Champion steelband arrangers Anthony Miller, left, and Jonathan Watson on the instrument they love.

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The January 26 Junior/National Schools Panorama Final almost feels like distant history in the haze of the COVID-19 lockdown—deserted schools and panyards like sleeping artefacts. Classrooms locked behind the screens of virtual teaching and learning. But, for successful Bishop Anstey & Trinity College East (BATCE) Steel Orchestra arrangers Anthony Miller and Jonathan Watson it’s no time to rest on the laurels of a memorable victory in the secondary schools’ category. BATCE last won in 2008.

They provided responses to questions from T&T Guardian via email.

For Watson, 20, few moments are spent looking back. As a UWI music student he has regular online practical and theory classes. When not in virtual class he is sharpening his skills on the pan which he plays every day. He says he spends much of his time “listening to different genres of music and practising different styles to improvise.”

Miller, 17, has himself decided “with all the extra time I now have on my hands” to aim for a better balance between his music and academic life. He is currently a Lower Six student at BATCE.

Like his prize-winning arranging partner, he has also been working on new arrangements “as well as continuing to practise overall.”

“Regarding my school life, my teachers have been using online learning and meeting platforms to continue teaching and preparing us for exams,” Miller told Guardian Media.

The two young men both agree that the downtime from the classroom and social events provides an opportunity to hone their craft at a more intense rate than would have otherwise been possible.

“I believe if you’re a musician and you don’t practise on your skill … you’re wasting this time,” Watson said. “That goes for anyone.”

“In that case,” he added, “this quarantine has many advantages. This home time could teach so much to people.”

Miller concurs: “During this isolation period so far I’ve definitely found myself being productive and creative in my music. I’ve been practising more and I’ve already seen improvement in my improvisation skills, something that has added to my will to keep on practising.”

Watson and Miller are also keenly aware of the world-changing nature of the pandemic and actions taken to mitigate its worst effects. They, however, do not completely agree with each other on what would become of Carnival and Panorama in 2021.

Said an optimistic Miller: “I think we as citizens play a huge role in how Carnival and Panorama (will) play out.” He said he thinks things will remain the same for both events “if (we) citizens continue to have positive attitudes toward the Carnival season.”

Watson is, however, less convinced. “I don’t think that anything will be the same again after this pandemic. Even though that’s what everybody wishes for … I don’t think that even the basic activities will be the same,” he said.

One view they, however, strongly share is that the role of the steelpan in national development is potentially invaluable. Watson thinks the instrument should have a stronger presence in the school system.

“I feel that steelpan in music education in Trinidad and Tobago should be on the curriculum in every school,” he said. “I know it won’t be an easy task for the government, but it should be in each school. If it’s not on the curriculum, there should be a small steel ensemble in the school.”

Miller, meanwhile, thinks music education in school “opens (students’) eyes to a whole new world.” He said that pan, in particular, “is a potent mechanism in boosting national pride.”

“Our national instrument has a very rich history and from playing steel pan and from being a part of band that goes out to various performances and outings as well as participates in different competitions, I have learnt a great amount about the culture of T&T,” he said.

The two young musicians are also very strong on building their capabilities on the instrument they love, while exploring a wide variety of genres and, in Watson’s case, a number of other instruments.

He says he can competently “play around” with the drums, piano, glockenspiel, xylophone, and the membranophone—instruments he became more exposed to as a part of a UWI percussion ensemble.

Miller started formally on the piano early in life (at around six or seven) but switched to pan following visits to witness his father on percussions as part of the Trinidad All Stars engine room.

He, however, remained on the formal music path at the Eastern School of Pan Music in Arouca under the guidance of music teachers Nervin Saunders and Susan O’Neal.

For Watson, his personal credits include names such as music teachers/mentors Tanya Heart and Rojelle Granger-Morton together with Anthony Adams and Shawn Smart.

The BATCE music stable has produced several outstanding names in the contemporary music world. Anthony Miller and Jonathan Watson have made an early start with a memorable Panorama victory and a future under diligent construction on solid ground in the midst of difficult times.