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Published on March 11th, 2017 | by Aoife Mccarthy


Pan in higher education

I am currently a first year at the University of Liverpool studying popular music and politics. My instrument for my degree is steel pan. Pan is a very important aspect of my degree. Without having it as my instrument I would not have been able to take music at university level. My participation in competitions such as Panorama and Pan Explosion are the reason I can take music at degree level. And above all they have given me the work ethic and skills needed take music at this level without having done an a-level in music.

Although I love playing pan and am usually surrounded by people who love it just as much as I do, at university this has not been the case. From the first day of lectures it has been a struggle to be taken seriously. This lack of respect towards pan players has been frustrating and needs to change.

One of the things I have noticed about the people I have come across at university, is that they are quick to assume what they don’t know. They have never seen a pan in their life but will very quickly jump to answer someone’s questions on how it works; it’s origins or even what to do when recording it. This problem can be solved by education. If people are taught about it in the first place then when questions are asked they can answer correctly or have enough knowledge to let the player answer before they assume they know what is correct. Education is important anyway, as if we are to continue the tradition of steel pan then others must be taught how to, not only play, but also to appreciate pan.

Another thing that can be changed by increased education is the lack of respect shown to both panists and the pan itself. I’ve had many ‘jokes’ thrown at me about using my pan as a bowl to eat cereal out of and other highly disrespectful things, that people around me find ‘funny’. Normally people change this attitude when I mention how expensive it would be to buy a new pan or tune this one. That usually keeps them quiet, especially if you say they will have to pay for the damage they cause!

The lack of respect show towards me as a player has been harder to curtail. Even musicians don’t take me seriously. I am usually placed with the drums and told to strum, which as a tenor player doesn’t challenge me in the way I would like, or uses the tenor pan to its fullest potential. This has begun to change through sheer brute force on my part. For example, constantly asking for solos and refusing to strum for at least half of every song. This battle for musical freedom is tiring and boring to keep up every day.

There are two outstandingly good things about playing pan at University which does help outweigh the bad. The first is that when you meet people who want to learn about or how to play pan, it’s a relief and I am more than happy to help. These are the positive people who make the jokers and the ‘know it all’s’ worth it. It also gives me hope in humanity!

The other positive is that I have from 11am-11pm to play pan, if I’m not meant to be in lectures. Although, I tend not to play every day, just as not to annoy my flat mates too much. This time can be helpful to run through old tunes and work on new stuff. It’s generally quite fun because I love to play pan and the more I can do it the better!

Pan in higher education has it’s good and bad sides. I want others’ experience to be better than mine, but mine has not been extremely bad. Hopefully, through education of other musicians this experience will get better. However, it does feel weird to be the first pan player ever to be at my University. I feel that more people should, if they want, play pan as their instrument for their degree.

I would like pan to become taken more seriously and not just something shown in a video about a record label for ‘world music’ that is a bit of a joke. I would like pan to be represented by panists in multiple universities (I would also like the word panist to be recognised by spell check, but that is another thing entirely). It would be extremely exciting for there to be modules about the history of pan, calypso and soca, like there are modules for classical music, rock and the development of orchestral instruments. I hope that my hopes for pan in higher education are not too far-fetched.

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