Published on January 15th, 2017 | by Fiona Hawthorne


The UFO Pilots, Michael Toussaint’s class for blind and visually impaired players


How the UFO Pilots came about:

Fiona:  “Every week at practice, playing triple guitar behind Michael playing tenor, I watched Michael and thought, why do we not have more blind pan players in this band? If Michael can do it, why not other blind people? Can we seize an opportunity to include and teach steelpan to more people with visual impairment?” Fiona asked Michael what he thought and Michael said: “Its what I have always wanted to do” From that moment UFO steelband’s class for visually impaired persons (VIPs) was born.

With Michael Toussaint, UFOs had the best possible tutor and mentor for the VIP class. Being blind himself, Michael understood the joys and challenges of pan, and was not only a world class player but he had valuable wisdom and insight about the pan world. With the support of musical director Jason Constantine and the whole band, we knew the plan could work.

The initial idea was to include two blind or visually impaired players in our regular class, so Fiona set about formulating a project and finding funding to support the access costs and tuition.

Michael contacted the local Ealing RNIB who soon found 8 interested players, so we decided to give all eight a go, thinking it could naturally filter down to two. However three months later, we still had eight people coming to pan every Monday, and our temporary 5.30pm ‘try-out’ slot had actually become a regular class – the UFO VIP class was up and running!

Setting up instruments and navigating a packed pan yard is challenging for a sighted person, but for a blind or visually impaired person it is virtually impossible. We soon realized we needed one or two dedicated sighted supporters in the room. They needed to set up the instruments, get players to their pans and even retrieve the occasional dropped panstick – things a sighted person may take for granted. As pan is largely a visual instrument, learning by muscle memory and by ear is more difficult if you cannot look down to see the notes. Therefore the instruments need to be set in exactly the same position each week – it may not be instantly obvious to a blind player if their double guitar is switched round the wrong way, or if the bases are turned slightly differently to last week. We realized that volunteers needed – not just to consistently attend and support Michael’s class – but to know and love pan. Finding consistent support was a challenge and there were indeed teething issues, but now one year on the UFO VIP class has not only succeeded…it has exceeded! The class has played their first gig and are now working towards being on the truck in the London New Year’s Day Parade 2017!

Our VIP players include Bill who was for many years a senior policeman at Notting Hill Carnival, and though now loosing his sight due to dementia, is loving being part of a band playing the instrument he grew to love. Having a guide dog in the room is a thrill for the younger members of UFOs, and in fact the whole band is gaining so much from being genuinely inclusive and from learning from each other.

Thanks to the Arts Council of England, RBKC Arts and RNIB, we have recently managed to secure some funding to further develop the Pilots and offer the opportunity of playing steelpan to more blind and visually impaired people from all over London. In fact we are currently seeking someone to fill the role of class assistant and coordinator, to support the class, develop links with other RNIBs and as a result recruit more VIPs to join UFOs.

Regarding a name for the class, one of our young UFO players suggested: “The VIPs are part of UFOs but they are leading something entirely new, so that makes them “The Pilots”. The name has stuck and UFO Pilots have launched!

So if anyone knows anyone who is blind or visually impaired and who wants to learn to play the beautiful steelpan instrument, join a band and play gigs, come to UFOs in Ealing!

Venue: Accessible hall at Christ the Saviour Church, New Broadway, Ealing, W5 2XA.

Time: 5.30 to 6.30pm on Mondays.

Contact: or 07775947300


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