Steel Band Sessions Continue at Birch Creek

It is the second and last week of the Percussion & Steel Band session at Birch Creek and a practice session is underway:  fifteen students are standing in front of a collection of steel drums. They are practicing for the last two evening performances of the Percussion & Steel Band session, which take place Friday and Saturday, July 17 & 18.

Steel pan is a homegrown Trinidadian sound, born of a unique West Indian musical inventiveness and the 55 gallon drums of the oil industry. Birch Creek’s Steel Band borrows the pans it uses each summer from the Northern Illinois University steel band program, launched in 1973 by G. Allan O’Connor. Although he retired from NIU in 2002, Al O’Connor continues to direct a steel band program – the one he began at Birch Creek in 1982.

O’Connor was the first educator in America to form an academic program for steel band at the university level. In his program at Birch Creek, every student in the percussion session learns to play the steel pan. Some have never seen a pan before, and many who’ve heard its distinctive music have never played it.

Nick Waite, who returns to Birch Creek for his third year, talks with conviction about double second pans being the most well laid-out pan he has played. Three years ago, when he walked into Birch Creek’s pan room for the first time, he didn’t know one pan from another. “When I first saw those pans, I didn’t have any idea how to play them. Steel pan is still difficult to play…really difficult… but the tone is amazing.”

O’Connor looks around at his students. “When I first tell them that they will be playing these pans in two days for public performance at Birch Creek, it is instant panic,” O’Connor says. “But, they get over it.”

Birch Creek’s Percussion and Steel Band session is performing through Saturday, July 18. Tickets are $29 for adults with $10 ticket prices for young adults ages 12 through 20 and all college students. Tickets for children 11 and under are $6. For more information, call 920.868.3763 or visit