Steel Band Ensemble

A collective groan went up from the group of middle school boys as they were told to settle down and get ready to play the Mozart sonata they had been working on. The time for joking and jostling was over.

But instead of picking up a violin or a flute to play this familiar classical tune, the boys picked up drumsticks, and slowly and carefully began to strike the insides of shiny steel pans crafted out of oil drums. And in this windowless practice room at Naperville Central, you could picture the 17th century composer relaxing on a Caribbean beach drinking something with a giant umbrella in it.

Henry Kozurek, Adarsh Mattu, David Krawczyk,
Adam Kowalyshen, Caleb Frank

Perhaps one of the more unique musical opportunities available to students in District 203, the Steel Pan Ensemble began in January 2008 with a grant from NEF. DJ Alstadt, Director of Bands at Naperville Central, felt the school needed an extracurricular band that focused on music from around the world, to give percussion students a wider range of experiences. “In order to be a true percussionist, you have to be able to play music from Africa, music from South America,” he says. The Steel Pan Ensemble “opened a new direction of different kinds and styles of music from places in the world that was kind of missing before.”

And that’s where the right people, right time, right place aspect of this story comes into play. Naperville Central percussion instructor Ben Wahlund, director of Central’s acclaimed Drumshow, is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, which just happens to have a world class steel pan program. So connections there brought Yuko Asada in to direct this new band.

Asada isn’t just a performer. She is proficient in making all aspects of steel pan music happen, from arranging songs not originally written for the steel pan (like that Mozart sonata) to actually building the drums themselves. She studied at NIU under Cliff Alexis, one of the top steel pan makers in the world, and was able to work with him to literally build District 203’s band from the ground up.

You can purchase steel pans, “but having these resources with Cliff Alexis and NIU and being able to build them makes the grant money go farther,” says Asada. With the most recent grant they were able to add two pans and stands to go with them, but if they hadn’t been able to make them the money wouldn’t even have bought one.

Cole Nasman, Anna Sellas, Sarah Andrews, Adam Wigger, Neil Sweeney,Shivam Thakrar, Taylor Miskovic, Sam Cohn, Sabrina Gafrick, Ben Dierking

Her ability to arrange music also stretches the money from NEF. Sheet music is expensive, and there’s not as much written for steel pan as there is for more traditional instruments. Asada learned to arrange music herself, taking tunes written for other instruments and making them work for a steel band. So students can play traditional calypso and soca music, but also “Let’s Groove” by Earth Wind and Fire, “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago and even “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift. Asada takes requests if there’s a particular song that students would like to learn.

Also, being able to arrange the music herself means she can tailor the difficulty of the parts to the experience level of her students. Steel Pan Ensemble is open to both junior high and high school students, and not everyone who joins is a long-time percussionist. Some are vocalists, some are brass or woodwind players. Even the kids who are drum players find a learning curve with the steel pan, though, as the different sections of the drum actually play different notes, and while there are some patterns the notes in a single instrument can be rather random.

Isaac Frank, a senior at Central who does Marching Band and Drumshow in addition to Steel Pan Ensemble, laughingly says “The notes are kind of like everywhere…it doesn’t go in a circle. The more I played it the better I got at it.” He had seen one of the steel band performances, and thought it would be “really cool” to learn to play this instrument that he’d never even dreamed of playing before.

Which feeds right into Alstadt’s music education philosophy of impacting as many students as he can. Offering this kind of non-traditional band means District 203 can “expand more opportunities for more kids.” And the opportunities reach all the students in 203, as the Steel Pan Ensemble is not just for Central, but for all the junior highs and Naperville North as well. Asada says it’s wonderful to see students playing together who wouldn’t get the chance to otherwise.

Ben Stanton, Matthew Kim, Andrew Carver

Matthew Irving, Ben Dierking, Sabrina Gafrick, Shivam Thakrar,
Elizabeth Gosztola, Emily Gray, Hailey Stout

The music is fun to play and gives the kids some non-traditional performance experiences too. In addition to having their own steel band concerts in the auditorium, Frank says they also get “gigs,” playing at Central’s Mother/Son Brunch and at a silent auction at Tellabs. “People will ask us to play to have steel pan music in the background…that’s what’s so great about the instruments, it just sounds so pretty people like to hear it.”

Even though the Steel Pan Ensemble has been at Central for 7 years, Alstadt feels that it’s still “in its infancy” and is getting better and better every year, with NEF being a driving force that keeps the program moving forward, along with Yuko Asada’s colleagues and friends at NIU.

“This would not exist if it wasn’t for NEF and we’re impacting a lot of kids,” Alstadt says. “We’re using music as the by product, but they’re learning about excellence, just by playing…on an oil drum.”

For more information about Steel Band Ensemble, contact:
DJ (David) Alstadt, Naperville Central High School, Band Director
Through its Annual Grant Awards, NEF helps fund inspirational enrichment
programs created by District 203 teachers, parents and students. Each year,
30-50 grants are awarded in the categories of Literacy, Math & Science, Fine Arts,
Health & Physical Development, General and Cultural Studies.

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