New nonprofit aims to teach people how to play the steel drum

EDMONDS — A new nonprofit group is raising money in hopes of starting several steel-drum bands for children and adults here.

Steel Magic Northwest earlier this month kicked off a campaign to raise $60,000 to buy steel pans, or percussion instruments that come from the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, off the northern coast of South America. Once the group has instruments to play on, it wants to provide reduced-cost steel band participation for musicians. The hope is to eventually find enough outside support that people can play for free.

The nonprofit is the brainchild of Gary Gibson, a steel pan musician and composer from Edmonds. Gibson teaches at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts and has played with various groups all over the city, including at the Paramount and 5th Avenue theaters.

He also leads steel bands at elementary schools in Lynnwood and Kent. But, without many chances to continue at the junior high and high school levels, local students don’t have a place to showcase their skills. That’s why Gibson has been volunteering since July as the nonprofit’s director. He said he’s working to get it up and running because the area lacks experience with a large steel orchestra. That has made explaining his idea a challenge.

“When people finally get a chance to stand in front of a good steel orchestra, they’re converted. It’s almost like a religious conversion,” he said. “It’s a really incredible sound that people around here haven’t heard.”

Gibson, who holds a master’s degree in music from Wichita State University, said steel pans produce a different kind of sound. It travels in many directions, making the listener feel as if they are standing in the middle of the band rather than in front of it.

“The sound kind of wraps around you. It’s captivating,” he said.

Gibson, who has recorded five albums, is taking ideas from other self-supporting steel orchestras across the country. He has encountered many in his travels as a musician, including the Tri-Cities Steel Band Association.

The hope is to have enough interest from musicians to form five, 25-piece bands for students in fifth through 12th grades. Two will be for entry-level players while the other three will be reserved for advanced musicians who are chosen for the group.

Two adult bands, one for beginners and another for serious musicians, are also planned.

Teaching music on the steel pan is different from other instruments because the learning curve is gentle, Gibson said. Unlike with wind and stringed instruments, it doesn’t take long before beginners are producing music that sounds in tune.

“Kids are drawn to it because it’s not intimidating,” Gibson said. “This is a way to give kids a very gratifying experience. That’s important in keeping them at it.”

Playing in a steel band can also offer young people a chance to learn more than music. Gibson said he sees his students working on life skills, such as responsibility and teamwork.

“For some of these kids, this will be the first thing they’ll ever be proud of,” Gibson said. “It’s going to be so cool for so many kids.”

There’s also an upside for parents. Students practice with the band twice a week at the “pan yard” or the building where the musicians meet. Players won’t be taking instruments home. The nonprofit will look for a building that is at least 1,200-square-feet to practice in once it buys the steel pans.

The group already has a five-member board and free legal help. Organizers are working to get 501(C)3 tax status with attorneys. If approved, donations will be tax deductible. At that time, the group also plans to start applying for grant money.

Meanwhile, Steel Magic Northwest is trying to reach parents, students and people in the community. Donations can be made at

“We’re hoping to get the community involved so there’s a sense of ownership to this,” Gibson said. “When people see it, they love it and they want to support it.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

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