Artfully Edmonds profile: Steel Magic Northwest aims to build after-school steel drum program

Gary Gibson
Gary Gibson

The objective of both the City of Edmonds Community Cultural Plan and the Lynnwood Arts Commission is that area youth be encouraged toward the arts; through partnerships with businesses, schools, and community organizations. Whether the interest of teens and kids tends toward the stage, music performance, canvas or cameras, the My Neighborhood News Network is always looking for opportunities that broaden the horizons and open community possibilities for self-expression among young people.

That is why we are very excited to learn about Steel Magic Northwest, the product of a new non-profit organization effort led by critically acclaimed and internationally known percussionist Gary Gibson. Gibson, who serves as Executive/Artistic Director of the organization, is forming the band with the goal of teaching kids steel drum percussion in after-school sessions in South Snohomish County.

Gibson is confident that in the long term, Steel Magic Northwest “will thrive,” expanding the particulars of their resource base. “We have a strong board, pro bono legal help from two attorneys, the thumbs up from mayors, local musical community leaders, school districts, and arts commissions.”

On Jan. 1, Steel Magic Northwest launched a major fundraising campaign, which one can access via the left side of their home page via the “Support Us!” link.

“Considering our resources and vision” Gibson predicts, “We It will be a nationally-recognized model program within a few short years.” He said:

“We will be offering up to five after-school steel bands (which will meet twice a week) for kids ranging from fifth grade to twelfth; and two adult evening/weekend bands (one beginning, one advanced) for lifelong learners of all ages.

“Our eventual goal – through scholarship funding – is to have no barriers to enrollment for the kids’ bands. Many of the students who participate in after school steel bands are those who might not have been able to afford the traditional music instrument rental and weekly private lesson necessary to participate in their school wind ensemble, orchestra, or jazz band. The cost of participating in one of our steel bands will be roughly half the cost of an instrument rental and weekly lesson.

“A tiered, progressive system of groups (by audition or invitation) will produce one top group worthy of the national attention they will receive – a group that the region (and, as importantly, the participants) can be very proud of, to which younger players can aspire.

Gibson is quick to point out Steel Magic Northwest is, “Not your grandfather’s steel band,” adding:

“Forget any existing impression you have of the steel band from the groups you have seen locally in the Seattle area. Our artistic goal is to produce groups at a higher artistic level than you have probably ever witnessed. High quality, modern, finely-tuned instruments, proper mallets, stands, and cases for protection during transport. And, most importantly, musicianship on the instrument that will set a new high standard in the Northwest region. From classical to calypso, jazz to funk, pop, folk, beautiful ballads, etc., the modern steel orchestra in an excellent instrumental vehicle for the teaching and performance of all musical styles.”

In his extensive travels as a steel band clinician and adjudicator, Gibson has seen and worked with many successful programs of this type. “Steel Magic Northwest will build on these models to create a new nationally recognized program.”

We had an opportunity for a formal interview with Gibson and invite you to sit in as he discusses the particulars of this new steel drum band:
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AE: What life event represents the catalyst of your new steel drum band non-profit?

GG: It has come about from the convergence of several factors.

One is my experience in traveling to many other locations in the U.S., working as a steel band clinician and guest artist. I’ve worked with so many great organizations and have seen such success elsewhere in the country; I just thought it was time for me to spend more time here in my own community building something like what I’ve seen elsewhere, and giving back. In the places I’ve been, no one thinks that their local after-school steel band program is a bad idea. Most of them have been running for 20 years or more, and they are well-supported by their communities. We’re going to take the best features of each of these model programs, and roll them into one here.

Another factor was that three years ago, Sunrise Elementary in Kent asked me to direct what had been for a long time one of the most successful elementary steel band programs in the country. Its founder and director, my friend Michael Bento, had left that teaching position for health reasons a few years earlier, and they were without a director. Directing a steel band is a very specialized role – it is quite different than directing a choir or a band or orchestra. There are different musical styles to contend with, different methodology in learning, and so forth. And the steel band director must also know how to arrange for the band. Sunrise struggled for a couple of years to find a new director with the necessary experience. I had turned them down a couple of years in a row due to the long commute. But I finally accepted after they told me that they were going to mothball the band because they couldn’t find a director. I felt terrible about that, and wanted to help out. So, I started working with their sixth graders. I really enjoyed it a great deal, and continue to (we start up again this week). But, I don’t like the commute!
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AE: You’ve travelled the world. You’ve settled in the Pacific Northwest. Tell us why the Edmonds/Lynnwood area is dear to You.

GG: My wife and I moved to the area in 1988 from Chicago. For our first two or three years, we rented in the south end. As a gigging musician, several of my engagements had brought me to the Edmonds area. I was impressed with it, and with the other communities around it. It had a small town feel, with great natural beauty and a relaxed vibe, but had its own cultural resources, and was on the doorstep of this large, thriving metropolis. It just seemed like such a great blend to me, that when it was time for us to buy a house, I talked my wife into taking a look up here. And she fell in love with it, too.
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AE: Who were you at 15 years old?

GG: Most successful musicians will probably tell you that in their adolescence and teens, their musical instrument – and the music that they made with it – was probably their best friend during those rough years. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I can say most definitely now that my passion for music (which I developed in early childhood and continued through high school) carried me through a lot of challenging times, and kept me out of a lot of trouble. When I was 15, I was active in school music groups, youth symphony, a civic big band sponsored by Civitan Clubs International, and even had a little jazz quartet of my own that I played the vibes in.

The more important question is this one: who would I be if I hadn’t had music in my life at 15?
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AE: Which music teacher inspired you and in what ways?

GG: That is a tough one, because I play several different instruments, and I’ve had influential teachers on each of them. Since this is mostly about my steel pan and steel band experience, then to mention just one person, it would have to be Andy Narell, who is probably the world’s best-known steel pannist. He was my long-distance mentor when I was in college and grad school, and remains a good friend and supporter. Apart from his musical skill and artistic brilliance, the guy is also academically solid about so many different types of music. I learned from him that you can always dig deeper into something and learn more about any given style, even after you thought you had learned everything there was to know about it.
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AE: We’d like to know more about your non-profit — What is your vision?

We will take the best aspects of the successful programs I’ve seen all over the country, and build on those programs here to create a new national model. And in the process, we will create one of the top three or four steel orchestras in the United States, something that will be a source of great community pride. Our vision is to have five after-school groups that meet twice a week for an hour, and two adult/open-age evening bands (one beginner, one advanced). We would hope to eventually get to the point where the tuition is heavily subsidized (or, ideally, entirely provided) through scholarship funding, so that there are no financial barriers to participation for the kids. But even when a program like this is entirely dependent on tuition, the cost of participating is less than half of what it costs to rent a traditional band or orchestra instrument and take a weekly lesson, so we’ll be able to serve kids who fall through the cracks in terms of being able to participate in instrumental music at their school.

We plan to have two open-enrollment bands for kids 5th and 6th grade. By invitation or audition, they can move up to one of the mid-level bands (roughly grades 7 through 9), and those two groups will feed into one elite band of talented high school players, the Steel Magic Northwest “Pan Wizards.” All of our groups will be performing ensembles, but this top group will have national visibility, and we hope to eventually take them out on an annual regional tour to show them off and give them an experience that will stay with them their entire life.

Apart from being wonderful tools for lifelong and continuing ed learning, the adult bands will help us “pay the rent,” so to speak, as they will be tuition driven, and will perform publicly to help generate revenue for the organization.

I want to emphasize that there is nothing new or novel about this idea; it is already happening very successfully and sustainably in so many other parts of the country. Tri-Cities has a thriving, well-supported steel band program something like what we intend to start here, and they’ve had it for going on 20 years. I’ve worked with them and they’re great, and the kids get so much out of it.
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AE: Who are the stakeholders of this new project?

The big stakeholders are the arts community, the schools, and the parents of the kids who would benefit from the experience.

The arts community will have a new group of performing ensembles that are unique to the region.

The schools will benefit in that part of our mission is to educate teachers in the school districts about how to better maximize the use of their own steel bands. Believe it or not, most of the school districts in the Seattle region own a set of steel drums, but many of those bands have been mothballed or suffer from low interest. We want to reenergize the region and get these instruments better utilized, and provide a good example of what can be possible with proper training, structure, and support.

And the parents…well, they are really the ones with the biggest stake in all this. It is primarily the parents I’d like to reach through this article. The modern steel orchestra teaches kids about so much more than music. In our organization, that will include discipline, teamwork, leadership and mentoring skills, as well as developing social skills, and of course, the well-documented cognitive benefits of instrumental music. Steel orchestras are different than more traditional ensembles. There is no conductor – the kids themselves stand in front. They feel a real sense of responsibility to their team. Even though there is a director, he is in the back somewhere, or on the drum set simply providing a solid groove for them to move to as they play. So the kids in the steel band feel less like followers and more like they are the ones leading. For many of the kids I’ve worked with, playing in the steel band is the first thing they’ve ever really been proud of.
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AE: Can Edmonds residents expect to see you at summer music festivals, maybe at the Wade James Theatre, perhaps the Edmonds Center for the Arts with cronies and music makers?

Absolutely. Once we are up and running, we will be looking for opportunities to get out and perform for the community. I can see a day when our top group combines with the Cascade Symphony; I have written numerous pieces on commission for that combination, and it is a fascinating sound. The local venues we have here are wonderful places. The acoustics of the steel orchestra sound the most impressive under a grand tent, believe it or not, and I would hope to eventually find a space somewhere to give a series of summer tent concerts down by the waterfront or some other iconic location.
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AE: How can My Neighborhood News Network of My Edmonds News, Lynnwood Today, and MLTnews support your non-profit?

GG: Having a “hardware-based” music non-profit is a little trickier at first than having, say, a choir. In our case, we have to raise $60,000 right up front to properly equip the band. But, of course, this will equip us permanently. So, stretched out to 25 or 30 years or more, the cost is quite low. But it is all due at the beginning. So, our first phase is simple fundraising to purchase the instruments and accessories to equip these groups.

I would invite readers to go to our website,, and first, watch the slideshow and hear the music on the opening page, just to get a feel for what this is all about. And then click on “What We Do” to get links to some of our model organizations, and read more about the program’s purpose and benefits. There is also a link to our informational YouTube video at the top of that page.

There are bios of myself and my program director on the “Our Staff” link. And then, of course, we hope people will go to our “Donate” page. There, they can donate any amount they wish, set up a monthly pledge, or they can be an instrument sponsor and have their name (or their business name and logo) decaled on the side of one of our instruments, where it will remain for the life of that instrument. We will also have material needs, so in-kind donations and services are listed on the “Volunteer” page.

Steel Drum Magic NorthwestAnd, lastly, we have a small but very solid inaugural Board of Trustees. As we grow, we hope to add local Board.

We know that this community will be very proud of what it has created, and that it will be well supported here.

If your readers are interested in contacting me directly, I’d be more than happy to take their questions. My email address is

AE: Well, you have been most generous with your time, Gary. Please keep My Neighborhood News Network informed of your progress – we will look forward to hearing from you again soon!

— By Emily Hill

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