The sound is unique and captivates the ear. Shaped like a UFO the handpan is a relative newcomer to the music scene. The music sounds ancient but was first created in Switzerland around the year 2000 by two steel pan tuners. It has notes on the top that are played with the hands, and the bottom is like a resonating cavity.
When Madison’s Jenny Robinson first heard it she thought, “What the heck is that thing?” She also knew immediately that she wanted to bring that sound into her life. This launched her quest to not only learn how to play the handpan but also how to build it.
Today Robinson is one of a few women in the world who can build handpans and definitely the only one in Wisconsin. She admits it was a long process, “I have a scrap pile of ones that didn’t work out, that’s probably around 80. I knew I wasn’t going to stop until I got an instrument.” She learned through trial and error. First, she studied the steal pan, which was the precursor to the handpan. The steal pan was developed in the 1940s, from oil drums. She also gained knowledge through the internet community.
Setting out to build a handpan was not an easy task. There aren’t any instruction manuals and the tools needed to build a handpan she had to create herself. Robinson works with a Milwaukee steel manufacturing plant to create the rough oval shape. Once the steel pans arrive in her workshop she starts to add the dimples or notes, fine tuning every detail as she hammers the steel into shape and begins the process of tuning.
Robinson’s handpans are now shipped all over the world including Japan, China and Argentina. She gets as much interest in handpans from outside of Wisconsin, as she does here in Madison. The custom made instruments can cost between two and three thousand dollars.
Many people describe the music as calming and resembles the sound of water. Robinson said, “Being in Madison, we’re on an isthmus surrounded by two lakes and the sound of water, I think it’s a really nice way to think about it.”
Jenny Robinson and her handpan mentor Shlomo Clavo perform a handpan duet, bringing to life the instrument they build together.