The beat of a different drum

The Caribbean sounds of the steel pans ring out for students at Ring Factory Elementary School

November 09, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Some of the students at Ring Factory Elementary were excited when they heard a steel drum band was being started at the school.

Olivia Vach played drums at home but wanted to try something new. Daniel Cullinan wanted to be challenged. And Christopher "CJ" Plumer wanted to learn an instrument that not everybody plays.

"Steel drums are unique," said CJ, 10, a fifth-grader from Bel Air. "I think having a steel drum band in our school gives kids a chance to see what it's like to do something challenging when they get older. The steel drum band gives little kids something to look forward to."

The three youngsters, along with 26 other fourth- and fifth-graders, auditioned and were selected to play in the band this year.

The band was started in 2006 by Sara Egner, who started teaching music at Ring Factory six years ago.

Developed in Trinidad in the 1930s, steel drums, also called steel pans, are percussion instruments made from oil drums. There are six types of steel drums: lead drums for playing melody, double seconds for playing harmony, double guitars and triple cellos to play rhythm chords, tenor bass to play bass and rhythm, and six bass to play the bass line.

Egner was introduced to steel drums when she heard them three years ago in a Baltimore County public school, she said.

She was hooked.

"I fell in love with steel drums," said Egner, who attended the Peabody Conservatory.

"Steel drums can be played by children who are hearing-impaired, have ADHD, or just have a great knack for learning," she said. "Children who play the drums need to be energetic and have a good memory. Playing the steel drums keeps children moving and energized."

New to the steel drum band this year, fourth-grader Olivia agreed with Egner.

"People think playing steel drums is really easy," said Olivia, 9, of Bel Air. "It's not. You have to move your hands really fast to hit a note. Playing the steel drums makes you tired."

But the hard work is worth it, she said.

"We get to travel and play, and we make people happy with music," she said.

David Cullinan said he joined the band because he likes the challenge.

"There are a whole lot of notes in some songs," said David, 10, a fifth-grader from Bel Air who has played in the band for two years. "Last year, we played 'God Only Knows,' and it was really hard. The notes are all scrunched in. It makes it really hard to get the timing just right. But I play awesome."

No matter how well you play the drums, practice has its moments, said CJ.

"You forget the notes, and stumble over parts," said CJ, who is in his second year in the band.

Egner said the band gave her a chance to pursue her first passion - instrumental music. When she applied for a job in the Harford County school system six years ago, she hoped to teach instrumental music, but only vocal positions were available, she said.

"I can teach any kind of music," she said. "But I'm a clarinet player, not a singer."

However, starting a steel band takes commitment and training, said James Boord, supervisor of music for the county's school system.

The biggest obstacle schools face in adding a steel drum band to their repertoire is teacher training, he said. Before starting the program at Ring Factory, Egner learned to play steel drums on her own, he said.

"Sara loves steel drums," he said. "It's a passion of hers. So she took classes in the summer and learned how to play steel drums. But not every music teacher may want to or be able to do that."

Despite the commitment required of students, interest in starting steel drum bands has increased, Boord said.

For starters, steel drums offer children a new, exciting instrument that is fairly easy to learn to play, he said.

Recently, steel drums were purchased for Havre de Grace Elementary for about $14,000, with funds from the school, the county school system and private donations, Boord said.

Egner is planning fundraisers to help raise money to purchase new drums, she said.

Other schools have voiced an interest, but funds are limited, Boord said.

In a typical year, the music department receives $30,000 to purchase new equipment and $50,000 for replacement instruments. The $50,000 was eliminated because of countywide budget cuts made last month, he said.

"The budget cut is huge for the music department," he said.

Despite the lack of funding, Boord said he would like to see a steel drum band in any school where the teachers, the school, the principal and the community show an interest, he said.

"If a school wants a steel drum band, we will do what we can to help them get one," he said.

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