Bates’ journey to the steel drums


Etta Singer, Staff Writer

“I made a mental note to myself, I should learn to play that,” Music Teacher Alan Bates said after hearing the steel drums for the first time in 1976.

Though music has been central to Bates’ life for decades, he did not begin playing an instrument until sixth grade, when he joined his school band, he said. “My older brother played guitar and I wanted to be just like him, so I started playing cornet [a brass instrument similar to a trumpet] for two years.”

By eighth grade, Bates had gained an affinity for rock ‘n’ roll. “That was when I started playing the drums and getting pretty serious about it,” he said. During this time, Bates also learned the piano. 

To further pursue his passion for music in college, Bates attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. In college, he also played drums for numerous bands, he said. 

Bates had not heard of the Steel Pans until he was in a recording studio at Northern Illinois University and next door they were playing the steel pan, he said. “I thought the sound was so unique that I made a mental note of ‘I need to learn this instrument’ but did not get around to it for several years.” 

While Bates’ interest in the steel pans took a backseat for thirteen years, his career went on, he said. Instead, he picked up an instrument called the vibraphone – a metal xylophone. With this addition to his repertoire, many new musical opportunities opened up for him, he said.  

After those thirteen years, Bates was finally reminded of his mental note when he saw a steel pan concert. “I asked the performer where he got the pan, which led me to his brother who makes them, which led me to buying one,” he said.

Bates then spent the following year in St John, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, professionally playing the steel pans and the vibraphone, he said. “I had bought my first steel drum right before we moved and sometimes, I’d bring the drum on the job with me and switch between the vibraphone and the steel pan,” he said. “By the end of that year I was pretty proficient in both instruments.” 

After his year in St. John, Bates became well-versed in the pans, and he started playing it in different performances, he said. “I was playing it pretty well. I could just switch back and forth between the two instruments.” 

 When Bates moved back to New York City in 1990, he reached out to musicians he previously worked with to let them know that he was back and that he could now play the steel drums. “Suddenly, I started getting all these calls and was busier and busier, playing all of my instruments at first,” he said. “But, slowly but surely, it was more and more the steel pans.”

As Bates’ demand grew, so did his range of professional outlets. “At that point in my life, making a living was kind of a hodgepodge,” he said. He played at senior centers, country clubs, hotels, resorts, cruise ships, beach clubs in rock bands, R&B bands, country bands, cabarets, musicals, recording studios, and for television, he said. 

At the beginning of his career, Bates never aspired to be a teacher, but when he was asked by his daughter’s preschool to perform for the students, he discovered just how rewarding teaching could be. “I found [out] pretty quickly that I loved the teaching just as much as the doing, and it made me feel pretty good about wanting to teach more,” he said.  

From there, Bates sought out even more teaching opportunities while simultaneously continuing his professional career, he said. He taught early childhood music at preschools around the city for around ten years, directed a steel drum band at a church in Terrytown, and taught as an artist in residence at a high school in Brooklyn. 

Bates began teaching full time at the school 14 years ago, he said. Two years prior to his arrival, Music Department Chair Timothy Ho created the steel drums program. Ho taught steel pans himself for a year and then hired an outside steel drummer the second year, before bringing in Bates, he said. 

 Since working at the school, Bates has been able to improve his arrangement skills, he said. “Getting to see the pieces I arrange being played is really gratifying and helps me master the craft of arrangement for the steel pan.” 

Bates’ favorite moments at the school have been in class when students really care about the piece they are learning, he said. “I love the feeling when a class has been working hard to learn a song,” he said. When they finally master a song, the students’ sense of accomplishment is thrilling, he said. “They just erupt into applause for themselves and for that sense of accomplishment.”

Since taking Bates’ class for two years, in high school, Jacob Silverstein (12) has discovered his love for music. “Mr Bates has taught me about rhythm and reading music,” he said. “He works really hard to bring all of the different sections together to sound harmonious.” Silverstein has found that Bates is truly the glue of the band.