One very cool, thing I frequently experience when writing for the Sierra Nevada Ally (the Ally) is that the story I set out to tell is almost never the story I end up telling. Writing for The Ally allows me to go deeper into new subjects and interesting people than I would normally be able to do without having Restraining Orders placed.
Such is the case with this story, which was supposed to be about a nice fellow named Jeff Froschauer whom I met through a mutual friend. Jeff collects and plays hand pans, and I have always been interested in them. Now the story has turned into a saga, indeed a quest, on which I have not written the ending, because I do not know how it ends.
In addition to being a storyteller, I am a singer and percussionist by profession, and like most percussionists, I grew up rapping my hands, fingers, and knuckles on any surface that issued a pleasing sound, or any sound.
I would beat on car hoods, trash cans, barbecue lids, my younger siblings, and anything that would produce a variance in pitch from one surface area to another as a bongo drum or congas do.
I was drawn to marimbas, but once I realized that they were laid out exactly like a piano keyboard, my brain shut off. It’s a thing.
Then, A handful of years ago, I saw my first-hand pan being played on YouTube and immediately felt a draw. I started to search for them and discovered that they cost a small fortune and if you had a small fortune, you still needed to “know” somebody to be put on a list that is at least a year long. So forget about it.
Flash forward to this recent holiday season, my wife and I were invited to a dinner party by a friend, and professional photographer, Laura Maine. At the party, I met a fellow about my age named Jeff and we fell into a comfortable conversation, during which he mentioned that he collects and plays hand pans. I tried not to squeal.
We set up a time to meet at his place and my intent was to interview Jeff for the Ally, learn firsthand about hand pans, and record our conversation for my podcast as well. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome so I figured about ninety minutes; I’d make a new friend, finally see what a hand pan was all about, and spread the word to the Ally faithful.
Jeff graciously welcomed me into his home. his house is sunny and filled with life, ranging from plants to fish, to living coral reef beds, on which I also got an education. That is a whole other article.
Jeff is retired from the State of Nevada and owns his own home in Carson City Nevada. He is widowed and lives with a wonderful redhead named Metta, who immediately shared her toy with me and wanted to make sure I felt welcome as most sweet dogs do.
As I mentioned, my intent was to not be a pain in the butt and overstay my welcome, so I turned on the recorder and before I could scan the room for noise, Jeff put a hand pan in front of me. The rest is a blur. It was quite literally a life-changing moment. This is the instrument that I have been waiting for. It isn’t just intuitive, it feels like an old friend and allows me to express myself musically in a very authentic, elemental way, for the first time in my long life.
The percussionist in me understood the rhythmic possibilities and the composer in me heard and felt the possible melodies that could be massaged out of this glorious instrument, at once ancient in appearance, yet requires an advanced understanding of acoustic science, metallurgy, and musicianship to even begin to think about making one. Hence the hefty price tag of $1,400 to $3,000 for a good, quality instrument from a respected maker. Obviously, the pricing goes up from there into the five-digit world.
I now knew that I desperately had to have one of these. And, I absolutely could not afford one. And again, I desperately had to have one of these.
At one point in our conversation about the several pans he had spread out in his living room for me, and after playing one, Jeff commented that I had a bit of a gift for playing this tactile, UFO-shaped, steel barbecue lid, looking thing that absolutely stole my soul. At one point while playing, I blurted out, “I haven’t wanted anything this desperately since I met my wife Becky.”
And so Jeff and I and Metta ended up hanging out for several hours and it was all on tape, which by now, I had completely forgotten about. Normally, that would have been great, but there was a fish tank going, pumps for the coral, and fans for the plants, and I was oblivious to it all because all I could hear were these blasted hand pans. I would later discover that the background noise made the recording unusable for the podcast or audio clips for this article.
Jeff was generous enough to let me borrow a pan overnight. It was tuned in the Dorian Mode, which I understood theoretically, but that isn’t how I compose, so it really didn’t mean much to me until I actually heard it. Being alone with this hand pan felt almost sacred. I just kept getting chills before I so much as tapped a note. In fact, it took me almost a full minute of just looking at it before I tapped a note.
When I started playing, I spontaneously started crying. They were neither tears of sadness nor tears of joy exactly, it was just raw emotion, coming in hot. It felt like hot liquid quickly filling an ill-prepared reservoir to overflowing, without warning or recourse.
I spent many hours, I don’t know how many, as I was in a flow state that only happens when I am deep into meditation or occasionally when composing. I had so many musical ideas, and they were all fighting for attention.
My wife Becky walked in after a while and said, “All of that music was you, coming from that? I thought you were playing with a recording. This scares me.” I asked, “Why?” “Because you are good at it and have that dreamy look in your eyes. How much are they?” “This particular one is over $2,000,” I said. “That would be why,” she said, smiling at me as she walked out the door.
I was anxious to listen to the recording of the interview and the day’s events on my recorder. It picked up everything beautifully, including the fish tank and the fans. Though the recording proved unusable for the podcast, it also made of this adventure. And so, now I am back at my new friend Jeff Froschauer’s house a second time, to do the interview that I didn’t do the first time.
I start by saying to Jeff, “So were you turned on to hand pans by an obvious troublemaker like I was?” He laughed and said “No, well not intentionally,” and went on to explain.
“I had been to the San Francisco wharf area with my wife and some friends, and I saw a street artist that was doing these spray paintings that were pretty spectacular and he was really fast. And so when I got home, I tried to find out what it was all about. I thought it’d be something cool to learn.
“So I looked on YouTube, for street artists, and up popped this guy named Daniel Waples, and he was playing this thing, on the street, somewhere in Europe and it was just amazing. He’s still to me, one of the best solo players I have ever seen.”
So he was just wailing on this steel instrument, making sounds with his hands that I thought were incredible. It was some kind of harmonic hand percussion instrument, and it absolutely blew my mind, so I started looking up hand pan stuff online and I was hooked.”
I asked Jeff how he purchased his first-hand pan.
“Well, you know, it wasn’t easy back when I first got into it. The only way to get a hand pan was to get your name on a waiting list. The original maker of the hand pan was a company called PanArt out of Switzerland. In order to get one from them, you had to write them and tell ’em why you wanted one and why you deserved one. If they thought you worthy you would fly out to Switzerland and pick out your hand pan.
“So needless to say, I couldn’t get a hand pan for the first couple years that I was a fan of them, because of these waiting lists and different things, plus the price of them back then was even more than it is now, for an average decent hand pan maker, plus there weren’t many of them in the world. So, I originally got a steel tongue drum from a company called Happy Drums.
“It was called a UFO, and you’re mainly playing with your mallets. They’re steel and the tone fields are cut out of them instead of shaped like a hand pan is. Even though they are played with mallets I played them with my hands like hand pans.
“Then one day I found this guy on YouTube who was a brand-new hand pan maker, and he offered up what he said was a prototype, his prototype number five or something like that, for 500 bucks. At that time, as I said, hand pans were just… well you flat out couldn’t get ’em, so, I actually didn’t get one of the first ones he put up but when he put some up again I got one, and I loved it, and people around me loved it. That experience led me to a hand pan festival called PanTasia, which I named, by the way.
“So, when I went there, I brought out my hand pan. It was one of the first ones. Then other people showed up and started bringing their hand pans and I realized that there was a difference between a “prototype” like mine and a top shelf, hand pan.” [laughing].
Jeff Froschauer went on to say, “My favorite instrument is made by Harper’s Hand Pans, a really good guy, Jeremy Harper out of Lake Havasu. As you know, that’s my e Celtic minor, and for some reason, whether I’m playing it funky, slow, or however I’m playing it, it just resonates with me.”
(On a side note, when I do have the funds to purchase a pan, Jeremy will be my first call.)
Jeff talked a lot more about the festivals and the ridiculous hoops you had to jump through when these hand pans first arrived on the scene, as well as a lot more pan lore, which you can hear right from the horse’s mouth on my upcoming podcast.
When Jeff and I started talking about the art and the science of pan-making, I understood why there are so few makers. The biggest reason is the difficulty and insane learning curve. The second reason might be referred to as the “legal morass.”
The roots of the hand pan come from the steel drum, which was created in the 1930s in Trinidad from oil drums, plentiful in the area. They were created out of a sense of rebellion and desperation because musical instruments were banned by the government. Steel drums are played with mallets and are loud and a bit tinny.
Flash forward to the year 2000, two people from Switzerland, Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer started a company called PanART Hang Manufacturing LTD based out of Bern Switzerland.
The company was engaged, as they put it, in the construction of sound sculptures made of Pang®, a composite material developed and patented by PanART.
Among other things, the company developed the now world-famous Hang® Sculpture.
Well, they were mostly right. The Hang® Sculpture never made it to the general public’s lexicon but the hang pan and hang drum did. The word Hang is simply a German translation of hand, and so it is now Hand Pan.
Rather than cash in on the many offers PanART received to enlarge their operation, they insisted on keeping it just the two of them and a small group of hand-picked devoted, artisans.
PanART had indeed created what might be in my opinion, “the acoustic musical instrument of the twenty-first century.” While the concept was slightly less than the original, PanART insisted that they didn’t steal the idea from “steel” drums (no relation) but rather “used steel drums as inspiration to create the Hang Sculpture.”
As impressive a feat as this was, nobody was more impressed than PanART, and long story short, rather than share this wonderful instrument with the world, which would have made them a fortune by the way, they did just the opposite and made it ridiculously hard to get one.
According to their bio and history, one has to write and tell PanART why you deserved to own a Hang Pan, and if they determined you worthy, you were allowed to spend many thousands of dollars on one, but you had to fly to Switzerland to buy it in person.
Twenty-three years later, and many legal battles, you are finally allowed to make a hand pan, but yeah… Good luck with that.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, there always seems to be a deviation from the expected course, during my storytelling for the Ally. Now, rather than just having a nice story about Jeff, which my editor gently insisted was fine and to “put a bow on it and hand it in,” the story once again changed direction because I was so damned smitten with the hand pan that now, I wanted to know much more about them. I wanted to tell Ally’s readers about them as well.
The Ally really likes to focus on news, events, and people from Nevada. I figured I’d take a shot and called Jeff and said I don’t suppose Nevada has a hand pan maker by any chance?
Jeff said “Yeah Axiom Musical Instruments down in Parhump, and they’re a reputable maker with a large variety of tunings and I think like three different types of steel that they offer. I’ve heard nothing but good things.”
So I contacted Axiom by email and explained who I was, sent them a couple of articles that I have done for the Ally, and asked if I could interview them. Typical, I sent them War and Peace instead of just asking permission to use their media. I suspect I scared them. Their pans are gorgeous. [Self-head- slap].
It occurs to me that I have spent so much time talking about my discovery of the pans, I haven’t really exposed them to you. Let’s dive into what these musical metallurgy masterpieces are all about.
First, listen to one being played by Marcel Hutter, playing an Axiom hand pan.
As for the process of making a hand pan; Here is a wonderful video of Jeremy Harper making one of his famous hand pans. I am hoping to purchase a pan from him. I like his work, I like his energy and he is a friend of my friend.
The majority of high-quality hand pans are made by hand, out of stainless steel or nitride-treated stainless steel, which is a heat treatment that makes the metal harder, making it less likely to go out of tune from being struck hard. The downside of the heat treatment is that it is done prior to forming and tuning the instrument, so it is more difficult to work with and hence costs about $300 – $500 more.
My amateur hand pan ears have listened to about three hours of approximately fifty or sixty pans from both high-quality artisans and Chinese knock-off versions. What I can tell you is that if you do your research first and use a guaranteed refund vendor like Amazon Pride or a guaranteed refund credit card, then the Chinese hand pans are worth about what they are priced compared to high-quality ones, but that doesn’t mean you should buy one. More on that in a bit.
I am new to hand pans but my ears are used to critical listening because of mixing music. Eventually, my ears got to the point where I could differentiate between the Stainless and the Nitrided about 60% of the time. It may be all in my head, but the stainless seem to ring a bit more and have more overtones.
When I first heard a Chinese bulk-manufactured pan, I thought they sounded pretty good. After all, the Chinese have a rich history of making gongs and other percussion. After I spent significant time critically listening to so many high-quality pans, I went back to the Chinese pans and there is a world of difference in the clarity, depth, and reverberation of the notes and the tones, especially the overtones, created by the blending of different frequencies. Honestly, not even close.
The Chinese pans are pre-formed by machine and then tuned by hand by striking the metal to tune it, as is the custom in all hand pan making. When I listened to the Chinese video samples, some of the marketing videos were actually slightly out of tune, if that tells you anything. The overall sound of Chinese hand pans is not terrible, considering it is made of carbon steel instead of stainless. Guitarists, we are talking a Squire compared to a Les Paul Custom essentially.
If it goes out of tune, which is more likely with carbon steel, a respectable tuner charges several hundred dollars and may reject the carbon pan altogether. So, essentially what you are looking at is a fun instrument that will familiarize you with the hand pan and will stay in tune for a year or maybe two, depending on use and care, for between $400 and $600.
It is tempting. I confess to being all about immediate gratification. Jeff said my patience will be rewarded with the instrument that fits me, in the key I love, by the maker I can take pride in. I know he’s right, but in fairness, Jeff is a Buddhist which gives him an unfair advantage in this whole “patience” thing, don’t you think?
The typical Hand Pan is approximately 18” to 22” in diameter, 15” to 18” tall, and weighs 15 to 18 pounds.
It has 8 to 11 notes, or more, plus the top note which is called the Ding. The instrument tuning is based off of the note of the Ding. The hand pan is constructed of two shells glued together. The top is called the ding shell and the bottom is called the Gu shell. There is a hole in the Gu shell called the Gu hole. No relation.
When you strike the instrument, it is done with quick-release finger taps. In other words, hit it like a hot surface. Strike it and remove your finger so it is allowed to ring, or reverberate. Some makers call this reverb. It just means how long the note rings after you hit it.
If I tried to write about how this magical, spherical, miracle actually affects me at my deepest level, but the description continued to either fall ridiculously short, or appear to be so overdramatized as to cause severe eye rolls, and so I will leave that there, and move on to How do I find my precious? Er, I mean how might I procure one of these for myself and the resulting betterment of humanity?
Essentially I have two ideas, and they both involve grants, so I guess that means I have one idea. So thanks for joining me in my quest. Stay tuned. If this article contributed to your falling under the hand pan spell. Blame it on Jeff Froschauer. I am.
Can’t wait to read “Hand Pan Journey Part 2. to find out what happens. See you there.
Marshall (Marsh) Brodeur is a professional musician, composer, vocalist, vocal coach, and music supervisor for film and television. Brodeur is also a vocal/choral director for musical theater productions. He’s received numerous music/film/television industry awards such as the Telly Award For “A Glimpse of Heaven, a Taste of Hell;” a documentary for PBS – Composing and Scoring for Film and Television, a Telly Award For “Off Hand;” 2017-2018 Forte Award for Top Male Vocalist; and the Platinum Remi Award Houston International Film Festival – Music for “Choices” with Brian Cranston. Marsh and his wife live in Carson City Nevada.
Founded in 2020, the Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-reliant 501c3 nonprofit publication with no paywall, a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, offering unique, differentiated reporting, factual news, and explanatory journalism on the environment, conservation, and public policy, while giving voice to writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and performers. We rely on the generosity of our readers and aligned partners.