Drumming Up Good Vibes and Accolades

Drumming Up Good Vibes and Accolades

Steel Drums teacher Amanda Duncan has been selected as the "Santa Margarita Catholic High School Hero Finalist" for the 2024 Parenting OC School Hero Awards. Nominated by SM administration, she embodies excellence in teaching. Duncan consistently goes above and beyond for SMCHS students. As her father faced the eve of his life in the hospital recently, Duncan relied on the daily routine of her students to get her through the difficult time. She took the time daily to let her classes know they were instrumental in getting her through each day. They helped her, she told them.

Ms. Duncan is passionate about her craft. Her sincere passion is demonstrated in each performance. She participates in performances and explains each song to the audience. Her passion is contagious and ignites the spark in each audience member during performances. She is kind and patient with students and co-workers.

"Ms. Duncan has been a model of quality and consistency in the classroom. She takes students from zero experience in Steel Drums to proficiency and beyond. She shares her talents and time with students and colleagues inside and outside the classroom. She is a treasure here at SM," said John Hayek, Vice President - People Development.

We sat down with Ms. Duncan to uncover what motivates her to drum up her contagious passion.

Why did you want to become a teacher?

The irony is that I didn’t initially want to become a teacher. I was all set to pursue a full-time performance career until one day in my undergrad at CSULB while researching grad schools, my late percussion professor and mentor, Dr. Michael Carney, suggested that I consider becoming a university professor and that I would be very good at directing a percussion program. Until then, I’d only done part-time music coaching at local middle schools to earn extra money. I never considered teaching a major component of my future music career. Looking back, I can see that he knew there was an educator inside me way before I ever did (though I found my niche to be high school teaching, not at a university). Now I can’t imagine my life without being a teacher!

What fuels your passion for steel drums and teaching?

Steel drums – I’ve always been captivated by the steel drum’s unique timbre. It’s a beautiful instrument. Something is captivating about the sound that draws you in, and I’ve never tired of exploring all the instrument's sonic possibilities.

Teaching – Aside from my parents, Dr. Carney was my life's most influential person.  He opened my eyes to the world and the world of music – both figuratively and literally! - through my studies of world music, jazz and two CSULB percussion studio trips to Brazil I took in 2008 and 2009. I could write many books about all the music lessons he taught me and several more books about all the life lessons he gave me. When he passed away in 2012, I did my best to pass on all the lessons he imparted to me to my students. I would have been a good teacher if I could influence just one student’s life even a tiny bit as much as Dr. Carney had influenced mine.

How long have you played steel drums, and how did you get into it?

I began playing steel drums in August 2004 at CSULB under the direction of percussion majors. I had to enroll in three percussion-specific ensembles each semester: the classical Percussion Ensemble, the World Percussion Group (West African and Brazilian music), and the Steel Drum Orchestra. My passion for the instrument initially developed in the Steel Drum Orchestra, and I soon purchased my tenor steel drum. From there, I began intensely focusing on exploring the possibilities of the instrument in my jazz and classical courses, and it became one of my passions within the vast world of percussion of Dr. Carney. The percussion program at CSULB aimed to gain expertise in all musical styles and percussion instruments, ranging from classical and jazz to popular styles from the USA, Brazil, Cuba, the Middle East, and Trinidad – the birthplace of the steel drum. All of us

Tell us about your musical career outside the classroom walls.

I’m a freelance percussionist and drummer with many groups throughout Southern California. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve done everything from playing classical timpani and percussion with churches for Easter and Christmas services, percussion with various bands at nightclubs in downtown LA and San Francisco, recording sessions in LA and Orange County, to playing percussion with various symphony orchestras and opera companies spanning from Santa Monica to Riverside, drums/vibraphone/steel drum jazz gigs, and drums and percussion with musical theatre companies. I’ve also played drums with various local bands and done remote recording sessions (especially during the first year of Covid). I’m sure there are other types of gigs I’m forgetting about!

I’m equal parts performer and teacher, and I consider my music career to be evenly split between both. I can bring my practical experience “on the gig” to my classroom and share what I learn with my students. Additionally, being a teacher makes me a better performer – practicing fundamental music skills is a lifelong pursuit, and I often remind myself of the same things I tell my students to do!

How common is it for high schools to offer steel drums classes?

In Southern California, it’s rare for a high school to offer steel drum instruction in any capacity, especially compared to how many orchestra, wind ensemble and choir classes are offered in high schools. I know around ten steel drum programs in Southern California, perhaps a couple more. Some schools may have a steel drum band that meets after school as a club, but few have an actual program fully integrated into the curriculum like we have here at SM.

Why should a student consider taking steel drums?

First, it’s lots of fun, especially if you join with a friend or two! Second, it’s a unique opportunity to learn a musical instrument you can’t easily learn anywhere else. Third, it’s a great place to learn music in a supportive environment.

How has your teaching role evolved since you started?

When I started at SM, I taught two levels of Steel Drums, Beginning Handbells and AP Music Theory. In my second year, I also began coaching percussion in the Eagle Regiment Marching Band and have continued to do so ever since. Over the years, I also began teaching Intermediate and Advanced Handbells. During the COVID shutdowns in 2020, the Handbells program slowly phased out as most students graduated, and the rest joined Steel Drums!

For the last two years, in addition to Steel Drums and AP Music Theory, I’ve taught various courses for Instrumental and Vocal students as part of the Talon Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA). The TAPA courses I teach are Music Theory 3-4 and Intro to DAW/Ableton and I oversee and teach Applied Lessons for students in the Instrumental Music track.

How do you incorporate technology into your teaching?

I frequently show videos of steel drum bands and players from Trinidad during class, especially around Carnival season before Lent.  In 2021, we hosted Professor Liam Teague, the “Paganini of the Steel Pan,” in a couple of virtual masterclasses over Microsoft Teams, and several students got the chance to perform for him and receive invaluable feedback. I hope to host more world-class steel drum musicians worldwide in virtual workshops someday!

What do you like the most about teaching steel drums?

Getting the chance to help my students reach their full potential as people and as musicians, challenge them to step outside their comfort zone and introduce them to a whole world of music that they might have never heard of. Also, it’s simply a lot of fun!  I get to attend SM daily and teach something I’m passionate about. Few people can say that about their job, and I know I’m very lucky.

How long have you taught music?

I’ve taught music for 20 years!  I started as a college freshman, coaching percussion students at a local middle school in Long Beach.  Over the years, I’ve taught music in private lessons, masterclasses/clinics, summer camps, and in the classroom. Shortly before I was hired at SMCHS, I was directing my community steel band in Lakewood.

How long have you taught at SM?

About ten years, since October 13, 2014.

What is your teaching philosophy?

To allow all students to explore their God-given talents and creativity, develop their flexibility and discipline, and learn to work as a team in a fun, supportive and nurturing environment. 

How do you incorporate culturally relevant teaching in your classroom?

I teach my classes about the history of the steel drum in Trinidad. I tell my students about the struggles Afro-Trinidadian youth experienced as they fought for their invention, the steel drum, to be accepted by Trinidadian society in the mid-20th century and the wider world beyond the Caribbean over the last several decades. The steel drum is famous throughout the world, but it is also a commonly misunderstood instrument. Some people think it can only play “island” music and associate it with the stereotype of lounging on a beach or on a cruise ship vacation. While yes, the steel drum is great at those things (I love playing “Under the Sea” and Bob Marley’s music!), it’s also incredibly versatile in many other genres, ranging from rock to jazz to classical. I tell my students that to play the pan properly, they need to understand the origin story of the steel drum and the struggles of the instrument’s early pioneers as much as learning their notes and scales.

Tell us something we might not know about you.

Tennis was my sport in high school! I started playing at age five as a JV and varsity team member.

How many musical instruments do you play?

The percussion family of instruments is vast and varied, and nearly every culture in every corner of the globe has some type of percussion instrument. While I’ve got lots of expertise with many percussion and drum instruments, there are hundreds of instruments from other cultures that I’d love to get the chance to learn! I play drum sets, all orchestral/classical percussion, steel drums, Latin percussion, Brazilian percussion, and anything else that you can hit with a stick or your hands. I can also play some piano (I once went to a jazz jam session, jumped on piano and was allowed to stay for two tunes!) and a little electric bass.

What goals do you have for the growth of this program?

Soon, more guest artists will be brought in to work with the students in masterclasses and performances. My ultimate dream is to be able to take students to Trinidad and learn about the steel drum and Trinidadian culture in the place of its birth!