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Steel Drum Sheet Music: Why I Write My Own

Sheet Music is just like recorded music, right?

I can listen to arrangements on any device, and preview as much as I want?  I have multiple options to buy or use the music?  Access to arrangements is clear cut, and quickly available, right?


One of my goals is to make Sheet Music easy to access. 

I believe easy access is a goal of companies like SheetMusicPlus, as well as Noteflight, and MusicNotes.

I came into writing for Steel Drums through my job at Mount St Joseph. We had an opportunity to acquire some pans, and did. All that remained was to get musicians, and play gigs.

Kind of.

Once we had the pans tuned up we needed music to play.  I started where my college band had, with music traditional to the steel drum–the music of the islands.

It was simultaneously easy, and very difficult.

After the first couple of tunes, I ran into the  “Old Model Wall.”

It was the same wall I ran into with music for concert band.  Arrangements were generally available 4-6 weeks from the order date…except when they weren’t.  If you lost a part, extra parts could be had by buying the entire arrangement again. No digital copy was ever provided.

To make matters worse, sound recordings and score previews were rare.  Instrumentation lists were non-existent.

I decided to try my hand at arranging steel drum sheet music.

i had already arranged successfully for percussion, and even for some non-standard instrumentation bands.  Plus, I found myself needing approachable music. Music that’s familiar, as well as not too difficult to learn. My Steel Drum group rehearses  once a week.

YMCA for Steel Drums was my first effort, and has had the best reception so far.  My version of Auld Lang Syne is more arrangement, and I’m working on Mary Did You Know.  Like YMCA, my version of Africa for Steel Drums is almost a straight transcription.

With well arranged pop tunes, we have found success time and time again.

As the program has grown, I have used some stock arrangements.  I only do so when such an arrangement can match the benefits of my DIY arrangements.

1.) Digital copies, as some of my students never print their parts.

2.) A full length sound recording is available ahead of time. Nothing is worse than buying a piece because you liked the first ten seconds, and then finding out that the next 3 minutes are terrible.

3.) Reasonable pricing. Seriously, if you’re going to charge me $40 to $80 for an arrangement in an outdated format, why wouldn’t I attempt to do it myself?  It’s not like we pay $20 for a floppy disk anymore!  Why wouldn’t I customize parts with my players and pans in mind?

4.) Instant availability. Why anyone buys or publishes a hard copy anymore is beyond me. Digital inventory management is cheaper than physical inventory management.  Let’s not even talk about how many trees we could save by cutting the paper!

I have found it very rewarding to write my own arrangements, and encourage you to do the same!

With Sheet Music Plus, self publishing has never been easier.

Please let me know if you’ve found similar success or challenges.

It’s like I tell my students–we’re all on this musical journey, just some of us are in different places!

Learn more about me and what I do here!

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My Favorite Timpani Gauge

Ever wonder what the pros use when the time comes to buy gauges? I’ve seen lots of options, but the Ludwig Standard remains My Favorite Timpani Gauge!

The Ludwig Standard Timpani Gauge is a pressure activated gauge, which means the lever is moved by the motion of the rim above it. In other words, moving the pedal moves the tension rods, which moves the the rim (hoop), which moves the gauge and the head; changing head tension and of course, pitch.

Here’s what the gauge looks like:

This 28″ Ludwig Universal Regular Collar Timpano is getting the gauge:

The first step was to gather the materials and tools that I’d need: gauge and parts, timpani key, adjustable wrench, and my multi tool for a screwdriver.  I usually carry all of this in my stick bag.

To attach the gauge, it’s necessary to remove the head.

When removing a timpani head, two main things need to be taken into consideration; the head tension, as well as the pedal tension. To take care of these things, you must remove the head by loosening tension rods in a criss-cross pattern, making sure to do it evenly, perhaps a quarter turn each time around. Before loosening any of the rods, though, you must make sure your pedal is not going to jump and throw your spring out of adjustment. If you have timpani with clutches, make sure the pedal is at the lowest tension position, and that it is locked. If you have balanced action pedals, like me, block the pedal from moving like so:

Do that before moving any tension rods. Notice the “block” is actually an old, cracked woodblock! Everything has a use!

On older model Ludwig drums, gauge mounts were pre-drilled, with screws provided. This means that I didn’t have to drill through the bowl, and that I didn’t need the provided backer with the gauge. Once the head was removed, was to unscrew the bolts on the drum, and insert the bolt through a washer, then the gauge, then the bowl, and then a lock washer and a nut. Pretty simple.


Check out the Gerber multi tool.  If you don’t have something similar, this is an excellent resource for all freelancers. You never know when you’ll have to fix the instruments you’re performing on!

Notice how the square nuts lock against the inner rim, which means that you can adjust the position of the gauge without removing the head.

This is handy, since the gauge operates off of the pressure/positiion of the hoop. Here’s how that looks with the head re-mounted.

Many timpani purists may ask why I even installed a gauge.

Frankly, these are portable drums which must be de-tuned to be portable. I have these drums for a set of general timpani. Mostly they are used for musicals, pageants, or band literature. They are not used for solo performance, or high art music. On those gigs, I generally have access to better drums!

Especially in shows, quick tuning is an issue. Are gauges ever exactly on the pitch? No. But when your tuning time might be as little as 1-2 counts @ 160 bpm, a close approximation for the first note, with fine tuning for the next few has to be good enough. Also, realize that as long as your drums are balanced, maintained and setup correctly, proper use of the gauges can easily get you within 10 cents (or less) of pitch. Considering the inherent variances in pitch of whatever ensemble you may be performing with, 10 cents to being in tune is pretty good. Again, realize fine tuning is always done after the quick change. With these drums, I once  performed the Hallelujah Chorus with an organ that read at A=438!

Why don’t I use “better” timpani, and “better” gauges?

First, the Ludwig Universals are what I am able to acquire. I’d love to have the funds to buy a full set of Majestic Prophonic Timpani…but I don’t have that kind of cash.

Second, these gauges are my absolute favorite. Sure, other gauges are easier to be more accurate with, and there are other gauges that are almost as simple. However, the simplicity, the durability, and yes, the accuracy, of the Ludwig Standard Timpani Gauge is everything I need.

When installed, these gauges become an integral part of your drums–no extra rods, cables, and no additional complications to transportation. With many other gauges, this is simply not the case. Most other gauges work off of the pedal, and add all kinds of extraneous parts–cables, rods, protrusions, etc. The simplicity of the Ludwig Standard Timpani Gauge is great in my book.