The Handpan Crash Course
The Hang, Originally Created In 2000 by PANArt
The story of the handpan first begins in Bern, Switzerland, in the year 2000….
The very first hand-played sound sculpture was created by Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer under the name of PANArt, and their instrument was branded as the “Hang”. It is commonly and incorrectly referred to as a ‘hang drum’
Originally, the Hang was distributed to small music shops across the world. As time passed, PANart’s business model changed, and those who wanted a Hang had to send a written letter requesting an invite to the workshop in order to purchase one. Demand soared, but supply was incredibly limited.
It should be noted that tuned steel was not invented by PANArt. Rather, tuned steel was invented by the people of Trinidad and Tobago in the 1940s. We know these instruments as the steel pan. The Hang and handpan would not exist if not for Trinidad and Tobago.
Tuned in Modes
The handpan is tuned into musical modes. For non-musicians, this makes playing the ‘right’ notes a problem of the past. The handpan almost plays itself. While trained musicians must know which notes to play within a key and mode, a handpan player can skip that entire process. This does have a downside though, by preventing the playing of any key on a single handpan.
You can think of the notes of a handpan as being a small selection of notes from a piano. Out of the 12 notes of the western musical scale, a handpan might only have 5 to 7 of them in most cases.
The layout of the tone fields is, for the most part, standard across all handpans. The lowest note will be in the center. The rest of the tone fields will alternate, left to right, in a zig-zag pattern, beginning from the lowest note on the tone circle.
The combination of notes on any given handpan is referred to as a sound model. Some sound models sound happy, some sad, and others are in between.
Played With The Hands
Unlike its parent, the steel pan, the handpan is played only with the hands. This creates a unique and primal connection with the instrument. Simplicity is key for true musical exploration.
The handpan is not a drum as many people believe. Only a light to medium touch is needed to play it. Playing too hard can actually de-tune a handpan.
Many skilled handpan musicians utilize a variety of hand techniques when playing. Some even hit the non-resonant areas for a percussive effect. The complexity of play style is totally up to the player.
Made of Two Pieces of Thin Steel
Two sheets of steel (~1.2mm thick) are formed into hemispheres, heat-treated, and then shaped with hammers and other tools to form the tone fields and the small indentations within them (dimples or domes). These tone fields are skillfully tuned by an experienced steel tuner to give them their unique sound, otherwise it would sound like a trashcan lid! The two hemispheres are joined together by various methods, though gluing is the most popular.
What’s inside the handpan, you might ask?
Nothing! It is completely hollow!
The sound it makes is generated by the unique control of compressive stress within the steel. Learn more about how a handpan works here.
High Prices, High Demand, and Low Supply
Shortly after the Hang was invented, the world quickly grew hungry for it along with other related sound sculptures or handpans. The sound of singing steel, coupled with the intuitive hand-played design, brought the gift of music into the streets of Europe by many busking musicians. The demand could not be met, and prices soared.
Tuning steel is a skill that takes decades to master. That skill demands a high price, and those who have tried to build their own handpan, at an attempt to save money, quickly learned why handpans are so expensive. This lesson is learned on a day by day basis to this day by naive folks all over the world.
The demand for these instruments has also given rise to scams across the internet, promising a handpan for a price that’s ‘too good to be true’.