Ten-year-old Zach Woodworth has always been intrigued by the history and sound of the steelpan drum.

So when he learned about the possibility of joining the Soundwaves Youth Steel Drum Ensemble, the Pittsburgh Urban Christian School student jumped at the chance.


“This was a once in a life time chance that never pops up in your life,” Woodworth said. “I liked meeting all of the people in the program and I enjoyed learning to play.”

J.B. Parker-Blier saw the band as an opportunity to play music with others instead of alone.

“I have been playing steel drums for four years. It’s very liberating and it helps relieve stress better than any activity I’ve ever done,” said Parker-Blier, a 15-year-old CAPA freshman.

Soundwaves is a new Kelly-Strayhorn Theater education initiative in partnership with Union Project. Over a six-week period, students worked with Kelly-Strayhorn resident artist Mat Docktor and legendary Steelpan craftsman Phil Solomon to learn steelpan techniques, music theory essentials and the fundamentals of ensemble performance.

“It’s important for these instruments to be available to young people in the future because it is going to be an important part of music like the piano and someone has to keep it going,” Solomon said.

Solomon and Docktor worked with students from Pittsburgh Obama 6-12, Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Urban Christian School and St. Edmunds Academy throughout the spring. Students met Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. to practice at the Union Project space, which is located at 801 Negley Avenue.

The result was a tightly-knit seven-piece band that exuded camaraderie and musicality on stage.

“The program was cool. I learned to play different types of songs without the notes. The program was fun and I enjoyed it,” said Malik Griffin, a 15-year-old Pittsburgh Obama tenth grader who joined the band with his fraternal twin brother, Tylik.

“My brother asked me to come because he didn’t want to be alone and asked me if I wanted to play,” Tylik Griffin said. “I liked everything about the program. I met a lot of interesting people.”

Docktor is happy that the students involved with the band enjoyed the experience.

“We have been wanting to put together a group of kids so that they can play in different environments,” Docktor said. “This was definitely a success. During the six-week program the students learned to play six scales and five songs.”

All of the kids’ hard work culminated in a concert at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

“I’m really proud of the work the band did. It was a major endeavor and it took a lot of hard work,” said Kelly-Strayhorn Executive Director, Janera Solomon. “It was nice to see the kids concentrating and committed to this.”

They performed music from different genres including the Beetles “Hey, Jude,” “Watermelon Man,” by Herbie Hancock and Jazz standard “Killer Joe.”

“It’s crazy to think that six weeks ago there was no band. The kids have grown so much. Individually they were good players and they were scared of each other but now they are an ensemble and they have developed great relationships with each other,” explained Dan Derks, Kelly-Strayhorn Theater Education Director. “This keeps the kids grounded. Ultimately it goes back to the community. We are lucky to have all of them.”

Learning to play different kinds of music is what drew 16-year-old Pittsburgh Obama school tenth grader, Teona Andrews, to the band. She has been playing steel drums since the sixth grade.

“I enjoyed it because I learned to play these songs without papers. Music is music to me. I love it,” Andrews said.

St. Edmunds seventh grader, Caleb Resnick, 13, enjoyed playing “Hey, Jude.”

“I learned to play the steel drum last year when I went to school at Pittsburgh Obama and my parents found out about this and said I should get involved. I enjoyed trying out the different instruments and I enjoyed playing ‘Hey, Jude,’ because it had three parts and I could strut my stuff,” Resnick said.

Playing the steel drums is a way to relax and relieve stress for 16-year-old Tommy Brewton, a Pittsburgh Obama tenth grader.

“I learned about Soundwaves from Mat Docktor and it sounded like a fun way to socialize with friends and learn new genres of music. It’s relaxing to play,” Brewton said.

The Soundwaves program was such a success that the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater will form another band next fall.

(Information on how to become a part of the Soundwaves Youth Steel Drum Ensemble will be posted on the Kelly-Strayhorn web site, http://www.kellystrayhorn.org later this summer.)

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