Potts hammering the way for steelpans
The unconventional has become the norm for Woodstock resident Matt Potts.
As a percussionist in the Woodstock High School band, Potts taught himself to play a steelpan he purchased on a whim off eBay. During an Illinois High School Association statewide music competition, he played a selection using the instrument. Having no experience with the steelpan, the judge at the competition admitted he didn’t know how to evaluate the performance.
After entering Northern Illinois University as a mechanical engineering major — later switching to industrial engineering — Potts realized his thirst for music hadn’t been fully quenched during high school. Luckily, NIU is known for having one of the top steelpan programs in the world and one of the few in the country.
“By the end of the first semester, I realized I was spending more time in the music building than the engineering building,” he said.
Rather than abandoning his engineering pursuits, he planned to double major in engineering and music.
Potts, who graduated in 2010, said when he couldn’t grasp a musical concept, he would quell his frustrations by focusing on the other end of the spectrum.
“When I was having trouble and wasn’t getting it, I’d go do calculus or something,” he said, noting that music serves as an alternative therapy when his engineering classes were giving him fits.
In between taking classes and performing with the NIU World Steel Band, Potts managed to carve out about three hours a week assisting in a workshop, helping to build the steelpans used by the band. Somewhat surprisingly, his engineering background proved to be a perfect compliment to his love of steelpans.
Instead of completing a major focused on music performance, Potts again decided to buck all trends. He went to the dean of the College of Music at NIU to discuss a contract major, a type of degree program that allows students to put together a series of courses to support a degree not offered at the university. His goal, to graduate as a double major in industrial engineering and steelpan building.
“I honestly believed I could put courses together to support the degree,” he said, noting most in the college had their doubts. “I went through the entire [NIU course catalog] and found hundreds of classes I could relate to steelpan building.”
Classes included material sciences, computer modeling, acoustic classes, an independent study and even welding, which comes in handy when building steelpan stands, Potts said. Ultimately, the contract major was approved, and Potts would go on to complete a degree in steelpan construction and production.
To produce a steelpan, Potts must first find an unused oil drum, which he regularly scours the area to find. He then uses hammers to stretch the top of the drum into a dome-like shape. This is commonly known as sinking. As the dome stretches further, Potts uses lighter-weighted hammers to be more precise. A note pattern must then be chiseled into the drum. The instrument must then go through a short heat treatment process before being tuned, otherwise the stress put on the drum through the hammering process will be too much for the material to bear. Again, hammers are primarily used to tune the pans, with the help of a strobe tuner, which is able to track the short “voice” of the pan better than other tuners.
What type of steelpan Potts chooses to make depends on the condition of the oil drum and the thickness of the metal. Lead steelpans, the most commonly purchased and used pans, for example, need a thicker base to allow them to sink in further than most. A bass pan, however, does not need to sink as deep, meaning the material can be thinner or even slightly damaged. Each steelpan or steelpan set, Potts estimated, takes him roughly 50 hours to complete.
While in college, Potts started the Steelpan Store, a business selling steelpans and supplies. While Potts said the pans he sells are purchased from other distributors — until he masters the technique — he does make many of the cases, stands and mallets sold on the site. The store can be viewed at www.steelpanstore.com. Because the popularity of steelpans is limited in the U.S., Potts said many of his customers are international.
To help increase exposure of steelpans in the immediate area, Potts created the Potts & Pans steelband. Composed of six local musicians — most who attended NIU with Potts — the band is in the process of booking shows and building a reputation in the area. Their website can be found at www.pottsandpans.org.
In addition to the band, Potts & Pans, a nonprofit organization, is focused on bringing steelpans to the community. Potts said he has already started to work with high school students and would even like to introduce the instrument to students at a lower grade level. He said familiarity with steelpans is the best way to increase acceptance of the music and instrument as more than just a gimmick.
“I can already see this is something they’ve had no experience with whatsoever,” Potts said. “I know [the organization] can make a difference in [students’] lives and the evolution of the instrument …. This is an actual, legitimate instrument.”