Schooling for steelpan musicians has always been in short supply. Call it the lack of funds or public awareness of the instrument’s capabilities as a teaching tool, having schools specifically geared towards teaching steelpan have struggled to gain widespread support – until now. Barry Mannette, nephew of iconic steelpan innovator Ellie Mannette and son of Vernon “Birdie” Mannette (founder of Invaders Steel Orchestra), has opened the Mannette Academy of Music, a school specifically for the steelpan.
“The idea to form the Mannette Academy of Music came about with my love for teaching and my desire to create music literate pannists of all ages but starting from a young age,” Mannette said. “Generally, in the schools system in Trindad, music education is either non-existent or very minimal and in schools with pans, the focus most times is to compete at junior panorama or other small competitions and for the most part the music is learned by rote. Also, there is a market for people wanting to learn the steelpan but not in a panyard environment.”
Liam Teague, Head of Steelpan Studies at NIU, met Mannette when Teague arranged for Starlift Steel Orchestra. “I was a member of Starlift at the time and Professor Teague realized my ability, saw my potential, and invited me to apply/audition for NIU. I graduated from NIU in 2013 and returned to Trinidad and Tobago,” Mannette added.
Mannette chose to make teaching pan his chosen career path after spending several years in Telecommunications field. “I performed (on the side) both as a soloist and a stage side member while working there until one day a co-worker who heard me perform at a function and asked me to teach her daughter how to play the steelpan,” Mannette explained. “Since then I’ve gone on to form successful youth steel orchestras and direct others, create successful youth programs and even toured with youth steel orchestras.”
To start the academy, Mannette first had to look for a location and acquire instruments. “I was able to finally get that done through the generosity of persons. I also did some fundraising. I had a concert at the end of May and the funds from that went directly into the academy,” he said. “Approximately 30 students have registered so far, however the numbers are expected to increase during this first term.”
Students for the program were found through Mannette’s connections as an educator, selecting from those students who did well during ABRSM theory exams, as well as practical exams taken through the University of the West Indies. “I’ve been able to build a reputation for success as well as for making learning fun and progressive for persons who aren’t interested in exams,” he added. “I’ve also done heavy social media promotions which have been able to generate interest from potential students.”
Classes are currently taught in two methods: groups classes and individual/one-on-one sessions. The group classes are divided in age groups: 9-12 years, 13+ years, and adults. “I teach from beginners to advanced. The fees are monthly and range between 300 to 400 TT.”
“The biggest challenge so far has been getting an additional location that is accessible for more students. I’m based in West Trinidad and I’ve had many persons from East and South Trinidad who have contacted me and are interested in attending the academy but it’s a bit too far,” Mannette said. “Within the upcoming year, I intend to be looking at other locations where I can expand and offer classes at another venue.”
While the program is brand new, Mannette hopes to make a big impact, both as an educator and steelpan advocate. “I hope to create more music-literate pannists generally, but especially from a young age as well as a greater appreciation for the steelpan in Trinidad and Tobago initially, and by extension, worldwide,” he said. “I’d like to have the academy in foreign countries. The Mannette name has become synonymous with excellence and high standards and the product and services offered at the academy can definitely be successfully extended outside of Trinidad and Tobago.”