We had the good fortune of connecting with Jerry Lopatin and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jerry, every day, we about how much execution matters, but we think ideas matter as well. How did you come up with the idea for your business?
In all truth, one cannot say that I in any way had a business. I taught elementary music for 36 years in the Phoenix area, 32 of them in the Deer Valley School District. I am now retired but continue to direct a community steel drum program. What I was able to accomplish was to create a self-funded music program for my school. This came about through the creation of a steel drum program which afforded music instruction and performance for our students on the Caribbean island instrument known as “pan” (steel drums) which was first created and under development on the island nation of Trinidad & Tobago in the early 1940’s.
As a teenager growing up in New York City, I was so fortunate to be introduced to the steel pan by the Narell family who not only taught me how to play the instrument, but included me in their neighborhood steel band and eventually asked me to lead workshops for a variety of organizations. It was during these formative years of playing and teaching pan that I realized the true power that these melodic and percussive instruments held. Once I was hired as an elementary music teacher, I became obsessed with the idea of including steel pan into any school setting, for they could be taught at any level to create a positive musical experience for child or adult alike. Being fortunate enough to have been doing this since my teenage years, I created my own curriculum for this monumental task. There were no road maps at the time that I was incorporating steel drums into our school’s curriculum. Due to the lack of this information nationwide, I developed and published my method of teaching steel drums to children in 1994 entitled “The Steel Band by Rote – A Methodology by Jerry Lopatin.”
In 1978 I was hired as the music teacher at Desert Winds Elementary School by principal Fred Craig who gave me the go ahead to create and run a steel band program for our school. What started with just three instruments, grew to 30 instruments within a seven-year period. Our instruments were all purchased from Dr. Ellie Mannette, the “Father of the Modern Steel Drum.” It was with Ellie’s suggestion that I took our steel band to a recording studio and began our first of many recording sessions. Our first product was a 45 RPM record which we quickly sold out. We used those funds to buy more recording time to create our first LP album. Before we knew it, the funds we were generating from both record and eventually cassette tape and CD sales were enough to more than sustain our music program. We purchased more steel drums, our own recording studio, electronic keyboards, an array of world percussion instruments and any and all expenses that would benefit our music facility. My initial vision was to simply create a steel drum program for my school. I had no idea that it would blossom into such a self-sustaining entity. It was all due to my introduction to a remarkable instrument as a teenager and being surrounded by remarkable people who were there to support me at every turn of my 50+ year journey with pan.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My life as a performing musician started in Queens, NY as a steel drummer (pan player). As a teenager I had some modest skill as a popular piano player. Due to that skill, I was invited (along with my younger brother Ted) to learn to play the steel pan. Our instructors were 14-year-old Andy Narell and his older brother Jeff who was friends with my older brother Steve. In 1967, steel drums were a rather unknown instrument within the United States. Our instruction would happen in the evenings in a warehouse in Whitestone. During the day, a young Ellie Mannette would be honing his craft of creating steel drums in this same warehouse. I, nor anyone else at the time would have known that both Andy and Jeff Narell would eventually become two of the most well-known and respected names throughout the world in both performance and education with regards to the steel pan. On top of that, the young pan-maker, Ellie Mannette, would go on to be recognized throughout the world as one of the original innovators of the steel pan and would garner the title of the “Father of the Modern Steel Drum.” That was the environment that I was fortunate enough to have been in as a young adult. I couldn’t have been luckier.
After performing in New York for a number of years, my relocation to Phoenix, AZ took place in 1974, a time when steel pan was still rather unknown in Arizona. It wasn’t until I was hired as the music teacher at Desert Winds in 1978 that I began to see a new path for myself with regards to the steel pan. Having the chance to share these instruments with young elementary age children, I began to discover the latent talent that children were capable of demonstrating in an ensemble setting. We were able to use the steel drum as a pathway to success whereby children were capable of performing at such a high level that we were accused of using studio musicians on our school recordings. Our student steel drum band was in constant demand for performances. We even did a private performance which the news media was invited to attend for Mr. Harry Belafonte in 1983 just prior to his Sundome performance which our children’s band became his special invited guests.
With the children being so successful, the parents began to demand that they have the chance to also learn these instruments. So, in 1983 we started an evening community steel band for adults which lasted for a number of years. Then, in 1997, a renewed interest began for a rebirth of the evening class. I am proud to say that 24 years later we are still going strong with our adult community steel band called the Desert Winds Steel Orchestra. With our 15+ members, we have been playing throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area at every imaginable venue. Even though steel drums are so much more well known as an instrument in today’s world, there is still a very large population of people who have yet to see a large ensemble steel orchestra perform which is an experience unlike anything imaginable, especially in the desert southwest. Being able to give our members the golden opportunity to experience the thrill in being a part of a large steel pan ensemble has been a gift given to me that I am so grateful for. Our entire band then repays that gratitude as well in sharing our gift with so many audiences who are awestruck at both the sight and sound of a large steel band. There is no greater thrill than to be a part of such an exciting exchange of appreciation by an audience and the performers through the medium of music.
In addition to performing with the Desert Winds Steel Orchestra, I also perform with my small professional ensemble, the Steele Sound which has been performing in the valley since the early 1980’s. Both my steel bands give me immense joy in bringing the sound of pan to the ears of so many listeners. This may sound like an overly bold statement, but there are few, if any instruments in the world that can so quickly bring such joy to the faces of those in attendance as that of a steel band performance.
There are so many reasons why one can feel successful at the craft that they choose to indulge during one’s lifetime. In my case, the opportunities that were presented to me came about in some degree due to luck, being at the right place at the right time, but also to having a boatload of support from individuals who can see something beyond what you yourself might not even be aware of with respect to your own journey. Once that journey starts to unfold, sheer determination is a valuable asset to have because every desire has potential pitfalls that are not obvious at every point throughout that journey. This journey of mine had many obstacles in its path which I will avoid speaking about because I feel blessed to be able to present the positive rather than the negative. With the right people by your side and a strong desire to achieve your goal, so much is attainable.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Unfortunately, I am not one who prides himself on being privy to any spots within the city that might stand out. The only places that truly come to my mind are the two facilities where I place the focus in my life. One would be the new home and rehearsal facility for my large steel band, the Desert Winds Steel Orchestra. We just recently moved into a classroom at Bellair Elementary School in Glendale, AZ. The Deer Valley School District has been so accommodating to our band over our 24-year history. We will begin evening rehearsals after Labor Day should a steel band enthusiast be interested in attending one of our rehearsals or possibly want to become a member. Visitation to one of our rehearsals is by appointment only after having contacted me. Contact information is on my Steele Sound website.
In addition to my lifelong connection to the steel pan, I am also a student of the martial arts, having studied on and off for over 40 years with the late Soke Rudy Crosswell (originator of Kurobayashi-Ha-Shito-Ryu, an authentic Japanese style of karate) since 1975. If some readers are interested in finding out more about an authentic Japanese dojo in Phoenix, Arizona, they can connect with the Arizona Budokan at 4744 E. Thunderbird Road in Phoenix (602-499-3171). Multiple arts are taught there including: karate, aikido, sword, kobudo (weapons) and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My personal success with the steel drum (pan) came about through the support of too numerous people. If it wasn’t for my late brother, Steve Lopatin, I would not even be a musician. His involvement in music was most certainly a primary factor in my love of music. My younger brother, Ted Lopatin, also became a motivational factor in my early years of playing pan which Ted was an integral part. Most importantly I have to recognize the late Murray Narell and his two sons, Jeff and Andy who were so inspirational by being so inclusive of my family’s ability to learn these extraordinary instruments. Murray was instrumental in giving me my first teaching opportunities where I was able to incorporate all of the techniques of teaching pan that I had learned from both Jeff and Andy.
My journey into the field of music education was inspired by so many of my professors at Queens College of the City University of New York. They took me to new levels of appreciation and skill that I could never repay. I cannot say enough about my principal, Fred Craig, who was the backbone of our program for over 20 years. He put such faith into me, faith which was not based upon any proven track record. Maybe he had the innate ability to see something in others that they have not yet even seen in themselves. It was his leap of faith that inspired both myself and others to create at levels that they may have thought to be unattainable. Every school should be so blessed to have an administrator so dedicated to his teachers, the student body and their community.
Our program would have not even gotten to first base without the master himself, the late Dr. Ellie Mannette who supplied our school with the instruments that would transform our music program. We were also fortunate to have Dr. Mannette visit our school on numerous occasions.
Finally, I do have to mention the amazing support I received over the course of my lifetime by my late parents, Rose and Charles Lopatin who were responsible for providing the link between myself (in Phoenix, AZ) and Dr. Mannette (at the time living in Queens, NY) so as to make the acquisition of instruments a reality, which in 1980 was quite a monumental task.
Other: email: email@example.com Historical book: “The Emergence of the U.S. School Steel Band Movement: The Saga of Steel” by Brandon Haskett