Steel drum program for teens a hit but needs permanent funding

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In Alloy Studios on Penn Avenue in Friendship, the ringing tones of the lead pans mix with the steady beat of the drum set and the deeper thrums of the bass as a group of students runs through Harry Belafonte's "Dolly Dawn."

It was another Tuesday rehearsal of Soundwaves, a program of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater that teaches students ages 12-17 how to play the steelpans. At 3:30 p.m. today, the group will perform in Garfield on Penn Avenue betweeen Atlantic and Pacific avenues as part of Penn Avenue Arts in Motion.

Janera Solomon, the theater's executive director, wasn't content to just listen to the students rehearse. She picked up a pair of mallets and joined the students, bobbing along to the beat. As the daughter of renowned steelpan craftsman and musician Phil Solomon, she has had a life immersed in music.

Steel drum ensemble making waves

A steel drum ensemble established last year at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater is making waves -- not to mention music. (Video by Kitoko Chargois; 6/15/2013)

When she became executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, she had a vision of creating student ensembles as a part of the theater's mission.

"I'm a former teaching artist. I taught in a lot of schools, a lot of communities, and I've gotten to see how great it was for kids to learn a new instrument and a new art form," Ms. Solomon said.

She knew that she wanted to create a youth steel band ensemble, a dream that evolved into a six-week after-school program taught by Mathew Docktor.

"I was pretty excited. I mean, my father makes these instruments. It's not like I just bought them in the store," Ms. Solomon said.

When the six weeks were over, she heard from the students: "Is it just over? Can we keep playing?"

"So we contracted Mat, and we said we're going to keep going," she said.

That was April 2012. Two years later, Soundwaves comprises six students from Barack Obama Academy of International Studies and CAPA. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the students join Mr. Docktor for a 21/2-hour session.

They practice a medley of songs -- jazz tunes, pop tunes and songs from the Caribbean. Some are easily recognizable such as the Beatle's "Hey Jude," John Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" and Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds."

Although Soundwaves is receiving more recognition and being asked to play more shows at different venues, Ms. Solomon is looking for ways to make the group sustainable so that it can continue in the future.

"The reality is that arts education programming needs subsidy because families can't always afford to pay what it costs," she said. "A high-quality art program costs money. My job is to try to figure out who are the people in this community who care about providing a high-quality arts experience for our young people and want to support it."

Ms. Solomon wants to enter the group in competitions and give them opportunities to tour regionally and nationally. They are already receiving payment for some of their performances, and she hopes that in the future, this will generate revenue that will go toward keeping the program alive and providing scholarships.

She is also looking into developing an apprenticeship program in which students can get paid to study as junior teaching assistants.

"Our hope is that they would become teachers themselves and that they'd be able to teach the younger children coming into the program."

Ms. Solomon dreams of having at least 30 students playing the steel pans. At the moment, she and Mr. Docktor are looking for four more students to join the group.

"Anybody can get a hold of us to get an audition. They can be scheduled at any time," Mr. Docktor said.

Malik Griffin, 16, Tylik Griffin, 16, Teona Andrews, 17, J.B. ParkerBlier, 16, and Caleb Resnick, 14, have been in Soundwaves since 2012. After hearing about it from his friends, Leland Ralston, 16, decided to give Soundwaves a try and is the newest member.

J.B. picked up his first set of mallets in middle school.

"I thought I wouldn't have any fun at all, but my mom said, 'You have to go to at least one practice, then you'll know.' So I went, and I was like, 'Mom, you're right. I love steel band,' " he said.

Mr. Docktor, who has worked extensively with both Ms. Solomon and her father, has seen firsthand the progress his students have made. Under his instruction, they can read music, know their songs from memory and can play all of the 12 major scales. They also learn music theory with each new song. Currently, they are learning about chords and arpeggios.

"I personally believe that playing music helps you in everything that you do," Mr. Docktor said.

"Playing music teaches you how to listen, and it teaches you how to figure things out, how to get better at something, how to focus. Overall, I think it just can make a person mentally more understanding."

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Correction/Clarification: (Updated: June 15, 2013)The last name of Teona Andrews was given incorrectly in an earlier version of this story. mobilehome - music

Kitoko Chargois: or 412-263-1088. First Published June 15, 2013 4:00 AM


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