Outside are puddles and the chill of Corvallis in February. But inside, the metallic beats rolling through Benton Hall ring with the warmth of a Caribbean summer.
It’s Thursday rehearsal time for the Oregon State University Steel Band, and Bob Brudvig is coaching himself and seven other players through The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
Brudvig and senior Alyssa Aamondt tap out the melody on two lead pans the size and shape of giant, shiny, silver soup bowls. Behind them, sophomore Laura Schwenk and junior Renae Weiss give support, each on a two-pan double second just slightly larger and deeper than the leads.
Sophomore Nick Miller and freshman Grant Choitz fill in the deeper chords with three-pan “cellos,” each black pan half the size of an oil drum. The full-size bass drums — six of them — provide the sound’s foundation as senior Jesse Canady strikes his mallets.
Senior Jason Schubothe is the group’s “motor” tonight, tapping out a ringing series of 16th notes with pencil-sized metal sticks against his instrument, an old brake drum.
Brudvig, 46, is director of percussion studies and an assistant professor of music. The Albany resident has been a percussionist since seventh-grade band class at Memorial Middle School, and he’s played in small steel drum ensembles on and off for the past 12 years at OSU.
For the first time this year, however, Brudvig is leading a full-scale steel drum band, thanks to a $13,000 contribution by OSU’s Student Incidental Fee Committee, which distributes a portion of tuition money to student programs and activities.
The group numbers 14 when everyone is present, and people take turns on each instrument. All the members are involved in music at the university at one level or another, although some of them never touched a steel drum until the band came together five weeks ago.
“It’s actually not really that different,” said Canady, who’s more used to playing the tuba. Once you can read music, he says, a bass line is a bass line.
Choitz struggled at first with the circular pattern of the cello notes, which isn’t as intuitive as the marimba, the instrument he usually plays. “None of the notes are where you want them to be,” he says. “You basically have to memorize where they are.”
The steel band is both a music class and a working, gigging group, a place where students can play for both credit and cash.
The cash, if any, goes back into the program to purchase sheet music and keep the instruments in good shape. It takes a professional to tune them, Brudvig says, carefully tapping any dents back to their proper size and depth.
A 1984 graduate of West Albany High School, Brudvig began his musical career at age 6 with piano practice. But he loved drums, too, and was intrigued by the steel drums he heard in his first year pursuing his Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of Arizona. By his second year, he was leading the university’s two steel-drum groups.
Never heard a steel drum before? “Think cruise ship,” Brudvig suggests. “Think tiki bars. Florida. For popular artists, think Jimmy Buffett.”
Not that the steel drum is restricted to reggae and calypso. In Trinidad, the birthplace of the instrument, large groups of steel-drum players regularly gather to play entire symphonies of classical arrangements.