By Jackie Drake
The metallic and melodic sounds of the steel drum are synonymous with the Caribbean, but you don’t have to cross an ocean to hear them; they’re being played right here in Pitt County.
Laura O’Neal ’97 has led a steel drum ensemble at Pactolus School since she began teaching there in 1998. The ensemble is open to all students in Pitt County Schools, with members ranging from elementary to high school. Around 30 students, divided into two groups, practice once a week after school. The group travels to local competitions like the PANorama Caribbean Music Festival in Virginia each spring, where they have won championships and gold and silver medals.
“They get a lot out of this. They make friends, learn how to be part of a group, and shoot for a goal,” O’Neal said. “They also learn the history of a culture and about the birth of the steel drum and the traditions that follow. Music also helps with math and English skills. Basically, music stimulates learning.”
O’Neal discovered the steel drum while pursuing a music education degree at ECU. While interviewing for the job at Pactolus, she was surprised and excited to find that the previous music teacher happened to have gotten a couple steel drums through a grant.
“I told them, ‘I know just what to do with those.’ I think that’s why I got the job.”
Over time, O’Neal was able to expand the instrumental selection through donations and grants. There are now about 25 drums available. Students take turns on the various types of drum to better understand the music.
Seventh-grader Jennifer Ramon has been a member of the band since she was in third grade. She plays bass and sometimes lead drum. “I’ve heard other steel drum groups and I like the sound, so I thought it would be cool to play,” she said. “My favorite part is playing the different kinds of drums. It’s a little hard, but one you get used to it, it starts to get easy. I like learning new music, and I have fun with the other students.”
“I wish someone had told me about the steel drum when I was this age,” O’Neal said. “I never even knew about it until college.”
Originally from Farmville, O’Neal came to ECU to study music, and while there decided to teach.
“ECU provided me with many skills, such as developing children’s music skills in kindergarten through 12th grade. ECU also provided me with the knowledge to play and teach all the concert band instruments including the steel drum.”
O’Neal is proud to share her knowledge gained at ECU with Pitt County students.
“Music helps you learn,” she said. “It opens up your mind.”