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The Art of Pan Arranging


Paul Hadden

November 27, 2020

Top Image: BP Renegades Steel Orchestra. Photo Maria Nunes

In the world of pan, Ray Holman needs no introduction. He is a talented composer, arranger, and pannist whose musical arrangements have won several awards over the years. As we sat in his Woodbrook home, facing a pair of Double Second Pans, Holman gave a glimpse into his approach.

“Visualization,” he explained, “is key, but you must be very careful about what you are focusing on. I never arrange a piece with the judges in mind. What I do instead is I try to recreate the Carnival atmosphere in my mind; I try to see the crowd listening to the song, and imagine their reaction. I think about the way that the music will make people want to dance, I see them in my mind going down the road jamming to my song. That is what will guide the kind of music I make, and the sort of vibrancy that the piece will produce.”

Ray Holman. Photo Maria Nunes

The annual Panorama competition for which much pan music is arranged takes place in the weeks and days leading up to Carnival, and is normally held around February or March. But as much as preparation is key to success in music, Holman spoke of the difficulties of trying to arrange pan music from September or October, before the Carnival the following year. “It’s the breeze,” he explained. “When December comes and the cool Christmas breeze starts to blow, and you can begin to feel the Carnival vibration in the air, well that’s when the inspiration truly begins to hit.”

“You can’t only depend on inspiration of course,” he continued, “time is a precious thing and you can’t waste any of it just waiting for inspiration. When it comes to music, you need to be disciplined and plan your tune well in advance. But trust me, when you get that surge of inspiration, well that’s the icing on the cake. Remember though, that you need to make sure you have a good cake before you ice it!”

The pieces, he stressed, also need to be musically solid, as well as complex and interesting. “You aren’t looking to create a flimsy sound. You never want the music to sound trite. What you want is something clean, warm, rich, and with body.”  

I asked if there’s a personal deadline for completing the Panorama arrangements. “Honestly, it’s ready when it’s ready. A piece of pan music is always a work in progress, and you have to be open to changes, as well as to suggestions from others. Sometimes, a player might hit a wrong note in the panyard, and it ends up sounding better than what you had originally envisioned.” He joked about a time while composing for Starlift that he made a few quick last minute changes to the piece almost just before the band wheeled the pans on to the Savannah stage to face the judges.

Ultimately, steel pan music is dynamic, it’s just as much about the synergy of the players, the composer, and the crowd, as it is about musical technicality and expertise. In the pan yard, it’s easy to see how the composer feeds off of the energy of the pannists, as well as those who have come to see the band practice. Holman struggles to describe the Carnival vibe, it must really be experienced to be understood. However, all you need to do is take a quick visit to a panyard during the Carnival season, watch the music come alive, and you will understand exactly what he’s talking about.