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The Panyard as a Model Space for Training
  Dr. Jeannine Remy D.M.A. Lecturer in music, CCFA, UWI. - March 2006

Given the question as in what ways carnival music, specifically with respect to the steelpan, serve as alternative and creative methods of instruction, as compared with learning through an academic institution; some description of the traditional activities of the arrangers and players of Trinidad and Tobago steelbands are discussed. In portraying the panyard as a model space for training; indigenous attributes of methodology, cultural issues, social values, playing techniques and comparisons to other learning environments are briefly explored. Observation that traditional methods were the only method of teaching carnival music for pan, and that these traditions survive, is made.

In Submission to:

The Second Carnival Studies Colloquium


Friday, 10th March 2006

The University of The West Indies

Trinidad Campus - St Augustine
Faculty of Humanities & Education
Centre for Creative & Festival Arts
Gordon Street - St Augustine


MOST steelpan educators, here and abroad, would agree that the experience of learning how to play pan (especially the music around Carnival time) in its indigenous setting (the Trinidad and Tobago [TT] panyards) is an invaluable experience for any young pannist, semi-professional or pan enthusiast. Most pannists would agree that practical performance skills are honed in the panyard. At a glance, the amount of foreign faces over the years in Panorama alone should be perceived as a message to Trinbagonians that even the foreigners know where to come to learn Carnival music and experience the real thing. Perhaps Trinbagonians take for granted the importance of this type of cultural learning. Pan has reached the world and foreigners are flocking to TT for the challenge of performing next to the best pan players; and rubbing shoulders with our most famous authentic Trinbagonian arrangers.

In early 2006 the arranger Liam Teague was a guest lecturer at a Pan Arranging class, here at the University of the West Indies (UWI). He had come down from Northern Illinois University (NIU) with a collection of his students, who were to gain the cultural experience of traditional panyard learning in Skiffle Bunch' Panyard. He stated that the students had already learnt most of the 2006 seasons arrangement (Colours Again composed by Mark Loquan, Keron Boodosingh and Joel Zankiveck; and sung by Destra Garcia) from a score. Inevitable musical changes to the arrangement, made in the panyard, were then learnt through rote by the visiting students. Teague stated that he was happy for the changes but a little concerned as to how his students would react to the fast pace of panyard learning. An ironic problem; illustrating what is opposite in the process of how most Trinbagonians learn their music.

The steelpan is a folk instrument, coming from an oral tradition. Only recently has music literacy become an hot issue for Trinbagonian discussion. “Challenging some of these traditions with knowledge and education may, if not conducted with proper attention to function or without proper sensitivity in application, can and will destroy some parts, if [1] not all aspects, of the tradition. It must be uppermost in our minds, at all times, that progress brings change; and usually consumes the old traditions, sometimes without trace. Methods and technology are factors for change, and it is the responsibility of educators to apply with sensitivity and direction, their methods and available technologies to the panyards, in such a way as to preserve what is constant of the traditions that this society would hope to keep alive”. (2; de Barry. e-Mail interview)

The fact that panyard music learning does not necessarily rely on sheet music, challenges any player who relies on that visual aspect of learning. Those who read sheet music tend to be slower at learning music by rote because they are not accustomed to utilizing their musical senses on the spot. A traditional panyard pannist is not bogged down with note reading and the paraphernalia of the positioning of a music stand. The traditional pannist uses all of his/her senses to learn the music. It is a method of triple-channel learning that is visual, aural, kinaesthetic (they see the notes, hear the pitches, and they feel the patterns in their hands). This method has worked and survived like any other folk art whose traditional music is transmitted aurally. A sort of master and apprentice situation; the panyard provides a sense of community niche and a feeling of social kinship. Camaraderie and discipline work hand in hand to develop some of these, the more skilled players and future arrangers in the world; but it must also be noted that not every musician entering the panyard is interested in music as a career. They do it for the sheer enjoyment in fulfilling a musical hobby with friends. Like a social club (glee club, Rotary, Masons, etc), the panyard population is a mix of people with the goal of having fun creating music together. The element of a competition (like Panorama) enforces discipline and encourages the members to work together to prepare their music.

The carnival spirit and community pride in the panyard provides a learning environment which is unlike any other experience in the world. The traditional pannist is there for the fun of accomplishing a musical goal with his or her friends; the pressures of classroom learning and assessment is left to the classroom. People like Ray Holman (a pioneer arranger) argue that when pan is in the classroom both methods, rote and reading, should be used as ways of teaching. He also advocates that people forget how to listen and [2] develop their aural skills when they solely rely on their eyes to read the music (4; Holman. Interview). One has to remember that the steelpan evolved in the panyard through people who were not formally trained in music; these people had to devise their own system of teaching and learning music. As the instrument has moved from its grassroots level, and now grown in stature to become the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago (1992), the concern for music literacy among its adherents is now being officially addressed. It is my belief that we need a balance of both types of musical learning: traditional and formal. The road to acceptance has already been battled; the youths of today did not have to bear the full brunt of the struggles of their forefathers.

This year alone there were 126 registered steelbands for the Panorama competitions; with only 4 of these failing to function (3; Internet). Compared to the number of private pan schools and public school bands; within this large set of local steelbands, the traditional method of rote learning is still the favoured method of teaching pan music. As we go into our third generation of pannists, the balance between learning music in the panyard and in school, are options that the first and second generations never experienced. We at UWI realize the importance of panyard learning and even offer a course component entitled the Panyard Option where students can assist and observe their instructor/arranger with rote teaching in a live panyard.

As we know, each panyard has a hierarchy of leadership and management that also affects the panyard as a model space for learning. In the eyes of the players, the arranger is the person who they depend upon to 'create' and 'give' the music. The players response to the music will often time create a panyard 'vibe' that arouses the players. This 'vibe' is fed-back directly to the arranger, who may then be moved to be even more 'creative'. On the other hand, the management committee wants to make sure the arranger will produce music that will take the band into the further levels of the competition. A good management committee will produce and attract excellent players, excellent arrangers, command discipline, and find generous sponsors. The formula of good management and excellent players generates success. Successful award winning steelbands in turn work on spending their money to create an even better model space for teaching music. [3] Blackboards with music notation is not an odd sight to see in this generations panyard. A glance into Exodus' panyard will verify the fact that their equipment is well-kept and that there are blackboards with musical notation. Players are still taught by rote; but there is a push for literacy and for archiving 'higher standards' of music.

The writing of this paper was stimulated by a UWI request to present a topic conversant with discussion that are to focus on 'ways in which carnival music (calypso, steel pan and soca) serve as alternative and creative methods of instruction.' In clarification, it is my belief that the term 'alternative method' is misleading; as with respect to the panyards, 'traditional methods' were the ONLY method of teaching 'carnival music' for pan, and do not serve as 'an alternative' method of 'instruction'; as that method of learning came before 'classroom teaching'.

In a recent poll of students from The Steelpan History and Development class at UWI; when asked what they thought about the importance of teaching carnival music in the panyard as 'an alternative and creative method of instruction'; the students responded with comments as will be shown below. It turns out that about 75% of this class participated as players in one, or more, steelbands this carnival season. Who better to ask if panyards are a model space for training? Their comments categorized themselves into the following groups:

  1. importance of methodology
  2. cultural issues
  3. social values
  4. techniques acquired
  5. comparisons to other learning environments.

These categories will be used as the templates for discussion within this paper. [4]


Students felt that the panyard was a model space for rote learning since historically it has worked for people from all walks of life. It continues to be a setting for creative method learning in that it involves numerous people working together to pass on music by showing it, almost instantly. From the arranger to the player, the assembly line of rote teaching leaves no man without notes. The notes are dispersed like the ripples created when a pebble is thrown into a pond. As a unit, the players one by one, get the notes and with them, learn the performance nuances.

Some arrangers in TT have musical training; but most (at present) do not. As an aural society, the average Trinidadian pannist has an excellent memory and ability to learn music quickly. Teaching music is like memorizing facts. Arrangers use mnemonics such as vocalizations, solemnization; the pan players learn by listening to the music, imitating what they heard, watching the patterns being taught, and repeating the musical phrase until it is correctly learned. The music is internalised through triple-channel learning. The players see other players move from note to note, they hear the sounds produced in a melodic sentence, and kinaesthetically they learn the feel of the pattern via sticking the pattern and internalising the sound. The rhythm of the music is often tapped out on the side of the pan (skirt) so that the player can hear the correct phrasing of the notes as conceptualised by the arranger.. In many panyards the notes (pitches) are first called out to the players, or section leaders; and then rhythmically tapped out.


In nearly every society, people recognize the uniqueness of music as the aural form of their potential for artistic expression. Music is a listening art and performers must listen most intensely to themselves in order to improve their own performance. An understanding of music requires an awareness of the aural elements, in particular, the characteristics of melody, rhythm, harmony, texture and form. For musicians who advance kinaesthetically on [5] their instruments, and who are capable of a variety of pyrotechnic feats [like Boogsie Sharpe soloing], the ear must keep pace.

In some traditions, aural learning is the principal and sometimes the only way music is learned. Even where there is a system of music notation, as in much of the developed worlds art music, aural learning may frequently still take precedence. If aural learning is inherent in the acquisition of music, so too is imitation; which is a natural outgrowth of aural learning. Imitation may be a natural part of social learning in which the learner must form an internalised representation, or mental image, of the modelled acts until acquisition occurs. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words; so to is the teachers, arrangers, or section leaders demonstration. In many societies modelling and imitation are widespread, and a prominent means of music learning.

Aural training came before note reading! It was over a period of several hundred years that European composers developed a system for capturing musical sound into symbols on a page; and yet no musical notation has been capable of fully expressing, in its visual form, precisely the way the music is intended to sound [the idea of 'interpretation'; when we attempt to unscramble the notation]. Aspects of timbre, dynamics, and tempo can only be partially conveyed through Western notation; furthermore, sheet music is only a memory aid. The best performances are usually those done by heart; without [recourse to] reading sheet music. The masses of people learning music in the panyard are more successful and comfortable with the rote learning process”
(1; Campbell 102-110). [6]



Steel drumming is one of the major cultural art forms of this country. The venue for its teaching evolved from a traditional folk method, developed in the very panyards that are now challenged by the ex-cultural perceptions of classroom learning (a topic for later) that is itself an established tradition, but from a different stream. The panyard thus serves as the venue for alternative and creative methods of instruction in so far as understanding and experiencing the basic elements of our indigenous music (from the nuances of rhythmical strumming to the complexities of arranging a calypso melody into a double theme and variation).

The panyard experience helps one gain an appreciation for the evolution of the instrument in its true cultural setting. The panyard serves as a place where one can go to aesthetically experience, and gain an understanding about, the elements that evoked the development of these grassroots instrument and the nuances of the indigenous music it plays. Participating in the panyard gives a player the experience of witnessing first-hand the roles and functions of the family of steel drum instruments as a cultural unit. Some students even stated that the panyard is a place where 'you feel the spirits of the pan ancestors'. There is no other place in the world where 100 plus players could practice together until the wee hours of the morning. In other countries this would never be allowed. The noise factor is part of the culture. Anywhere else you would be arrested for disturbing the peace. (3; Hennasy. c.f. February 2006 TV interview with 'Pepe' Francis, leader of Ebony SO from the UK.)

The atmosphere of the panyard is another cultural issue. The joy and excitement of 100 players performing together is an exciting experience that can not be duplicated elsewhere. The excitement of 'carnival in the air' is a cultural stimulant that drives the players to unit together in the panyard. The hands-on learning is a cultural tradition that is part of 'we music'. [7]

One has to ask oneself, why do foreigners come to TT to experience and perform pan in our panyards? Most would say to experience the culture first-hand. 'An invaluable experience' to participate in the real thing; witness the skill levels and learning process that encompasses players from 'all walks of life and educational backgrounds'.

There is a musical osmosis which takes place. The environment, the community, and all the people involved, are part of the cultural ambience which makes it work. Many students at UWI stated that the panyard 'helps youths appreciate their culture' because they experience the art form in its indigenous setting. They gain 'an appreciation' for the evolution of the instrument through the panyard experience, and 'the spirit of carnival' which it creates.



The panyard acts a social outlet for the players and its surrounding community. Social stature is elevated to those who participate as players or managers, and no matter the location of the panyard, be it Laventille, Coffee Street, Buccoo or Tragarete Road for example, the panyard attracts the community like a magnet; and is perceived as a model space for training.

Through a recent experience as an adjudicator for Pan Trinbago, the drive from panyard to panyard while visiting the steelbands in their home settings, brought home the magnitude of support of the community for their bands. It was amazing to see the large crowds that gathered to came out to hear 'their' band; no matter what the hour.

The panyard is just as much of a social gathering place, as it is a rehearsal space. It fosters good relations in the community and develops an association of ownership and pride to a particular panyard; it gives the sense of belonging and an alliance. It is a social setting where one meets people from different backgrounds and age groups. The panyard creates a feeling of 'we and family' and units people together, creating lifelong [8] friendships. Many of the older steelbands, such as Invaders, and Renegades, have an Elders Association which forms the nucleus of the band. The Elders Association is like a social club; with membership and monthly meetings. A sampling of their mission statement states they are 'to act as exemplars to all members of the Steel Orchestra' and 'assist' if required in the physical preparation of the band for Panorama, National festivals and any other of the bands official engagements. Most of the Elders are retired players, supporters, and community figures who work with the community and players to adhere to 'The Constitution of the Steel Orchestra'.

In research on Invaders Steel Orchestra; numerous interviews from supporters state that the memories of 'jumping up on J'Ouvert morning' with Invaders created 'life-long family ties' to the band and the panyard.

Not just music is being taught in the panyard. Many students mentioned the fact that the panyard 'keeps youths busy and off the streets', giving them a sense of purpose, self esteem and a feeling of achievement. It acts as a cultural centre for group participation, camaraderie, and is a creative outlet. One of the lessons taught in panyard is teamwork; where the players learn to function in a group as a band, with people from all types of social backgrounds. Youths learn a sense of discipline, and a commitment to reach a goal.

There are those music educators who would argue that panyard musicians are a bunch of robots learning and performing music. One has to remember that the purpose of performing and practicing panyard music is not always the same. Those who want a career in music will seek many avenues of learning music. The average panman/woman is not interested in knowing the ABCs of reading music; they are there as a social outlet, to play Panorama and 'lime' with their friends. On the other hand, the process of rote-learning is a must for any serious musician, however the exposure and interaction with others in the field, could and does groom potential talents; another beneficial social activity that is fostered in the panyards. [9]



Emerging from the students poll in class was the view of the importance of the panyard as the best 'technique school' in the world. Younger members acquire and improve upon their performance techniques from watching skilled players hands, wrists, and body language. An amazing thing then happens. Beginners learn from masters in the panyard, and in turn, pass on their learning's to the next generation of rookies the next season. This circle of co-operative learning and teaching is part of the communicative efforts characteristic of this alternative method of instruction. The age barriers between older panyard members and youths are forgotten; more experienced players assist younger players in a cooperative manner, meshing the gaps through musical experience. It works the other way as well; a particularly gifted player generally has no stigmatism with age, talent brings elder or younger players to learn from an accepted 'technician'. Overall it is my opinion that any 'skilful' pan player has had many hours of 'panyard practice'.



Without the classroom environment, the students of the panyard are more relaxed. They are learning what they want to learn and not what a teacher is telling them they have to learn. The inhibitions and formalities that could stifle a pupil are offset in the panyard. One has to remember that pan was not created in the classroom. As compared to pan taught in school; music taught in the panyard is done for a joyful purpose and not an exam. In the case of panyard, the exam is the competition; but members work together, not separately, to achieve success. Panyard instruction creates a learning atmosphere for all types of academically inclined people. For persons who can not afford to pay for formal pan schooling, panyard learning is open and excludes no one. [10]


The old saying 'I guess you had to be there…' pretty much sums up the fact that the importance of panyard learning is hard to put to words because panyard lessons are technical, cultural and social. As the instrument progresses into the 21st century, the third generation player and arranger must learn to balance his/her classroom experience with the big yard and not lose track of the idea of panyard spontaneity, aural training, and folk culture. Two types of arrangers have evolved (1) the traditional and (2) the academic. On one hand we don't want the progress of note reading pannists or arrangers to consume the aural tradition; and yet on the other hand we would wish academic arrangers to think, and at times operate more like the traditional arrangers in the panyard. It is an asset to have players or students in the panyard who can read and assist in teaching music by rote; but it also important that we don't lose track of the important role that the traditional arrangers have played through the years. I have witnessed traditional arrangers learning to read music (like Ray Holman); but have also watched in total awe his traditional ability to take musical requests from audience members who simply hum a portion of a tune for him to play; suddenly he 'has the tune' and is instrumentally creating the correct harmony on the spot.

It is my understanding that Holman, a gifted talent who originally learnt music by ear, developed his skills in the traditional manor through panyard arranging, has now acquired a musical vocabulary the envy of any simple note reader. In essence, he is a model for any of the first generation arrangers that still operate in many panyards. With his acquired music literacy, he becomes a model for the second generation of steelband arrangers that are now beginning to emerge in force throughout the panyards.

I ask myself, why is the panyard a model space for training? And I have to think about the first time I came to play in Trinidad, in 1989. As a student, I was fortunate to have the experience of both 'musical' worlds at NIU: (1) A score reading pan teacher in the person of Al O'Connor; and (2) a rote teaching pan teacher in the person of Clifford Alexis. On arrival at the Trinidad panyard, I was able to take the notes 'by rote' very [11] quickly; while my Western note-reading training kicked in to help me memorize the music. Since my first panyard experience I made every effort to return to TT for the yearly Panorama. I discovered that learning music in the traditional setting was the musical challenge I yearned. Consequently I would tell my students that I was going to Trinidad to get my yearly musical 'booster shot'. My advise to any serious pan student is to encourage them to become involved with a panyard, any panyard, and to kept the cultural traditions alive.


  1. Campbell. Lessons from the World. McGraw-Hill, 2001.
  2. de Barry, Jeremy. e-Mail interview. 7 Mar. 2006.
  3. Hennasy, Allyson. A television interview with 'Pepe' Francis, leader of Ebony SO from the UK. NCC TV Ch4. Feb. 2006.
  4. Holman, Ray. Personal interview. 10 Aug. 2005.
  5. Islands Research. Panorama 2006 - Categories of Conventional and the Traditional Single Pan Steelbands registered for Competition. 18 Feb 2006.
    <http://www.seetobago.org/trinidad/pan/2006/pano/pncnspct.htm> [12]
PMST_v04_edit-b.doc :: Presented at the 2ndCSC UWI by Dr J 'J9' Remy - 10th March 2006

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The Panyard as a Model Space for Training
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Historic Update: 17 March 2006; Last Update: 29 June 2014 01:24:00 TT
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