April 6, 2015
Tropical Sensations Steel Drum band has been bringing music of the Caribbean to the Monadnock region since 2003. Founded by Elaine Merrifield, Tropical Sensations plays at concerts, private parties and weddings. The band is twenty members who play a repertoire of approximately 250 songs, including Caribbean music, popular music, church hymns and Christmas songs.
Elaine is a retired music teacher from the elementary schools in Troy and Fitzwilliam. She attended yearly conferences where there would be high school and college steel drum groups performing. Elaine recalls, “I was always interested in starting a group. In 1996, when I saw a fifth / sixth grade band in Phoenix, I decided to put some drums into my budget. I supplemented them with xylophones and any other instruments I could use and it soon took on a life of its own.”
By 2003 Elaine had instruments for 17 student players. “Then teachers were interested so I started a teacher group,” said Elaine. “The parents were interested so I started a parent group, and then the grandparents wanted a group!”
Elaine retired in 2006 and began giving lessons in her studio in Troy. Right now she has five ensembles - a performing group (Tropical Sensations) and four community groups. The latter groups take lessons for their own satisfaction and enjoyment.
Tropical Sensations performs throughout New England, and travels to Florida every other year to do three concerts in February. Elaine noted that over the years they have developed quite a following. They have played at the Big E, upstate New York, Wells Beach in Maine, Connecticut, and in many town concerts during the summer. They also do a lot of concerts in nursing homes. “We call them our groupies,” said Elaine with a chuckle. “They like hot and fast numbers and I have arranged some of the songs that they would know. They love our gigs and we love playing for them.”
I asked Elaine about popular requests, which they try to honor. Two pieces Elaine mentioned are Sweet Caroline and William Tell Overture, which had its debut performance in Florida this year. “It’s gone over well and it’s a lot of fun to play. My age group remembers it as The Lone Ranger and so they really enjoy it.”
A steel drum band piece typically has four or five parts, just as a chorus does. Most of Elaine’s students and performing group members own their own drum, called pans or steel pans. Most are purchased from a store in Conway, NH, and Elaine regularly hauls all of the drums to West Virginia to be tuned by Ellie Mannette. Elliott "Ellie" Mannette brought steel pan music to the US from Trinidad, modernized the design of the drum, and continues his work in building, tuning and teaching at the University of West Virginia. In 1999 he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship for his advocacy of steel pan music in the United States.
Non-musicians can easily learn to play the pan. “I teach students using the steel pan by rote method,” explained Elaine. “Steel drum music is basically rote music and patterns.” After a few lessons of learning patterns, students graduate to notes, each with its own letter. When students are ready to read music, Elaine letter name the notes on the sheet music, allowing them to read either notation.
Elaine prefers to start beginners in small groups. “It’s much easier to have four parts going so you can hear how your instrument fits in, particularly if you have a supporting part,” said Elaine. “You don’t want to just play C and G for 45 minutes by yourself.” She noted that her older adult students learn at a different rate than younger adults. “But they enjoy it even more,” she said. “They show up very faithfully for rehearsals whether its rain, sleet or shine.”
Tropical Sensations will be playing on April 12 at East Hill Farm for Caribbean Night. Their summer concert season begins in July. The band has five CD’s, three are Caribbean music and two are Christmas albums. For more information about the band, and to listen to their music, visit their website.