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Steel Pan Lab

Immersing youth in steel pan instrument making, playing, and technological innovation

The BeamWorks initiative teams up low-income high school students with master practitioners of design, craft, and engineering. They collaborate on large-scale projects that become part of the master’s practice. Students are immersed in the production process while learning both hard and soft skills (such as electronics, coding, carpentry, metalwork, digital literacy, leadership, collaboration, innovation, and persistence) that will enhance and enliven their academic objectives. Through the BeamWorks program, students are prepared for a post-high school world of work, authentic relationships, and continual learning.

Beam Center’s BeamWorks’ Steel Pan Lab is a partnership between Beam Center, Brooklyn College Community Partnership (BCCP) and STAR Academy at Erasmus, to whom the program was offered as an elective. The project aimed to engage high school students from a largely Afro-Caribbean section of Brooklyn in an exploration of design, production and innovation through a collaborative project with Kendall Williams, a master player and composer for the steel drum (aka steel pan). Watch interview with Kendall Williams.

Moving from metalwork to music, students made steel drums, learned to play them and explored the intersections between the analog and the digital, considering new ways to incorporate the motion of drumming into the worlds of digital programming and physical computing. The students’ work will culminate in two performances, a concert at BCCP in late March and a collaboration with NYU’s Steel Drum Band incorporating the technical and musical discoveries they have made.

Project Implementation and Discovery

One of the key aims of the project was to collaborate with a teaching artist whose practice aligns directly with the predominant cultural heritage of the participating students. The master player Kendall Williams stressed that although learning the playing of steel pan is at first achieved by rote, or memorization, rather than through reading musical notation, the ultimate objective for the students would be to understand basic music theory.

Exploring manual skills (steel pan playing and making) alongside parallel digital skills was another primary objective of the program. Much like steel plan playing itself, knowledge of steel pan making techniques is closely held among few practitioners and shared primarily in informal ways. Despite an initial assumption that, being a major expatriate Trinidadian hub, Brooklyn would be fertile ground to find a steel pan fabricator, the master, Kyle Dunleavy, was eventually found in suburban Philadelphia. BCCP did not feel that Brooklyn College would permit the necessary metalwork (cutting and welding) to take place at Brooklyn College Art Lab (BCAL), so the students who were available were invited for a “field trip” to the Beam Center.

Challenge and Resolution

By partnering with a community-based organization with an existing local constituency of students, the project was originally designed to test a flexible, hybrid enrollment model that would accommodate BCCP’s predominantly drop-in population—offering a modified version of Steel Pan Lab as part of BCAL’s Saturday program. The hope was to encourage weekday participants to also attend on Saturdays, prompting them to help engage non-enrolled students. However, the Saturday workshops failed to attract regular participation.

Nailing down a clear class-by-class lesson plan was an initial challenge. This was caused by inconsistent enrollment and the inherent difficulty in formalizing a learning process previously experienced in informal and varying forms tailored to individual student progress. Once enrollment improved, the students started to develop fluency and several students who had some prior steel pan experience were able to join the class following the extension of its opening hours. The students have made significant progress and are preparing for their first performance at BCAL scheduled March 28, 2015.

The enrollment configuration meant that several enrolled STAR students who had not previously been exposed to BCAL became engaged with different activities at the space, staying late to work on other projects and participating on other days. As a response to students arriving and departing at irregular times, it was decided that the session hours would expand, enabling any student to participate for at least 45 minutes regardless of when they arrived. This change meant that students who were interested in steel pan, but could not fit the elective into their schedule, were to participate as an afterschool activity.

Steel Pan Lab was BeamWorks’ first remote, extended off-site program, and involved a variety of tools and materials (digital and physical), that required space and maintenance—including eight 50-gallon steel oil drums and a full band’s worth of steel pan instruments! The BCCP is a heavily-trafficked, twenty-five minute drive from Beam Center, with the BCAL space used for multitude of activities throughout the week. The logistics for the program were therefore complex and time-consuming.

Organizational Impact

Steel Pan Lab presented a new type of relationship for BeamWorks in its collaboration with a partner school. After netting only five students for the program’s first three weeks, it was proposed to the Brooklyn College/STAR liaison to offer some sort of credit for the class and make it accessible to 9th and 10th graders in addition to juniors and seniors. These suggestions were accepted and attendance surpassed the original goal.

For BeamWorks, this was a first experience working with a music-focused Project Master, typically working with teaching artists from inherently collaborative, multidisciplinary creative domains. Since Kendall is first and foremost a formally trained composer and performing musical artist (currently in the Princeton PhD program) steeped in Trinidadian culture, hedelivered the lesson plan for the musical and cultural history aspect and, with additional support, expanded his practice to explore the physical-making and electronic side of the topic.

The Steel Pan Lab experience has reinforced BeamWorks’ commitment to help students not only to learn skills, but also to uncover the inner-workings, meaning and precedent of the tools, techniques and products of the work they do. Like the Apple Computer, the steel pan is a still-evolving invention of the 1970s. Learning the culture and skills of steel pan, from people who have direct access to the Trinidadian originators of the craft, is a rare opportunity for students to engage with an innovation in progress. Combining that with the world of physical computing and digital music-making creates a unique and valuable connection to future possibilities.

Target Audience

High school students who drop-in to BCCP’s BCAL space after school and on Saturdays, and attend local public schools. Brooklyn College Community Partnership targets at-risk students at some of the lowest-performing high schools in Brooklyn. Over 75 kids drop into BCCP on any given Saturday, and the average number of kids during the week is 30-50. 82% of the population is African-American & Afro-Caribbean, 10% is Latino, 5% is Asian, and 3% is Caucasian. 83% of participants qualify for free or reduced lunch.



Lead Organization:
Beam Center

Partner Organizations:
The Brooklyn College Community Partnership , STAR Academy at Erasmus High School , Crossfire Steel Pan Orchestra

Project Goal:
Create a collaboration between a master steel drum player and youth to learn playing, manufacturing and digital techniques associated with an instrument that aligns with their cultural heritage.

Project Tags:
Arts, Media Literacy & Production, Youth Development & Leadership

Project Portfolio