restricted access 3 - From Hummingbird to Husky: Cliff Alexis Arrives at Northern Illinois University
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C H A P T E R 3 FROM HUMMINGBIRD TO HUSKY Cliff Alexis Arrives at Northern Illinois University Mr. George Richards had built a set of steel drums for me in the summer of 1977. I brought him to DeKalb several times in 1977 and 1978 to re-tune the instruments as they would lose their true pitch almost every six months. It became obvious to me that if I were ever going to develop a viable steelband program at NIU, I would have to learn to re-tune the drums we had in our possession. —Al O’Connor (1979)1 By 1980 O’Connor was facing the harsh reality that maintaining steelpans in good working order was, in itself, practically a full-time job. Keeping the NIU Steelband’s instruments in top shape was no small task, and he was keenly aware that a steelpan was like a piano and that in order to keep the instruments sounding their best, an in-house tuner would be necessary . The idea of having an in-house tuner for piano and other instruments is standard practice in university music programs, professional orchestras, and music organizations throughout the United States and the world. Considering that the NIU School of Music has well in excess of 125 pianos, each requiring at least two tunings per year, one can see the logistics and necessity of having a piano tuner. The only problem for O’Connor and the NIU Steelband’s quest for a permanent steelpan tuner, of course, was that the NIU School of Music was not yet ready to commit funding to such a position, nor was a qualified tuner available for hire. C H A P T E R 3 22 Further, despite the steady stream of income generated by the NIU Steelband’s performances , O’Connor’s steelpan budget was woefully inadequate to fund a full-time steelpan tuner position on its own—if such a person could even be found. Without better options on the horizon, O’Connor took it upon himself to learn the art of tuning steelpans. As he would soon come to realize, this was a far from simple task, but one that he nonetheless undertook. Since acquiring the first instruments for the band in 1972, O’Connor had made only minimal efforts to learn the art of tuning steelpan on his own; however,starting in 1978 and continuing for the next couple of years,he took short sabbatical leaves of two to three weeks to study steelpan building and tuning with George Richards in Orlando,Florida.A native of the Caribbean island of Grenada, Richards was an experienced steelpan builder and tuner. When not tuning steelpans across the United States, Richards led and maintained the Grenadian National Steel Band in Grenada. During his studies with Richards, O’Connor spent two weeks at a time working with the master tuner before returning to DeKalb to practice his methods. After much work, sweat, and consternation O’Connor successfully fashioned himself one instrument, a set of cello steelpans. This small triumph was rewarding no doubt, but it also opened O’Connor’s eyes to the bigger issue of time management. “I’m never going to learn to do this myself; it’ll kill me!”he reasoned.2 In his sabbatical report of 1980, O’Connor commented,“My attempts to learn tuning may earn plaudits from various academics and respect from West Indians. But for me, it pointed to the fact that I began to understand how little I actually knew about tuning pan.”3 The gravity of the situation was setting in, and O’Connor slowly realized that one needs to apprentice for several years in order to properly learn the art of steelpan tuning and building—years that O’Connor did not have to devote to the craft. O’Connor was in a bind. On one hand, he wanted to have a viable steelband program on par with any in Trinidad. O’Connor was a performer first and foremost, and he wanted a top-notch steelband that sounded its best each and every day. On the other hand, he was faced with the problem of somehow acquiring an in-house tuner,as it was abundantly clear that he himself would not fit the bill and that the steelpans needed constant attention, not the occasional—sometimes yearly—tunings that have for better or worse become common practice among American steelbands. Unfortunately for O’Connor, the NIU Steelband was, at...


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