He literally wrote the book on steel drum music. And he’s here in Oakdale … energizing a new class of musicians.
Actually, Oakdale’s new District Band Instructor Ross McGinnis wrote a method book, or how-to book, on “Steelband” music, as it’s called throughout the world. The drums are also called steel pans. Calling the music “steel drums” is unique to the United States, he said.
Though outside the realm of the school district’s regular music program, McGinnis brought steelband to Oakdale Junior High School through its after-school Oasis program. The students meet twice a week for two hours each day, learning the fundamentals for playing steelband, learning the scales and going key by key. They’re also learning the different strum patterns that are endemic, or natural, to calypso band style.
“It’s a pretty cool little set up,” McGinnis said. “We’re basically using spare parts for the whole room. The steel drums are truly recyclable.”
The drums began their lives as oil drums. They are hand-built and require a lot of labor, taking years for a tuner to learn the craft and make them sound good, he said.
McGinnis acquired the 12 drums, or pans, first with his own money from a discontinued Bay Area steelband program before he had a place to go with them because he saw the opportunity. He said he got the other class materials from Craigslist and the surplus pile and he approached OJHS Principal John Simons about a steelband opportunity.
“I didn’t think we had much of an opportunity at all, to tell you the truth,” Simons said, noting that it was McGinnis’ vision, and it was he who bought the equipment and just needed the space.
McGinnis said that he was able to make the steelband program work because Oasis is after school and the junior high had the space because classes recently moved into newly constructed classroom buildings, clearing out the portables.
Simons said he was excited at the possibility of McGinnis being hired in the district, knowing his steelband background and checking out his music on YouTube. Simons, who is a fan of the music, said he had one open room not yet committed to a purpose on the junior high campus, but prior to meeting with McGinnis he had not thought of the possibility of using it for a steelband room.
McGinnis teaches band at all schools in the district, at each level, during the school day, but after school a couple of days a week, he goes to the junior high to teach steelband.
“It’s optional for me and optional for them, but I love doing it,” he said. “It’s also a great recruitment tool, even for kids who aren’t interested in other instruments.”
“This could be a great thing,” Simons added. “It’s perfect for the junior high and building our band program.”
At this point, McGinnis said that the program is only available at the junior high school but he hopes it can expand.
“I wanted to start a program here and we had the extra room,” he said. “…When it’s time to grow, we’ll be able to grow.”
He currently has more students than drums available, so the 18 students are alternating days and he’s trying to acquire more drums, though they take up a “tremendous” amount of space. Many of the budding steelband musicians are also band students and they auditioned for the class. However, he added that some of the students don’t read music and they’re learning how in class.
“You just have to know music and like it,” McGinnis said. “If you enjoy it, you can learn.”
“It’s a little quirky and different, which our kids eat up,” Simons said of the steelband music.
McGinnis’ goal is to have the students give a steelband performance at the district’s winter concerts.
“I want to hear that group perform as soon as possible,” Simons added.
McGinnis noted that even though he owns all the instruments for the steelband, the district will help maintain them, including covering tuning or any repairs that may be needed during the course of the school year.
McGinnis has been playing steelband for 21 years. He said he chose his graduate school based on the quality of steelbands. He taught steel drum and percussion at University of Illinois, where he earned his Masters degree in Music and at University of Arizona as well, where he did postgraduate studies in Musical Arts.
He also played on four different occasions, each an approximate two-month stretch, from the mid-‘90s to the present, in Trinidad and West Indies competitions during their Carnival time. He said the televised competitions offered money purses and consisted of large, 120-piece bands.
There are links to mp3 and YouTube performances by McGinnis and also a high school steelband he’s led on his website www.rossmcginnis.com by clicking on “Listening Samples.”