How do you build a steelpan programme at a college in Texas?
If you’re percussionist Michael Mizma, you come up with unique strategies to build up steelbands at local intermediate and secondary schools in the area which you nurture and support, bring in leading pannists to work with your students and get grants for new commissions of music for pan. Prof Mizma has been teaching at San Jacinto College near Houston, Texas since 1990, and while pan is just one of the many aspects of his work in the music department – where he teaches a broad range of percussion classes, as well as classes on music technology, audio engineering, and music business – no one can doubt that Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument has had a major role in his professional life. He is very much a pan jumbie.
Mizma first heard pan when auditioning for graduate school and soon after heard the sound again while biking the streets of Toronto, where he met Earl La Pierre. He was hooked, and joined La Pierre’s Aftopan Steel Orchestra and participated in the Caribana steelband competition that summer. The next fall semester he began his master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The steelband, with instruments made by Cliff Alexis, was always a favourite activity and ensemble.
As with many pan pioneers in the university system in the US, Mizma started introducing pans in other ensembles in his college before he had bought enough instruments to form the first steelband at San Jacinto College in 1997. Since then, he has come to Trinidad to play with Birdsong, brought in visiting artists, and is constantly exploring new ways to expand his programme. In developing the steelband programme at San Jacinto, he has had strong support from the administration and the heads of the music department.
Early on, Mizma understood that getting first-year students interested in joining a steelband wasn’t easy when they had had little to no exposure to pan, or in some cases no musical experience. He knew he needed a way to help start steelbands in the music programmes of the local schools whose students entered San Jacinto.
To jumpstart them, he took the older pans he had replaced with newer instruments for his students and created a starter set that could be loaned to different schools. As these programmes developed and bought their own instruments, Mizma then passed on this starter set to other schools.
The first time he tried this, it didn’t work. But he didn’t give up and five bands in three school districts have benefited from the pan loan programme.
Mizma has also made new affiliations with three more high school bands in the region. The result is that steelband is a respected part of the local music curriculum. Now, to get these programmes better exposure, Mizma has started to have joint concerts showcasing both his college ensemble and those of the other schools in the area.
“Over the years, our steelband has increased the size of its audience tenfold,” he said. “As the popularity of the ensemble grew, we had to perform in the largest hall on campus. Concert attendance has gone from about 80 to over 800, and into the thousands with the addition of live streaming.”
Mizma and the San Jacinto College Steelband have focused on another initiative. Over the past 13 years, he and the band have commissioned a number of new pieces for pan that have often involved other music ensembles at his college and, more recently, secondary-school bands. These new pieces for pan have been the results of ongoing grants from the San Jacinto College Foundation and he has been very appreciative of their ongoing faith in helping create new music for steelpan.
The first piece was a suite on Trinidad folklore by Gary Gibson in 2010 for choir and steelband. Mizma has commissioned five pieces for choir and steelband. He also commissioned Gibson a few years later to write a piece that involved all the music ensembles at San Jacinto. Gibson is a strong fan of Mizma’s role in commissioning new compositions for pan.
In his view, “Mike has done the steelpan world a great service in regularly challenging contemporary composers with commissions for works that demonstrate the capabilities of the modern steel orchestra. The body of work created continues to grow, and the various combinations of pan with other musical ensemble types exposes the flexibility and usefulness of the steelpan ensemble to a broader audience.
“This is an important step in the maturation and acceptance of the steelpan in the modern musical world.”
Mizma and his band have commissioned other leading US-based pannists, including Dave Longfellow, Phil Hawkins, Emily Lemmerman, Victor Provost and Jonathan Scales
Northern Illinois University’s Prof Liam Teague was delighted to be commissioned for last fall’s concert.
“I have been, for many years, a passionate advocate of original steelpan music,” said Teague.
“In addition to my original steelpan compositions, I have commissioned several prominent composers to write for the steelpan, and I was elated when approached by Prof Mizma to create a concerto for steelpan, especially given that it was something I always wanted to do."
Dream is indeed a concerto in that it offers significant opportunity for the soloist to highlight their musical and technical prowess – it even requires the soloist to improvise.
“However, unlike most traditional concerti performed by symphony orchestras, the piece is primarily a calypso.
“I have dedicated Dream to the legacy of Dr Clifford Alexis, my mentor and friend, and much of the piece references his compositions Summer Song, Song to the Chiricahua and Confusion Reggae.”
Recently, Mizma has asked for the suites to be composed in six movements, with the final two having parts for beginning players, so that his steelband can be joined by the intermediate and high school players.
He commissioned CJ Menge, who runs a pan education programme in the Austin, Texas area, and has recently travelled to train steelbands as far north as Alaska.
“River to the Sea is a multi-movement work reflecting on the central role that water plays in connecting diverse cultures and communities.
“It was a great pleasure collaborating with Michael Mizma and his students to bring this new work for steelband to life,” Menge added.
“Prof Mizma is an excellent educator and master motivator for his students, who come to each rehearsal well-prepared and receptive to the workshop process that is involved with premiering new works. The greater steelpan community is fortunate to have such a dedicated advocate for new music in Michael Mizma.”
Its world premiere was at a concert on May 7 at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston, enjoyed by over 1,700 people.
Trini Josanne Francis, who got her masters in steelpan performance at Northern Illinois and is now working on her PhD in music education at the University of Maryland – while running her own steelpan educational company, Steel on Wheels – is to compose a suite for the fall 2022 concert inspired by traditional Carnival characters like sailors, midnight robbers and moko jumbies.
She said, “I love traditional mas and used to be a midnight robber on Carnival Mondays.
“Our traditional mas is so rich and vibrant. Whether it be the playfulness of the devil, the lyricism of the robber, or the giant steps of the moko jumbie, each character brings its own personality, vibe, and other characteristics that can be expressed musically.”
At a time when arts education and music programmes are under attack in schools across the US, it is the work of professors like Mizma that helps keep school steelbands alive and thriving.
These last two concerts, with commissions by Liam Teague and CJ Menge, can be viewed on Youtube: