Knights of Steel History

McCallum High School’s steel band has become one of the most
respected and sought after performance groups in Austin, Texas.

What started in 1998 as a way to include more students in McCallum High School’s music program has steadily progressed into an energetic and in-demand performance group.  Today, Knights of Steel is one of the most well known steel band programs in Texas—and one of the largest public school steel bands in the United States.

From Four Pans
Carol Nelson, head band director at McCallum High School, founded Knights of Steel during the spring semester of 1998. The original band consisted of four pans (tenor pan, double seconds, triple guitar, and bass) and has grown considerably since that time. McCallum was the first school to offer steel drums as a daily class in the Austin area. Carol hired CJ Menge as an Artist-In-Residence that same semester, which marked the beginning of a close working relationship between Carol and CJ that continues today. CJ has worked closely with many other high school and middle school steel drum programs in the Austin area, and founded the Inside Out Steel Pan Project, an Arts-in-Education program and community steel band. 

Steel band enrollment for the first year the class was 20 students, with a mix of first-time musicians and members of the school concert band. Carol, a trumpet player and pianist, would often accompany the band on electronic keyboard. With only four pans and 20 students, Carol made large laminates of the different pan layouts so every student could practice along with the class. In 2000, newly hired assistant band director Brian Theodorsen began instructing the band. Theodorsen, a percussionist, instantly took to pan and helped to elevate the group to new levels.

To 30 Students
Support for the band grew and more pans were added, along with a second class period, allowing the students to be split into beginning and advanced ensembles. The Knights of Steel were building a reputation around Austin for their energetic live performances and talented young musicians. Brian Klenzendorf began leading the band in 2003 and remained at McCallum through the 2005-2006 school year. Brian, a University of Texas graduate and alumni of their steel band, brought valuable pan experience to help refine the band’s sound. Under Brian’s direction the program grew to nearly 30 students. Between the two bands, instrumentation had grown to four tenors, four double seconds, two guitars, and two sets of bass pans. The advanced band grew in technical ability, which allowed them to perform much more difficult literature including Andy Narell’s “Sea of Stories” and Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe’s panorama chart “Fire Down Below.”

PASIC and Ray Holman
In the fall of 2006, Matt Ehlers became the director of the Knights of Steel. A graduate of the University of North Texas and alumni of its 2 o’clock steel band, Matt was able to step right in where Brian had left off.  In November 2006, the advanced steel band performed alongside CJ Menge’s Inside Out Community Steelband at the renowned Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC). Their performance featured special guest artist Ray Holman and his compositions along with Phil Hawkins on drumset. 

And Chicago
Using Holman’s “Sockin it with Steel” and “Hangin’ in There,” McCallum recorded an audition CD for the prestigious Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic held annually in Chicago, Illinois. Behind Holman’s great music, the Knights of Steel were invited to perform at the 61st annual Midwest Clinic, held December 2007. They presented a 50-minute concert featuring Josh Jennings on percussion and CJ Menge on tenor pan. Their concert showcased all original music written for pan, much of which was written by Austin residents Darren Dyke, CJ Menge, and Matt Ehlers. Knights of Steel also featured Holman’s “Sad Song for a Pan Man” and Narell’s new expanded version of “Appreciation” from his recent album, Tatoom. The concert was answered by a standing ovation from the large crowd of music educators from around the world.

Coat tailing their success in Chicago, excitement for the program grew even more with enrollment for the 2008-2009 year reaching 46. A third class was started, allowing the bands to be split into beginning, intermediate, and advanced groups. In November 2008, the Knights of Steel had the great privilege of hosting the Golden Hands steel orchestra (San Fernando, Trinidad) and the University of the West Indies Percussion Ensemble (St. Augustine, Trinidad), who traveled to Austin to perform “The Rainmakers” at PASIC. This was a great opportunity for the McCallum students to meet and learn from students of similar age from Trinidad.

Pan Program for 62
Other highlights from 2009-2010 school year included the advanced band performing Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe’s complete panorama chart “Pan Rising,” and the intermediate steel band performing CJ Menge’s full transcription of Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse Bacchanale.” With the program generating so much excitement through frequent community performances, enrollment has jumped to 62 students for fall of 2010. The Knights of Steel has placed an order with Toronto based builder/tuner Earle Wong for five new instruments, bringing the total number of instruments to 18. This will allow the program to accommodate 2010 year’s new members.

McCallum’s steel band curriculum emphasizes developing a student’s technical skills and musicianship along with exposing them to the unique history and culture that surrounds the steel pan. Students are taught to read music and are encouraged to try their hand at improvising, composing, and arranging. The bands are occasionally taught by rote to develop the student’s ears and give them a taste of the way many steel bands across the world learn.

The city of Austin is very fortunate to have two world class builders/tuners in residence: Darren Dyke and Emily Lemmerman (Barracuda Steel Drums). Both Darren and Emily have played an active role at McCallum, not only giving multiple building/tuning clinics but also rehearsing and performing with the bands on a regular basis.  CJ Menge’s presence as Artist-in-Residence over the years has given McCallum many unique performance opportunities. CJ has hosted numerous guest artists and coordinated mass steel band performances integrating students and community members from the greater Austin area. Past guest artists have included: Ellie Mannette, Andy Narell, Ray Holman, Liam Teague, Tom Miller, Leon ‘Foster’ Thomas, Ras Inginga and Phil Hawkins. 

In Demand: Knights of Steel
With more than 30 public performances each school year, McCallum’s dynamic Knights of Steel have a reputation throughout Austin as one of the city’s most sought after performance groups. 

Matt Ehlers is director of percussion studies, and assistant director of bands at the McCallum High School Fine Arts Academy in Austin, Texas.  He is an active performer and clinician throughout Texas as well as a published composer through Drop6 Media and Inside Out Steelband Music.