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Steelpan Drummer Shines

Matt Potts shares his appreciation for steelpan drums through band Potts & Pans. 

Matt Potts, 28, is a true Renaissance man whose talents run the gamut from music to IT, education to auto maintenance.

The Crystal Lake resident is, however, best known for building our region’s steelpan drum scene. Today, he leads the local steelpan group Potts & Pans; organizes the annual Great Lakes Steelpan Festival; and coaches Crystal Lake South High School’s drumline.

Budding Musician 

Potts began his musical career at 4. “My mom told me, ‘I’m putting you in piano,’” he recalled. Although he hated playing, his parents insisted that he take lessons until he turned 15. By 10, when he became eligible for band in fifth grade, he chose drums.

The moment he put a drumstick in his hand, he knew that drums were the only instrument for him. Reluctantly, his parents bought him his first drum set the summer after fifth grade. He was so dedicated to this new instrument that by the time he was a high school freshman, he had exhausted the expertise of local instructors, save for one: Sherri Dees, a well-respected Crystal Lake concert percussionist.

Man of Steel

In 2004 during the early months of his senior year at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake, Potts had an aha moment when finding steelpan drums online. As soon as he saw the instrument, he thought to himself, “I’ll bet I can make one of them someday.”

By fall 2004, he purchased a C lead drum on eBay.

The drum shipped from the very place they were born: the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Potts paid for the drums with money he had earned refereeing soccer and washing cars in his father’s car dealership.

Next, Potts needed an instrument stand, so he built one out of PVC pipe (he had inherited mechanical gifts from his father and always wanted “to build something” as a child – little wooden airplanes for his grandparents out of scrap pieces of wood or a cassette holder for his mother).

With no local steelpan instructors, Potts would self-teach. He began by familiarizing himself with simple notes by using his beginner piano books. He had to transfer his drum playing mindset from linear strikes to circular motions.

As Potts became more accomplished, he decided to play his drums in the 2005 District 155 Solo/Ensemble Festival. He returned to eBay and purchased a solo piece of steelpan music entitled “Island Riffs” by Dr. Leonard Moses. In the contest, Potts received the highest score possible on his solo. The judge was astounded not only by his playing but also by the setup of the instrument and stand. The judge had never before seen nor heard a steelpan drummer in person.

In 2009, during the summer before his senior year in college, he spent six weeks in Trinidad, “getting a feel for the music in its natural setting.”

“Indian, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian rhythms … I want to bring in other world cultures to this community.”

Building Awareness, Appreciation 

In 2013, his next major endeavor was producing the Great Lakes Steelpan Festival at Hannah Beardsley Middle School Crystal Lake. The festival has grown to draw big crowds to see well-known steelpan performers and educators like Freddy Harris III, Gary Gibson, Dr. Ellie Mannette (father of the modern steelpan), Kurry Seymour and Clyde “Lightning” George. The event includes vendors, clinics, workshops and concerts.

When he’s not festival planning, Potts performs with Potts & Pans, the steel band he started in 2011; tunes and repairs steelpan drums across the country; and assists in teaching members of the Crystal Lake South High School drumline.

“Matt is a passionate advocate for all things percussion,” explained Christopher Keyes, the school’s director of instrumental music. “He is doing what he loves. He doesn’t have a job – he has a career.”

For Potts, it’s about creating awareness and appreciation for music that previously had limited access. “I want to provide my students with opportunities I never had,” he explained. “Indian, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian rhythms – I didn’t know what I was missing, but I want to bring in other world cultures to this community. Where would I be now if I’d had those opportunities?”

His work so far, he said, is only the beginning. “My life and career are still in the building process,” Potts added, “but they’re going in the right direction. I will continue to cobble together a life that includes full-time music.”

See Potts & Pans Saturday, August 8 at Blast on the Beach on Main Beach in Crystal Lake. Visit the band’s website for upcoming events in McHenry County and beyond.

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