Forging Community Through Accommodating Differences

by Ron Oshima

Photo: Ron Oshima

Sam Krajewski and Mariah Olson both joined the steel pan program as seventh graders after a recruiting visit to their respective schools by music

director Tim Rush and instructor Jon Walls. Currently seniors in high school, they have grown leaps and bounds musically and personally.

If you’re not familiar with the steel pan, it’s an instrument that originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s when former slaves discovered that the convex dent at the bottom of 55-gallon metal drums could be pounded out and tuned to distinct musical pitches.

Looking back on her six years at MYSO, Mariah reflected on her biggest takeaway—courage. “I was a completely different person when I first joined MYSO—very shy. Steel pan had a really big impact on who I became—more than school or a lot of other things. This is an environment where I feel safe just to be me. And I’ve grown comfortable sharing my views with Rush and feeling heard. I came into MYSO pretty Goth and Emo. I wore all black—combat boots, black jeans and leggings, and had ten black jackets—half of them were Harley. But hanging around such colorful instruments and colorful people, you just become colorful. I don’t know any better way to put it. And it gave me the courage to be confident and louder, and to want to solo.”

“I am very different now,” Mariah said. “I attribute that to the community I found in the group, and the ability to experiment and figure out who I am, and know I’ll always have my steel band group that I can feel safe and laugh with.”

Photo: Ron Oshima

Sam’s takeaway from MYSO was respect. 100%. “A lot of people don’t realize this because if you look at our group, you might say these kids are highly spirited and kinetic.” But come performance time, these kids totally pull it together, and have a darned good time doing so. “A lot of it is due to Rush and Walls. They encourage us to be ourselves and do what feels right. They’re very humble, understanding, and accommodating. And they treat us with so much respect. It makes for much better music, because we’re doing this not just to play the notes, right? But to make art and have it be this wonderful thing.”

If there ever was a group with such a wide range of individual personalities, steel band is it. Yet, in spite of their differences, the members are highly supportive of one another. Sam observed, “Part of the reason is that our directors act as mediators between new students and the older ones. Being respectful, they will treat a new person with the same amount of patience and understanding as someone who’s been here for ten years.”

Mariah noted, “We have a wide age range—from 7th to 12th grade. Yet we all get along and encourage each other. No one is judging, and no one really cares. We’re just here to enjoy this instrument and learn more.”

Sam and Mariah recently collaborated on a call and response routine with the tune, “Ashley,” where they both can solo. Mariah said, “I’m getting out of my shell and trying soloing for the first time. Two weeks ago we got together and started playing notes in a back and forth call and response format. It was cool. And I am doing this on the double tenor which I have been playing for only a year, and not the cello pans that I started with.”

They brought their proposal to Mr. Rush and informed him of this new arrangement with both of them soloing, and not just Sam. Tim gracefully accommodated them.

Mariah beamed, “This arrangement of ‘Ashley’ makes it my new favorite song because of how cool it is to play off each other. I have an immense love for the pans and the things you can do with them. It just makes me happy thinking about it.”

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