan came by virtue of a steelpan orchestra stocked entirely with ''Guppy'' pans. When one considers the fact that the Rising Stars is known to have over 100 players at any given time, one can appreciate the sheer number of instruments required in order to accomodate a band of this size. One appreciates this even more when taking into consideration that all of these pans were produced by the best, and there is a reason why Rising Stars has a longstanding reputation as the sweetest sounding steelband in the Virgin islands. During Guppy's active years, he was regularly flown into St. Thomas at least twice a year to tune the band before Carnival and before the annual Rising Stars Christmas concerts at Reichhold Center.
With the being said, the standard sticks that all band members in the Rising Stars were given and instructed to use in our orchestra of ''Guppy'' pans were solid, wooden dowels. The rubbers among the players varied. All players were taught how to wrap their sticks with rubber bands and each band member had to instinctively learn how many times to wrap the rubber band around the tip of the stick according to what kind of rubber band we were using, and which particular pan we were playing. However, rubber bands were a very regular, pedestrian type of rubber among the band members and many of us were unscrupulous enough to regularly raid the soap dispensers in the panyard bathrooms in order to pilfer the premier rubbers we came to know:
The soap dispenser rubbers when used on the ends of solid, wooden dowels brought out the best sound in the ''Guppy'' pans in terms of fullness, colour and volume. These rubbers have the ideal thickness to strike the high notes clearly on a tenor pan, as well as achieve a warm resonance from the low notes. Anyone who plays the tenor pan knows that finding the proper ''rubber balance'' presents somewhat of a slight challenge.
The thickness of the rubbers on the end of one's sticks is crucial in achieving the best overall sound of of a pan, especially tenor pans, which possess the smallest (highest) notes. If the rubber on one's sticks is too thick, the high notes on a tenor are dampened when struck and do not ring. On the other hand, if the rubbers are too thin, one will emit a screeching, unpleasant sound of wood on metal (if wooden sticks are being used), which is important to keep in mind if one plays professionally and is constantly wearing out rubbers due to extended playing time. Wooden sticks can also be worn down too. Here is a stick that has a rubber that will soon be in need of replacement, and where the wood on the grip section has been heavily worn down due to literally thousands of hours of playing:
A stick that has been worn down as much as the one in the photo above is definitely very comfortable to play with, in a similar way to how old shoes feel increasingly comfortable when heavily heavily worn over time, but enough with the digression!
Wooden Sticks vs. Hollow Aluminum ''Mallets'' vs. Bamboo Sticks
As stated earlier, experience has shown that solid wooden mallets with soap dispenser rubbers bring out the best of a ''Guppy'' tenor pan. For some reason or another, hollow aluminum ''mallets'' and sticks made of bamboo do not quite do the trick on ''Guppy'' tenors for some reason, and it is apparent that the sound result achieved from hollow sticks whether made from aluminum, wood, or bamboo do not produce such a full, round, colorful sound nor the same level of volume as solid, wooden sticks.
Essentially however, the sticks one uses also has a lot to do with personal preference as well. Aluminum never seemed appealing to this author due to the fact that it is an inorganic material and wood feels significantly more natural on the fingers. As the pan is already made of steel (inorganic material), to use another inorganic material to strike it in order to produce sound seems out of balance in comparison to using a natural material like wood or bamboo. On a side note, when did sticks start becoming ''mallets''? Perhaps this is a topic for another article.
Some Tongue-in-Cheek Cultural Appropriation of Classical Music on a ''Guppy'' Pan
Cultural appropriation of classical music on the steelpan has previously been a topic of discussion in this blog. Recently, we covered an absolutely brilliant pannist by the name of Kareem ''TJ Buda'' King who performed a masterful ''Four Stick Bach Fugue in D Minor'' on the double seconds. Despite the fact that this was a culturally appropriating performance in the sense that a negro pannist performed classical music, it is important to note that when negroes culturally appropriate the artistic works of Europeans, it is usually done in such a way that demostrates a deep appreciation, if not love for the art that is being appropriated. No one will doubt by watching Mr. King's awesome Bach solo that he is not a gentleman who does not have the utmost respect and appreciation for the genre that he is appropriating. Similarly, when looking at negroes who perform classical music professionally, nothing corny usually ever comes across in their work, unlike when the shoe is on the other foot and it crosses the line significantly into the territory of cultural misappropriation, as in the case of Bob Lyin' Lyons, who is more of a minstrel show than a musician.
Some of of the finest, most talented classical musicians of our time are culturally appropriating negroes like Wynton Marsalis, Derek Lee Ragin, Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman among others. However, based solely on talent and merit, they are among the best in their respective classical genres, unlike when the shoe of cultural appropriation is on the other foot.
As someone who appreciates classical music greatly (especially opera), as well as being someone who gets a real kick out of ''Reverse Cultural Appropriation'', here is my tongue-in-cheek version of Rossini's ''Non Si Da Follia Maggiore'' from his opus, ''Il Turco in Italia''. This rendition is played on an authentic ''Guppy'' tenor pan, complete with wooden sticks and soap dispenser rubbers:
Also included is the standard, studio recording from the best singer to ever perform the role of Fiorilla, Maria Callas:
Psalm 87 (KJV)
5 And of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her: and the highest himself shall establish her.
6 The LORD shall count, when he writeth up the people, that this man was born there. Selah.
7 As well the singers as the players on instruments shall be there: all my springs are in thee.