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Power in chords of steel

A Leeds teacher has invented a new way of writing down music for pupils playing pans. Astrid Wynne reports.

Leeds has a network of 30 schools with steel pans. However, fewer than a third of these have a full-time member of staff who can play. Most rely on peripatetic teachers visiting once a week, at best. A notation system developed by Leeds' steel pan development officer, Victoria Jaquiss, is helping pupils remember what they have learned. "If you use the songsheets, a band can learn a whole song much more quickly than by any other method," she says.

"Not all of our pupils can read music," says Charlotte Emery, head of music at Merlyn Rees Community High School, "and we don't really have time to teach this in pre-GCSE classes. There is also the fact that reading the dots (Western notation) is very difficult when chord-players are playing on double or triple pans. They need something they can see from the corner of their eye."

Victoria Jaquiss's system represents the same information as conventional Western notation, with rests, note lengths, second endings and so on, using a format easily readable at 10 paces. Whoever is playing the melody reads from one section of the songsheet; whoever is playing the chords reads from another. But the whole class plays from the same sheet. She first devised the system 15 years ago when she was a teacher at Foxwood High School, Seacroft. When Foxwood closed five years ago, she adapted the system for work in primary and special schools as well. It is now in use by music support services at York and Doncaster as well as Leeds.

A steel band is made up of several different types of pans, each playing a different part of the music. When the pans are made, concave surfaces which sound the different notes are beaten out of old oil drums; each creates the sound of a conventional musical note. There are between 14 and 32 notes on any one pan or pair or set of pans. For example, the bass pans play the low bass lines, while tenor pans play melody. Players may play one or several pans.

Each player has a different role to play in the make-up of the music and a different way of playing. The tenor pans usually play the melody one note after another, one note at a time. The double seconds and guitar pans usually, but not always, play chords, two notes at a time. The bass pans play single-note, low bass lines. Those playing the guitar part of the melody usually have two pans, while the bass player usually has six.

Usually, pan factories favour their own lay-out. There was an international agreement a couple of decades ago to standardise the lay-out, but many older players prefer their own traditional ones. So, because notes are not usually in exactly the same place, each pan needs to be labelled, just as glockenspiels are usually labelled because they do not all start on the same note. They may be labelled at the factory, by the shopexporter, by the teacher or by the player. If a player owns and regularly plays his or her own pan, it will not need labelling. In time, players get to know where the notes are. Any notation used in a class needs to be written large (so that those playing more than one pan can see it) and needs to include all the parts, so that the teacher need have only one sheet for each song. As children cannot take the pans home to practise, the system has to be able to be grasped quickly.

Victoria Jaquiss visits Royal Park Primary School twice a week. She usually takes in a big A3 songsheet for each song, but, according to their preference, and maybe eyesight, children will chose the size they feel comfortable with for their own playing: A4, A5 or A6, with chords and melody colourfully shown in the same space; the chords are written in large letters in a box above each section of melody. The cards use Western note names (C, D, E, FNoNo, etc). She uses colour coding: matching the coloured notes on her sheets with coloured stickers on the notes of the pan. In this way the pupils find their notes straight away and begin playing almost as soon as the lesson begins. They quickly learn a new song, grasping the chord sequence and melody line within 10 minutes.

Many teachers who want to use instruments with an aural tradition - such as the African mbira - are now searching for some kind of simple notation. While to some it seems improper even to attempt this (because it is seen as imposing a Western tradition on other cultures), others argue that to embrace a rich musical diversity in this country we must allow more children access to these traditions. For practical reasons, this means that some form of notation must be found.

The Jaquiss system is so versatile that other teachers have begun to use it for other instruments, such as keyboards. Jenny Tosh, a music teacher at Stonegate EBD unit (for children excluded from school because of behavioural difficulties) gives the sheets to pupils for keyboard work. "If the person knows the tune that they want to play, the sheets help them work out how the notes fit together. It is one of the rare times that our pupils can lose themselves in what they are doing at school," she says.

Pupils at Royal Park begin to use names such as the "F chord" rather than the "yellow notes" and to realise that a chord is made up of three notes, taking an interest in what notes these are and what different combinations exist. (A chord is always three or more notes played together.) Playing with two hands, a player may choose any two notes on his pan or pair of pans. As, for example, all notes in the chord of C (C, E and G) are dotted red, by the law of averages, a whole rhythm section - in a four-piece band there will be two chord players, in an eight-piece band there will be, say, three or four - will play the full chord of C.

Regular players soon realise how the chord of C is achieved, and will collaborate to achieve the version or inversion of the chord that suits them and the song they are working on. As musical confidence develops, they often try out arpeggios (C, E, G, C in order) in particular sections of the song. People can, if need be, use two sticks in one hand, but not often. They come to understand when playing pan that using different selections in the chord they play gives a different sound to the overall piece. "Asking players to choose what notes they play within any given chord empowers the player so that they understand their place within the music," says Victoria Jaquiss. "Playing with understanding makes people play better. My songsheets are player-centred, rather then music-centred. Good musical performance comes later, with the understanding. I teach people to play a piece of music, not a piece of music to a group of people.

"The system is all about including everybody," she adds. "I want those who are about to learn music, those who can read music and those who probably will never learn it at all to be able to play together - and to remember the notes from one week to the next."

* Further information on the system is available from Victoria Jaquiss, Steel Pan Development Officer, Leeds Music Support Service, Spen Lane, Leeds, LS16 5BE. The Foxwood Song Sheets are soon to be published.


The best way to describe the line-up of a steel band is to compare it with a pop band.

Pop: singing the melody (or tune) is the lead singer.

Steel: playing the melody (or tune) is the tenor or double tenor pan player.

Pop: playing the chords is the rhythm guitarist or keyboard player.

Steel: playing the chords are the double seconds, double guitar pans and cello pans.

Pop: playing the bass lines is the bass guitarist.

Steel: laying bass lines are low bass and tenor bass.

Both: power, rhythm and pulse is the drum-kit.

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