Texas hold ’em – pansticks for the blind

Pan educator CJ Menge, left, has been playing pan professionally since 1992, and founded the Inside Out Steelpan programme in Austin, Texas. -
Pan educator CJ Menge, left, has been playing pan professionally since 1992, and founded the Inside Out Steelpan programme in Austin, Texas. -


The current school year has been a busy one for one of Texas’s leading pan educators, CJ Menge, and the Inside Out Steelband he leads.

Menge has been playing pan professionally since 1992, and founded the Inside Out Steelpan programme in Austin, Texas, in 1996. It’s has been going strong ever since in public schools in the Austin area.

This year, he’s been a teaching artist for the entire school year at high schools in both Austin and San Antonio, as well as guest artist in residence at two other high schools in Central Texas.

He also spent two weeks in the Bahamas in December helping to start two new pan programmes in the Abaco Islands.

In February, Menge was the resident host for the US Pan Educators conference in Austin.

Since then, he has done workshops and been a guest artist and clinician for concerts and festivals in Alaska, Texas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

The Inside Out fall concert featured Trinidad’s Liam Teague and his talented son Jaden Teague-Nuñez. Inside Out recently presented its 27th annual steelband festival, with guest artist Daron Roberts.

CJ Menge, left, instructs a student during a recent two-week workshop for students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. -

Menge is also working on commissions for new music for steelband, solo pan and percussion orchestra.

But perhaps most rewarding, Menge recently completed a two-week workshop for students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI).

His relationship with the school goes back to single-afternoon presentations in the early 2000s when he was teaching at a community music school in Austin.

In 2016, he contacted TSBVI to propose a yearly residency, and has had a teaching relationship with the school since then, initially directing the pan residency for five consecutive years. Each year, the residency culminates in a final public performance with the Inside Out Community Steelband in concert at the school, featuring the students who participated in the workshop.

Because of the pandemic, the residency was cancelled for some time and has only begun again this year. Each year, from four to a dozen teenage students participate.

Menge says he proceeds carefully with his instruction.

“The first step each year is to know as much as I can about the level of sight impairment for each individual student...so that I can communicate slightly differently with the students that have partial vision (or) absolutely no vision.”

He brings tenor pans for each student to play during the residency, so they all learn on the same pattern and layout. Braille lettering stickers are put next to the notes so those who read braille are able to use that skill.

“I’ll get the students oriented behind the pan without sticks in their hands, and then I will describe how the notes are crafted and how the metal is stretched inside the surface of each specific pitch. And then I’ll have them run their finger pads across the note surface so they can start to get a sense both of where the metal has been stretched upwards, where they’re going to get a good resonant sound, as well as where the edges of the notes have been scored so they can start to understand the spatial relationship from one pitch to the next…

“Then immediately after that, I put sticks in their hands. So from the first session the students are playing pan with sticks in their hands.”

Menge has high praise for the school and its staff.

“What I think is wonderful is that Austin has such a deep pool of teaching artists in different disciplines. And the School for the Blind is really good about supporting community partnerships, so that the students at the school have an opportunity to participate in a lot of different programmes.” Among the staff is Lacey Lewis, a residential music teacher who co-ordinates this residency.

CJ Menge teaching students to play the pan at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. -

“She is a professional musician, an excellent teacher, and is good about finding students that are interested in learning to play steelpan and are a good fit for the residency. So the students are always happy to be a part of the programme.”

Lewis said, “CJ is a wonderful educator, as he is very skilled at recognising how each student learns best and how to communicate with them. He also easily adapts information in the moment when he sees that something needs adjusting, whether it’s the music itself or how he phrases instruction.

“In addition to the spring residency, back in November of 2023 he brought Liam Teague and his son Jaden Teague-Nuñez to perform for the students and staff of TSBVI. After the performance CJ and the Teagues invited the students to come up to the stage and explore the steelpan.”

Each year Menge works to match the pieces they learn to the abilities of the students participating. Besides the numbers they learn to play on pan, this year he also taught them to play a piece on hand drums, both for rhythmic reinforcement and because it was a way for them to be onstage during the final concert for an additional tune.

“What I’m trying to accomplish is to give the students hands-on exposure to the instrument and steelpan music, and the ability to perform on stage with a full conventional steelband for a final concert. That’s the primary goal.”

Menge wants each student to feel a sense of accomplishment.

“I’ve never had a goal of the students needing to play a specific piece of music or a specific difficulty level of music…My goal in the residency has always been to find how can I get every student to a place where they feel successful performing on stage with what they’ve learned through the course of the residency. This sense of personal success builds confidence and embodies the joy that comes with making music together.”

For Lewis, these events are key for students in the school, both those in the class and those attending the Inside Out Steelband concerts.

“This direct exposure is extremely important to blind and visually-impaired students, as they often miss out on things, since in a sighted world the majority of learning and discovering interests happens incidentally. Thus the residency and such performances are essential as they broaden our students’ horizons.

“I already can’t wait for the next collaboration, and I hope our two-week residency will eventually develop into something more regular throughout the school year.”


"Texas hold ’em – pansticks for the blind"

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