The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


March 2, 2014

Marta Churchwell: New steel drum group at MSSU off to great start

JOPLIN, Mo. — Gradually, students begin drifting into the music practice room. One picks up a beat on the drum set while another runs a couple of riffs on a bass guitar. Two others pick up steel drum sticks and start practicing.

It is a cacophony of music. It quiets as their percussion professor, Brian Fronzaglia, walks behind one of the steel drums.

"OK, let's go," he says, looking around to ensure everyone is ready. "One, two, one two, and go," he says rhythmically.

Suddenly, the sounds all come together, and the room is filled with light-hearted Caribbean music. I can't stop a smile from breaking across my face. It's feel-good music. I want to break into a calypso and sip a pina colada from a coconut. No wonder islanders are such laid back, happy people, I think to myself.

After concluding the practice session with the West Indies classic, "Jamaican Farewell," Fronzaglia looks at me and smiles.

"Don't be too hard on us," he says. "Today is only our fifth practice."

Welcome to the Steel Drum Ensemble, the newest percussion group of Missouri Southern State University. It is the fruition of brainstorming sessions between faculty, Fronzaglia and Chad Stebbins, director of the Institute of International Studies. They saw it as a chance for the music department to help reinvigorate the university's international mission.

It was also a way to jump on the trend of offering steel drum instruction in colleges and universities across the U.S., en route to increasing students' musical versatility and, thus, their careers.

"There's a very strong cult following and community following with this," Fronzaglia said of steel drum music. "I think this will turn out bigger than hoped."

It looks like that could happen if the response to the fund drive to purchase the equipment is any indication. To purchase a set of steel drums, plus cover the costs for maintenance and the special sticks to play the instruments, the university had to raise $25,000.

The music department was responsible for raising $8,000 through Kickstarter, an online funding platform.

Within only a few months and with the help of the Missouri Southern Foundation, the Institute for International Studies and other groups, the drive was only about $2,000 short of the full amount needed.

The gap was closed through a deal that Ernie Williamson Music, a local music store, cut with a steel drum dealer, Fronzaglia said.

A few weeks ago, the drum set arrived. It includes eight "set-ups" involving a total of 19 drums with bass, tenor and soprano pitches. Because steel drums, known as pans, have tones and a range of notes, they create the music, complete with harmonies, while the rhythm is set by a regular trap drum set and a bass guitar.

So far, the ensemble involves 10 students majoring in percussion music.

Their coming out performance will be on March 28, when the university stages a World Music Festival.

Later, they will contribute to promoting cultural awareness through outreach concerts for area school districts as well as a pre-concert series for Pro Musica, the local chamber music organization of which Fronzaglia is artistic director.  

By next fall, Fronzaglia hopes to draw area musicians and interested community members into the program. Already, he said, interest in joining has been expressed by students from virtually every department on the university campus.

If such interest is shown within the community at large, he anticipates that there eventually could be a couple of community steel drum groups.

 "It's pretty infectious," he said of the music. "It's that airy sound and feeling of being on a tropical island."

Contact Marta Churchwell with column ideas and comments at joplinglobe

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