As the first woman to tune for the legendary Panorama competition in Trinidad, Emily Lemmerman has become a pioneer in the steelpan movement. Traditionally, pan builders, known in Trinidad as “tuners,” are made up of men, with the concept of female tuners unheard of since the invention of the instrument.
Since learning to play pan in 1994 during her studies at Ithaca College in New York, Lemmerman fell in love with the instrument and led her to seek out Dr. Ellie Mannette, inventor of the modern steel pan. After earning a degree in musical performance in 1998, she moved to Morgantown, W.V to work study steel drum construction with Dr. Mannette at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.V. She apprenticed and worked with Dr. Mannette until 2004.
Lemmerman now lives in Austin, Texas, where she continues to build and tune steel drums, for a variety of groups. She works professionally as an educator, composer, arranger, clinician and lecturer, and founded the Inside Out Steelband Camp in Austin in 2007.
1. How did you get started as a Pan builder/tuner? Which would you consider your specialty?
My first exposure to the steelpan was as a teenaged performer. At Ithaca College, where I was studying percussion performance, the pan is treated (curricularly) as an important member of the percussion family. During college, my interest led me to Ellie Mannette’s summer workshops in West Virginia, where I met him, as well as many leaders in the steelband art form: Ray Holman, Andy Narell, Jeff Narell, Ken “Professor” Philmore, Robert Greenidge, and other great performers from all over the world. I found it thrilling to discover such a young art form, to be surrounded by such talent and potential. I wanted to immerse myself in it, so after I graduated—without knowing whether I had any talent for building or tuning—I approached Ellie and asked if I could join his apprenticeship program.
I trained with him fulltime for over six years, and pretty quickly also took over running the summer workshops. Those workshops were always my favorite time of year, a microcosm of everything in the art form that is important to me: a celebration of the international steelband community, a center of historical and pedagogical resources, and a venue for new and elevated steelband music.
As a builder and tuner, I don’t consider any particular voice my ‘specialty’. I think the process of tuning is about making choices, and every tuner has a different strategy. I think my strength as a tuner comes from making choices that coax dull instruments to sing, to make weak instruments strong, and my patience and dedication with both those endeavors. I am always happy when I hear that I made an instrument better than when it was new.
As an advocate for the art form, I think my strength lies in my diversity of experience. When I work with a program, I am available as not only as a craftsman, but also as a clinician, a composer, a lecturer, and a performer. Very few people spend much time equally immersed in the separate cultures of this instrument, either in the US or abroad. I straddle these communities, and serve as a conduit between them, both as a technician and an ambassador.
2. What pan instrument is the hardest to build and why?
Each instrument has its own set of challenges. For example, there are obviously more barrels to deal with when working on a set of basses, but the sink itself is much shallower than on a tenor pan, and there are far fewer notes to tune.
Worldwide, I see pans made by a range of builders, and pretty reliably, the high pans are much stronger than the low. I think some builders and tuners struggle with the lower voices.
3. What is the most accessible way for someone interested in the instrument to begin apprenticing for pan building/tuning?
I was fortunate to work intensively with Ellie, but even now, after more than fifteen years of working fulltime, I am still learning and discovering new things. There is more information available today, and more skilled tuners around than ever before, but very little access to formal training. There are classes available in Trinidad, but the most efficient way to study would be to apprentice longterm with a master tuner, to stand on their shoulders like I stand on Ellie’s.
My training with Ellie was infused with the mantra: “Continuing the Legacy, Setting the Standard.” I understand the courage and vision it took for him to share his legacy with his students, and I would be failing him if I didn’t pass on my skills to the next generation of craftsmen. I know this is in my future, and I look forward to it, but it will be some time before I have the structure and support in place to take on apprentices myself. I want to make sure I am in a position to do this the best way possible, and that will require much thoughtfulness and preparation.
4. What are some trends you are noticing regarding the awareness of the instrument on a global level? Are they good or bad as a whole and why?
New steelbands are appearing in every corner of the world. The instrument is used differently everywhere—sometimes in curricular school programs, sometimes in youth or adult community bands, sometimes to play simple cover tunes, sometimes performing sophisticated jazz or chamber music, and of course in Panoramas and festivals worldwide.
Steelband music brings joy to more people every day, and this is categorically a good thing.
5. What is your goal with the instrument and how do you plan on executing that?
I am an advocate for excellence and creativity in the art form, in all its various formats. I am an advocate of new music, and I support and encourage young composers and adventurous arrangers. I am an advocate for use of the instrument in both historically relevant ways, as well as in less traditional applications.
I am vocal about this advocacy in everything that I do, and I hope I encourage and inspire educators and performers to use the instrument thoughtfully and with respect.
6. What is your feeling on digital Pan or epan? Is it a good thing for the instrument or do you believe in purity?
I dislike a great deal of processed sound—I don’t even like hearing pans amplified—so I’m not personally interested in the digital instruments. I’m sure there are very talented, more inclined people that will do creative and cool things with the capabilities that these machines offer.
7. Who are some of the most innovative builders working today and why?
I am not a builder that strives to reinvent the wheel—I strive towards excellence in craftsmanship in its existing form. There are good builders worldwide, and in some places, these men have not had the fortune to have had a coach like Ellie—they have developed an amazing amount of skill on their own. I think the best thing that can happen to elevate the instrument is for us to take advantage of the everincreasing ease of travel and international communication, for us to all share information with each other and stand on each other’s shoulders.
There is a huge amount of math and science inherent in this job, but most of the current advancement I see is intellectual—discovering how to manipulate more pitches on more pans more beautifully. The last major technological innovations in this art form were the incorporation of the stroboscope tuner and pneumatic hammers—they have respectively made this creative process more precise and more efficient. I appreciate that some builders are interested in experimenting with materials and the size of barrels and such, I just haven’t seen evidence of reliably superior results. When I do, I’ll adapt.
8. How can pan gain more esteem in the U.S. and gain momentum as an instrument and culture?
I think it is well on its way. Many American children are now being exposed to the instrument in school at a young age, and these students are entering college with a higher expectation of existing pan programs. It is important that more universities embrace this instrument not only as a proper member of the percussion family, but one that is undeniably a vehicle towards a career in the arts.
If the goal of a collegiate music education is to prepare its students to make a living in the field of music, it is a disservice to not offer formal steelband courses to its students. Many strong programs at the university level exist as clubs, separate from the music department. These schools need to incorporate pan into their curriculum, not only for percussion majors or ethnomusicologists, but for education majors as well. Other existing pan programs are run by grad students that have no prior experience in the field, and even if they do a good job over their tenure, once they leave, the strength of the program often wanes. The best way to correct the failure of continuity at these schools is for them to create permanent positions for steelband directors, and fill those positions with experienced personnel.
9. As an educator of the instrument, what approach do you take when presenting the instrument to people who know nothing about it? How can others do the same within their own programs or students?
My favorite approach as a clinician is in the same format of the workshops I ran in Morgantown, which we do annually at the student level here in Austin. Other programs could implement this model in the form of a summer band camp; if you have a group of students for a week, you can cover a large amount of material in an intensive way, and get a head start on your school year.
The instruments are so accessible that in as little as a week, you can generate interest and excitement by learning several simple tunes quickly, and you can supplement rehearsals with lessons in technique, history, Trinidad culture, Panorama, steelband presence in classical music, as well as sessions in rhythm and simple reading and ear training exercises. There are thousands of videos online that energize students and show them what can be accomplished on this instrument.
If an educator feels under-qualified to present any of this information, I would encourage them to reach out to other members of the steelband community. We have an incredible amount of networked access to each other, and most people in the steelband family are happy to share information and coaching techniques.
10. Describe your experience as the only female Panorama tuner.
I am grateful to the Panorama bands that have supported me as a tuner, as well as the company I work for when I’m in Trinidad. I feel that it does take a certain kind of progressive courage to hire me—I am so different than a typical tuner in many ways.
I was working as professional builder and tuner in American universities for over a decade before I ventured into West Indian panyards worldwide. There is no other field of music that has such equally separate and thriving communities; it would be easy for me to have a professional life that is exclusively collegiate—but it’s always been my ambition to be a part of both worlds.
In the U.S., being a tuner is just a uncommon job altogether, regardless of gender. When I first went to Trinidad, although I was readily allowed to participate as a performer in several bands, my acceptance as a tuner took a bit longer, and as a woman, I was met with a great deal of skepticism.
At first, as an American feminist, I struggled with impatience with the cautiousness I encountered, and I oversimplified it as sexism—I thought that my quality of work should speak for itself. But over the years that I have spent in the birthplace of the instrument, my view has shifted and broadened. I’ve had many conversations with Trinidad nationals, but recently one was particularly powerful.
This carnival, I was working in Laventille, and spoke extensively with an elder of the band, who had never left the island. He was a believer in pan from its beginning, when it was rough and dangerous, when no responsible parent would allow their children—much less their daughters—near a panyard. He was openly curious about how I could’ve ended up in his yard—a white, American woman, likely from a good home, tuning pans for a living. Why was I there? Why did I choose this life? How could I love this thing? How could it possibly be in my blood?
I don’t think I had a good answer for him, but I saw it through his eyes—he had witnessed this thing rise up from the gutters, and half a century later, was now seeing it embraced by the whole world. Ellie has asked similar questions, said similar things, and they resonate with me more as I get older. I feel so grateful to be a part of what must feel like validation to these men, to be a part of the proof that the struggle was worthwhile, to be part of the evidence that the art form itself is so beautiful that it binds people of the world together as family, regardless of the origin of your blood.
I hope that they can see that I chose this life out of respect for the instrument, to honor its struggle and achievements and people, to be a part of its fabric, and to be a part of its future. I hope that they understand that I am just one of thousands of foreigners that truly love and respect this instrument, its heritage, and celebrate its potential.
Emily Lemmerman tunes a lead pan for a school steel band and answers questions on the process.