Photo of a ONU student playing his steal drums

Striking the Happy Notes

ONU Steel Band finds its groove

When you hear the strains of a steel drum band, you’re instantly transported to a happier place and relaxed state of being.

“The best word I can think of is infectious,” says Dr. Sarah Waters, professor of music. “You see and hear the joyful playing, and that joy comes through to you.”

Waters is the director of Ohio Northern University’s Steel Band. Since she started the ensemble 17 years ago, it’s found its groove, spreading its cheery music throughout the region. 

Comprised of music majors and non-music majors alike, the steel band has grown in size and popularity. The ensemble frequently performs off campus at local schools, skilled nursing facilities and community events, in addition to staging at least one concert on campus each semester.

Members play steel drums, also called “pans,” handcrafted from 55-gallon oil drums. By indenting and tempering the concave surface of the metal drum, drum makers create various pitches, a full range of precisely tuned musical notes. 

Four sizes of drums create a range from bass to treble. To produce sound, percussionists strike the drums with rubber tipped sticks. 

The steel drum has the distinction of being the only musical instrument invented in the 20th century. The art form emerged from the culture of impoverished citizens in the West Indies, on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. And today, it’s the fastest growing art form in the percussion world, says Waters.

Waters brought the first set of steel drums to ONU when she took a position here shortly after Hurricane Katerina destroyed her home in New Orleans. Flood waters had damaged her pans, but couldn’t dampen her passion for pan music. After getting her pans fully restored, she launched one of the first steel drum ensembles in Northwest Ohio at ONU in 2006.

Since that time, the ONU Steel Band has been bolstered by Waters’ exceptional teaching and generous donations from Findlay resident Beverly “Bev” Yammine. Two of Bev’s grandsons, Travis Yammine, BSBA ’19, and Brandon Yammine, BSEE ’21, played in the group, and Bev loved attending their concerts. 

Bev and her late husband always strived to support the things in life that they believed in, she says, and music is one of those things.

“The love of music is something that lasts a lifetime, and so are the friendships that are created by being part of ensembles like this,” she says. “To me, this type of music is so uplifting. You can’t attend a concert and not move.”

Bev’s donation several years ago enabled Waters to purchase a new set of bass pans and a new lead pan. A recent donation enabled Waters to obtain new mallets, a cart for transporting the drums, and other percussion equipment. 

“These donations have been such a godsend,” says Waters. “It has made a world of difference in what we’ve been able to do with the ensemble.”

Thanks in part to Bev’s gifts, the band has morphed into two ensembles, growing from 12 members to 25 members, according to Waters. Additionally, the new cart has made it easier for Waters to take the ONU Steel Band on the road, exposing new audiences to global music.

Joe Kost, a senior music major from Reynoldsburg Ohio, had never played in a steel band before coming to ONU, but he’d always been fascinated by world music. He signed up for the ensemble on day one of his freshman year. “What I really love about this group is that we always have fun,” he says. “It’s honestly been one of the best parts of my time at ONU.”

Like Kost, senior Shay Bolton, music education major from Rockford, Ohio, has also been a steel band member for four years. “I love that we are getting exposed to a different culture and learning how to play a different style of music. Not everyone has such an amazing opportunity to be part of something so unique,” she says.

ONU alumnus, Jeff Martin, BM ’13, centered his entire career on pan music after playing in the ONU Steel Band. Martin is now in his 10th year as the steel band director at Clark Montessori High School in Cincinnati Public Schools, teaching pan performance to students in grades 7 through 12.

“Only a handful of school districts in the country have a steel band program like the one at Clark,” he says, “so I count myself very lucky to be able to do this full time.”

He added: “The ONU Steel Band gave me my first experiences in teaching and helped form me into the teacher I am today.”

Steel bands, explains Martin, appeal to students who may not be interested in traditional band or orchestra instruments, giving them a unique opportunity to participate in a collaborative music-making experience. In the process, they learn about teamwork and how to build and grow community.

“(Steel bands) take music to where it is not,” he says. “It taps into a whole new population of students and audiences. One of my favorite things is to surprise audiences with music they didn’t expect.” 

While steel bands traditionally play reggae-style music with a tropical island vibe, the steel band music repertoire can be quite extensive, adds Martin. “My students play everything from Beethoven to the Beatles, Nirvana to Johnny Cash.”

He’s brought his high school steel band to ONU for joint concerts with the ONU Steel Band, and he and Waters even visited Trinidad—the birthplace of steel bands—twice together with small groups of students.

Martin says: “When I was a student at ONU, the tagline was ‘Find your True North.’ And I certainly found it. The ONU Steel Band became my compass.”

He continued: “ONU is special that way, because it offers diverse experiences like this. You can pursue all your passions without restriction.”

Check out the ONU Steel Band’s spring concert, on Friday April 21, at 7:30 p.m. in Presser Hall. It’s free and open to the public.