restricted access 10 - Steelpan Degree Program and the Niu/Uwi Pipeline
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C H A P T E R 1 0 STEELPAN DEGREE PROGRAM AND THE NIU/UWI PIPELINE In light of the initiatives taken by Northern Illinois University, it seems quite sad that we have not yet set up a school of music for our pannists. Why was our own Anthony Prospect not given the support for such a project? If the steelband movement is to take an international leap, if qualified pannists are to establish our music in various parts of the world, will they come from TT or Northern Illinois? Or will we be sending our steelbandsmen to Northern Illinois on scholarship to acquire degrees in pan music? —Trinidad Guardian, November 25, 19891 One of the most important factors spurring Alexis to join O’Connor in DeKalb in 1985 was the hope that someday NIU might establish a free-standing degree program in steelpan. O’Connor, too, shared this vision, and the pair worked steadily over the course of several years to divorce steelpan from the overarching umbrella of the percussion department and to create a curriculum that put the steelpan on equal footing with the violin, piano, or voice in the NIU School of Music. According to O’Connor,“It was my intention from the beginning to think of steel drums not as a novelty, but to have people learn the music of where they came from.”2 Alexis in particular, was adamant that NIU admit as many qualified Trinidadian, Caribbean, and other foreign-born students as possible to study in the steelband program. He knew firsthand the struggles, and subsequent waste, of many a talented Trinidadian pannist who gave up pursuing steelpan as a vocation because of a lack of opportunity in Trinidad and Tobago. Approaching his task head on, Alexis told C H A P T E R 1 0 98 the Trinidad Guardian, “With work like this, you can’t sit in one place too long. There’s a message to be spoken and you have to use lots of different platforms.”3 Though the progression accelerated with the arrival of Alexis in 1985, the process of creating a university degree in steelpan began way back during the mid-1970s. In the latter part of the 1970s, O’Connor became convinced that steelband was a viable economic avenue for NIU percussion graduates to pursue and that the instrument should be a core component of any bachelor’s or master’s degree in percussion. However, O’Connor, and later Alexis, would need to convince the NIU administration of the necessity of a degree in steelpan in order for them to fully accept the instrument as a legitimate instrument of study in academia. In general, the NIU administration and faculty were supportive of the idea, though O’Connor recalls that they were not without their detractors. We had a . . . professor on our music education faculty, who was kind of like a crotchety old [guy]. . . . They used to have this event here . . . called Spring Fest, [which was] a week-long festival, and the student association would usually hire us to open it up, and we would play out on the student center. . . . And he would just keep going on and on about what a bunch of nonsense this [steelband music] all was, and I said,“Well look, why don’t [you] come over and hear it sometime and then maybe you could make a decision.” And so I invited him to the opening program and I happened to see him kind of hiding in the back of the audience and everything.And as was always the case, we had a huge crowd there to hear us and they all loved it. So we brought the instruments back to the building here and I ran into him later in the afternoon, and I said,“Frank, what did you think?” And he said,“You know what I don’t like about that steelband? There isn’t anybody that doesn’t like it.”4 O’Connor was very pragmatic in creating the necessary conditions for convincing the NIU administration of the importance and necessity for a degree in steelpan. In defense of steelband, he surmised that not only does it offer opportunities for music major ensemble participation, it excels at drawing non–music majors and non-musicians from the college or university general student body to come and participate. O’Connor created an atmosphere in the NIU percussion department during the late 1970s in which students such as James Campbell and...


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