“Hatch Steel Band”
Hatch Elementary Steel Band and Music Department
Oak Park, IL
I am a general music teacher at Hatch Elementary School in Oak Park, IL. I teach vocal music and instrumental music with training in Orff and Kodaly, but my advocacy initiative is to incorporate the use of steel pans in an elementary classroom setting.
With trombone as my primary instrument, in college I was encouraged to become a band director. However, I always felt more comfortable in the general music classroom. As a younger teacher, I struggled to figure out what “general music” means to me. Targeting the most important elements of music with only 60 minutes per week is a daunting task.
With experience, I have come to learn that my primary objective is simply to help young students experience the joys of making music in a group setting. I am able to facilitate this sense of ensemble by having students sing, play recorders, ukuleles, and orff xylophones, but my advocacy initiative involves using a much less common instrument within the general music setting… steel pans.
I strive to use the steel pan as the primary instrument in a music classroom where kids are able to work together to achieve a mutual goal. For some classes this goal may be playing a challenging calypso song, while for other classes it may be keeping a steady beat. In either case, I aim to foster a love of music in each child, while creating an environment that inspires teamwork and joy. Students must feel socially and emotionally connected to what they are learning. When I teach my students how to groove in a steel band, they know they are doing something that is unique and special, which is a feeling that they may not get during other parts of their school day.
When the Hatch Steel Band performs, we educate audiences on the steel pan and its place in Caribbean music and culture. Steel band has become the backbone and the most memorable component of my general music class at Hatch Elementary School.
There are eight elementary schools in Oak Park District 97, and Hatch is the only one that uses steel pans as part of the curriculum. According to Brandon Hasket’s well researched registry of steel bands in the United States, there are no other steel band programs in a public elementary school in the entire state of Illinois. I would love to have more connection and interaction with other steel band programs in our area, but the target audience for my advocacy initiative has always been my school community, which includes students, teachers, administrators, and parents.
Older students love returning to the school to hear their siblings, friends, and neighbors performing in the steel band. During my 5th year running the program, a group of parents came to me and asked if I would consider offering a Hatch alumni steel band for graduates of the program. I was so excited by the idea that middle school and high school students wanted to return to their elementary school, I started a Hatch alumni steel band. The alumni band also involved some teachers and parents from the community who expressed an interest in participating. The group was not able to continue past its first three years due to a lack of resources, but I aspire to rebuild it in the future.
With the publication of my book, I hope to continue advocating for steel band programs across the United States, but my priority is continuing to serve my school community by bringing new ideas on how to use steel pans back into the general music program at Hatch.
When I started teaching general music at Hatch Elementary School in 2010, I was made aware of a small set of steel drums sitting unused for 15 years in the district warehouse. Without any knowledge of how to play or teach these instruments, I requested to use them at Hatch. I taught myself how to direct a steel band and have dedicated myself to growing the program at Hatch over the past twelve years.
In 2019, we had one hundred 4th-5th grade kids (80% of the student body) enrolled in after-school steel band ensembles. I do not hold auditions, and I require no experience for students to join. During Covid, music classes were remote for more than one full school year. .
Last year, I completed a masters degree in steel pan performance and pedagogy from Northern Illinois University. With the relationships I now have NIU, the NIU steel band has performed at Hatch Elementary. Under my leadership, NIU led hands-on workshops with 5th graders, culminating in a performance featuring elementary and college students playing together (video attached).
Recently, I’ve authored a book entitled “Pioneers of Pan: A Process-Based Approach for Steel Band in the Classroom.” The book describes how an Orff educator can develop a steel pan program as part of a well rounded music education curriculum.
Overview of Planning and Execution
The Hatch School PTO runs an after school program called “Hatch After Hours (HAH).” During my first year teaching at the school, I came to the HAH organizers (parent volunteers) with the idea to start a drumming ensemble for 4th/5th graders. Six students signed up. Shortly into the first session, I located four steel pans from the district warehouse. I used these steel pans alongside orff xylophones and other un-pitched percussion, immediately recognizing that the steel pans were by far the most popular instruments in the room.
Word spread quickly and we enrolled eighteen students the next year, tripling the size of the program. I came to the PTO with a funding request to buy two more tenor steel pans. For the next two school years, our enrollment continued to skyrocket until we eventually created separate 4th and 5th grade ensembles, and hired three more teachers to help me run the program. The close working relationships that I developed with these dedicated parent volunteers made this growth possible.
During my fourth year, we rented out a local music venue and held a silent auction fundraiser concert, featuring the newly formed Hatch Steel Band. During my fifth year, I directed 40 students in a performance on center court at a Chicago Bulls basketball game. Parent organizers helped with transportation for the students, and managerial assistance with the myriad of logistics involved.
I was able to convey to parent volunteers that I wanted the Hatch Steel Band to be something more than just an after-school club. I continued to work with HAH to grow the program, and we have had (in peak years) up to one hundred students enrolled in six ensembles. Without the Hatch PTO, I would not have had the means to develop such a wide-reaching program.
Tools and Resources
When I first acquired the steel pans, I knew nothing of how to use them. The cases were layered with 15 years of collected dust, the pans were badly out of tune, and the stands had all been thrown out. I followed leads and eventually discovered that Northern Illinois University was a place where I could go to have the instruments tuned and refurbished. The Hatch PTO supported me in this endeavor, and I was able to meet and connect with a legendary steel pan educator and builder named Clifford Alexis.
Beginning in 2016, I started a tradition of hosting the NIU steel band in Oak Park. They ran workshops for my students, my 5th graders would get to be the opening band for the show. Alumni students often cite these performances with NIU among their most memorable moments of elementary school.
Cliff’s mentorship helped me create meaningful connections with other steel pan players in the area as well. I took private lessons with a local player, and in 2014 I joined the Harper Community College Steel Band for one semester. Eventually I got to a point where I could play and arrange steel band music at a level that would allow me to direct the Hatch band with confidence.
Marketing and Promotion
In 2016, the Chicago Cubs made a World Series run and students in the Hatch Steel Band became local celebrities. I taught students to play and sing the song “Go Cubs Go,” and then asked a parent volunteer to record a video performance. We also enlisted hundreds of additional Hatch students to participate by forming the words “Go Cubs Go” on the blacktop. Within one hour of releasing the video on YouTube, the school office was fielding phone calls from every major news network in the Chicagoland area. The video went immediately viral and Hatch students were adoringly referred to as “The Cubs Kids” on TV and radio stations as they aired our song. The Hatch Steel Band was subsequently invited to play live on two of Chicago’s local TV networks, WGN and WCIU.
I worked with a colleague to turn the music room into a professional grade recording studio. The Hatch Steel Band released three CDs (2016, 2017, 2018) and also have several videos that have been popular on social media. Leading up to the Sochi Olympic games in 2014, we posted a YouTube video of the Olympic Fanfare and Theme, which was aired on local NBC and ABC news programs. In 2019, we performed a version of the song “Animal Spirits” by the well-known funk band Vulfpeck. Vulfpeck loved the video and shared it on their social media pages.
A Hatch parent designed a beautiful logo that we use on all of our pans, and students wear shirts with our logo when they perform. Our marketing and promotion strategies have helped draw positive attention to our school and music program.
Although I use the steel pans in my general music program, the after school steel band program is run entirely through the PTO. The program is called Hatch After Hours and families pay for their child to be in the steel band. There are three other teachers as well so that we can accommodate the 80-100 kids that we serve. Each teacher is paid hourly through the Hatch PTO.
There are not any other elementary school steel band programs in my area. I have always felt like I am on an island in terms of how my colleagues perceive the work that I do. During my first year of using pans in the classroom, a former colleague told me that while they are “fun,” steel pans shouldn’t be the “meat and potatoes” of a general music curriculum.
I heard the suggestion and used it to find ways to have these instruments co-exist by adapting Orff pedagogy strategies. Orff xylophones allow you to take bars on or off as needed. I adapted this pedagogical idea for pans by using colorful painters tape to highlight certain notes. I also created rhythmic speech patterns (in an Orff style) using steel pan related words and names of pan pioneers.
Another challenge is that steel bands take up a large footprint in a classroom. I teach in a very old building that has terrible sound proofing and the bleed into neighboring rooms can be an issue. I once had a neighboring teacher ask if I could not use the pans while she is doing “academic” work. Respectfully, I asked if she would help me put together a proposal for a room change. After my fourth year teaching in this smaller and less isolated room, we successfully petitioned and the location of the music room was changed.
The initiative has been very effective. I believe that success in a music program is best measured by looking at the level of participation. Students play steel pans (among other instruments) in their general music classes during the school day, but they are motivated to play more, and my after school steel band ensemble is always overflowing with interest. During the first five years of my teaching career (between the years 2010 and 2015), enrollment in the after school steel band program went from six kids to eighty. During our peak year before Covid in 2020, we had 100 students enrolled, which is 75% of the entire 4th/5th grade student body.
I regularly field requests for more steel band offerings at Hatch. Parents would like to extend the program down to 2nd and 3rd grade, but we don’t have the resources to make that possible. During the summer, I offer a week long steel band camp that is open to students from across the entire district. At the end of the week, I have to respond to parents who are grateful that their child was able to be in camp, but also disappointed that the steel band program in D97 is only available at Hatch.
This is proof that steel pans not only have a place in the general music room, but when used in creative ways, they can inspire and unite entire school communities. I am proud of the the program that we have I built at Hatch, and believe that it can be a model for others on how to include steel pans in an elementary music setting.
The Hatch community celebrates our steel band and we have a strong presence in the greater Oak Park area as well. I am asked regularly to have the kids perform for festivals, block parties, and events around town. Sometimes I am asked in the fall before the school year has even begun. I am flattered by these requests, but I have to remind people that we not a professional band for hire. Earning this reputation is something that I am very proud of, as it is not common for an elementary school band that meets once a week and is open to all kids.
Students wear their Hatch Steel Band t-shirt and they are proud to be part of something special. I remind the kids of how few steel bands there are in the area, and you can see their faces beaming with pride. Children thrive in musical ensembles by working together to create something beautiful, in an age when there is a lot of focus on individual achievements and screen time in schools. At the end of 5th grade when the students share memories from their elementary experience, the Hatch Steel Band is always at the top of the list for so many kids.
Advice for others?
Find your unshakeable passion, show it to your students, and then share it with them!
Also, my book, “Pioneers of Pan: A Process-Based Approach for Steel Band in the Classroom”, will be available in the coming months!
Go Cubs Go (live on WCIU) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Qm-L5dKEzY&t=98s
Animal Spirits (Vulfpeck) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBmuTWPQVzI
Bach’s Air on a G String – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gz0RnXbvAOc
One Shining Moment (school wide video made during Covid) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jY4zeHu1ejc&t=4s
Gonna Fly Now (Rocky) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_87PJI3kE4
Fur Elise (Beethoven) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veIxKAYyheo
Olympic March (aired on NBC and ABC) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWGrQTHc0pI&t=4s
Harry Potter theme – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqTkFOJUc4o
Dance to the Music (Sly and the Family Stone) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9EGD_ddfX8