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Aug 24, 2015

Review of UWI Panoridim participation in the ICP International Panorama

JM - This review was written by Richard Quarless, a former student and professor at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, and an ex-member of the Panoridim Steelband. Interesting and honest. It is intended to be the first of a two part reflection of what went well and what did not. The other review will be submitted to the ICP secretariat and Pantrinbago.

By Richard Quarless

Here I will try to outline how and why Panoridim placed 21st, what the placement means, how we could have done better, and finally recommendations for future possible participation.

I intend share my views with present and past Panoridim members as well as my varied pan loving friends, so I will first review my involvement with assisting the band for the panorama.

Soon after carnival in February 2015, I was informed that the band wanted to participate in the international panorama. A planning committee was formed and I was part of the Trinidad contingent assisting in the preparation of the band’s one week stay. Using email, telephone, WhatsApp, Skype, all available technology, we discussed accommodation, meals, transportation rehearsal space, instruments, and schedules. I was not privy to the discussions on how to prepare the band and its music for the panorama. I was aware from early that I might have to be critical of that area of preparation but was unable to find a way to insert myself into that discussion without being too pushy and obnoxious given my passion and strong beliefs on the crucial ingredients for excellence in steelband performance.

I therefore start off by taking blame for not finding a method or a system where a conversation on how to prepare the band could be had. My many years of involvement in Panoridim in all areas of its music and development should have been a resource available to the band. Perhaps it might not have made a difference but then again we will never know so I will take that as an oversight and leave it at that.

As a framework for analysis on ‘why a 21st placement', I want to look at the following five critical areas: instruments, players, music arrangement, rehearsals and performance.

Instruments: Our instruments were piss poor. In Panorama judging, tone carries 10 points and it includes, in addition to the obvious proper tuning, stuff like quality of instruments, balance and orchestration. Many of the pans provided for our use were untuned and that is an issue I plan to raise with ICP and Pantrinbago when I write their review. However, a better alignment between arrangement and instruments could have been done. The band was unbalanced. There were many parts of the arrangement which were difficult to emphasize because of the instruments selected to carry those segments. As a result, the balance, orchestration and overall tone were not fully effective.

Players: The use of past Panoridim players and players from other bands was brilliant. The overall basic skill level was great. I will venture to say that many of our pannists could play with any steel orchestra here in Trinbago. The pannists’ individual effort to play correctly was commendable and here I wish to congratulate all Panoridim players on a job well done. They did what was asked of them to the best of their ability without disorder or disruption. The Panoridim team showed themselves to be a disciplined, cohesive, capable band. This is a reflection of both superior band management and a genuine commitment to and love of pan by all involved.

Arrangement: The arranger did a commendable job. This was Orane’s first arrangement and it is expected that inexperience would be a factor. So without going into much detail the tune was, by panorama standards very simple. Modern panorama pieces are extremely complex arrangements, only mastered after years of trial and effort. Panoridim does not have ready access to the kind of environment that fosters the development of modern panorama arranging expertise. So let me just say that as regards the judging criteria for the arrangement, worth 40 points, we left many of those points on the table and I’m comfortable with that.

Rehearsals: This was an area which was more or less under our control and Panoridim did not do a very good job at it. Based on accounts from members how the rehearsals were progressing in Jamaica I had an early impression that practice schedules were too light. I don’t know (or care) what challenges the band faced there, but rehearsals until 9 or 10pm three days a week was never going to cut it. It seemed to me that the band management was too concerned about the stress level of the band. Who living far and had to get home early, who had exams or have to work next day etc. Not enough (if any) emphasis placed on staying the course, and making the sacrifices necessary to achieve excellence in the musical output. My views on Trinidad panorama rehearsals are well known. It has been proven time and again that the best bands; the ones that win, are invariably those that rehearse the hardest. The correlation between tireless rehearsals and excellence is crystal clear and that is my guide on band preparation. There is no known shortcut to intense, mad, long, exhausting rehearsals. Massy Trinidad All Stars is the standard bearer, against which all others can be judged. On a side note, I had noticed in quiet amazement how preparation for Panoridim’s concerts had become strictly timed (5 – 9pm) events. If the band can get away with substandard, under-rehearsed performance in Jamaica, it’s not gonna happen in an international setting. We run the real risk of ridicule if we don’t adopt a higher standard. I was genuinely shocked at the level of preparedness of the band on arrival in Trinidad. The amount of work clearly needed to approach panorama standard was daunting. Yet, even though band members complained about tiredness and stress, the rehearsals were kept far too short and too light for the distance the music still had to go. Furthermore, practices lacked focus on what and how to drill until a scant two days before the performance when a guest drillmaster was brought in to drill the band. Though the band responded well to her, it was way too little too late. In my assessment, the band at the panorama on Sunday evening was at a state of readiness that it should have been on arrival in Trinidad. I had earlier agonized on whether to intervene but eventually decided to let the inevitable be part of the learning experience, and so suffered in silence.

Performance: Given the rehearsals we had, the band performed quite well. But we were not up to panorama standard. We fell short on interpretation (40 points) and rhythm (10 points). Interpretation is a vague area that includes a range of variables; from how we look on stage to accessories, execution and vibes. It’s about how the music is presented and what you want the audience to get from the whole presentation. The rhythm section was scrappy and not tight enough. The music was too slow, more like rehearsal pace, by panorama standards any panorama piece played below 125bpm is risky but the band was never trained to handle that pace and I don’t know if it was even attempted.

So what does the band’s placement in the competition mean, and how do I view it? I am not prepared to throw out the term success without first defining what my expectations were. Given all the intangibles which we couldn’t control, my modest ambition primarily was not to come last. Success there. The competition was always going to be between the Trinbago bands ahead of the international bands. I would have loved to beat a local band. But more importantly, I wanted the band to play to the best of their steelpan-playing ability. This did not happen because the band was under-rehearsed. I am confident that the overall experience was invaluable to all, both individually and collectively, but if we are to grow and improve, we will have to identify and laser focus on what we could have done better, beginning with the way we run everyday rehearsals. My personality has never allowed me to get too high on congratulations, so by the same token, when someone says something unkind about the band I can easily ignore it. Many of my friends expressed congratulations to me on the band’s performance. I thanked then, but their words really would mean little to me if I myself wasn’t satisfied with the performance. So if a radio announcer says something ungracious about our creative effort, I file it away and endeavour to ensure that we are better next time. The comment therefore that the audience had been gracious to us in their applause (implying we did not deserve it) should be ignored. It was unhelpful and unkind, and not worth another moment’s consideration. Personally, I cool.

So all in all, Panoridim’s success, for me, was mixed.

Next my thoughts on a future venture like this. Pantrinbago will have to do a much better job organizing major events like this. We didn’t get the required support to make the competition fairer, less expensive and less stressful not only for us but the international bands. In addition, the band needs to improve its rehearsal and pan playing culture. Arrangers and musical directors need to be more attentive to little details like phrasing, rolling, dynamics and control. Invaluable experience can also be gained if players and arrangers more regularly study and experience the panorama art form here in Trinbago.

Finally, don’t be afraid to challenge or contradict any view that I have expressed in this blog, in particular from the band members but generally from anyone. It is not my intention to offend, but leaders (me included) should be held accountable for leadership decisions and should be prepared to defend their positions and views. Any perceived negative comments that I may have made were done with a view to making Panoridim a better band, one that all members past and present can be proud of. It is therefore incumbent on present leadership to aggressively and steadfastly pursue every strategy that will result in a higher standard of panmanship and excellence in output.