The Handpan Lets People Shine with Kevin Roddy

Long-time Hang and handpan enthusiast Kevin Roddy shares the stories that have shaped his own journey with the instrument. In this episode, we learn about music therapy vs therapeutic music, hear examples of outrageous generosity and more.

International Handpan Day:

Podcast Transcription:

Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain and this is the handpan podcast.

Sylvain: We often first get into something, whether it be a hobby, an idea, a philosophy merely because it's interesting, our brain is hardwired to catch anything that's new and even rewards it by increasing our levels of dopamine, which means we have an actual physiological reaction to novelty. 20 years ago on October 13th, 1999 the concept of the hang and what would later become handpans was born. Not only was it a revolutionary work of craftsmanship, engineering and design, but it was new. It's wild to think back of these early days, the scarcity, the intensity, even the drama, and I personally find it incredibly valuable to sit down with folks who have gone the distance because novelty ultimately becomes familiar and it can lose its spark. Joining me in today's episode is my good friend Kevin Roddy. Kevin got into this instrument before the hype, before the viral videos, before the gatherings. He's not into handpan because it's merely interesting. No, Kevin truly developed a passion and yet there were ups and downs along the journey too. But these are great lessons for us. So here is my conversation with Kevin Roddy.

Kevin: Well, Kevin, I am so happy to chat with you today. Thanks for joining me on this episode.

Kevin: Thanks Sylvain. I'm glad to be here.

Sylvain: Yeah, you were one of the first people that I wanted to have on the show because you have a wealth of knowledge and experiences that I just want to get out there into the world. Um, but for reasons that we may get into at the time, you politely declined. And again, I think there are lessons there, but your, um, you're here. So I'm really grateful for that and you're a longtime member of this, uh, just really amazing community that we get to be a part of. Today, we're going to hear your story and, um, I'll just, uh, say this in advance. What has struck me, uh, leading up to this conversation is how thoughtful you are and how you've thought about a lot of the themes that I try to bring up on this podcast long before they were even on my radar. Um, and, uh, so I'm just excited about that. Um, you and I discovered the instrument I think roughly around the same time, but in very different life stages and very different geographical locations. Um, so would you tell me how this all started for you?

Kevin: Well, in Hawaii we used to have these gatherings called fire tribe Hawaii and what they were, or, um, uh, all night events, usually three nights on the solstice and equinoxes of each year. And so through the 10 years that fire tribe existed, they produced 40 of these events and what they were, were events where people could come regardless of their spiritual, um, uh, orientation, uh, or religion. They were events that were drug and alcohol free where they'd light a big bonfire. And it was just encouraged that people bring instruments, bring percussion instruments, um bring stories, and the whole purpose was to let people shine. Let people be able to bring something to contribute to this community. Um, so one night, I think it was in 2004, uh, it was the December gathering at the solstice gathering about two 30, three 30 in the morning. Um, usually the night would start out with heavy percussion around the fires, a lot of energy at 11 and Admin night and one and then people start drifting off and maybe going to bed and other people come out and start doing quieter things. And um, there was like this, you have this storytime around the fire where people would just, uh, tell different kinds of stories. And then around four 15 or so, um, it got very quiet. And then this person with this instrument came in and it was this round thing and I think the person was Bright Hawk. She might have, she used to attend these gatherings and I'm sure most of your listeners have, have met her and have even played with her. Anyway, she started playing this instrument of course, like everyone else. Like what is that? And I was close enough to her to be able to feel the vibrations from the instrument. And I believe she has a Pentatonic A or Pentatonic F perhaps. I, I forget her tuning, but that was my first, um, uh, introduction to, to, to the Hang. And that was in December of 2004. So of course, and my other friend Michael Wall, who also was in these gatherings had one. So there were actually two of these instruments in 2004 in Hawaii, um, and late at night around a bonfire.

Sylvain: Wow, 2004. That's very early. Before...

Kevin: Before, before everything happened. I actually, and, and you know, since these gatherings would, would happen every three months, Bright Hawk wouldn't come over for every one. She mostly came over for the, um, the solstices generally the winter solstice because it came for a break from Colorado to be in Hawaii. Um, but Michael, um, would share his instrument with me. And then I'll tell you kind of the story of how I was able to obtain one of these instruments. In 2006, Michael had loaned his, he had a pentatonic A and he had loaned it to a, a djembe player who threw two of the tones out of tune by hitting it too hard. And so Michael was pretty much in morning. I mean, he, he felt like, oh, what am I going to do with this instrument? And he just didn't want to see the instrument for awhile. He felt really bad about it. And I said, well, could I just shepherd it for awhile? He said sure. And what I did was I contacted Felix in Switzerland and asked him if I could send it in for a retuning to surprise Michael. And, um, he said, sure. And prior to his setting the instrument back, it took about a month, he contacted me, he said, well, I have another one of these instruments available. Would you like me to send it to you in, uh, the box that I'm sending back Michael's Hang? And I said, and of course, I said, sure. And I said, how much would that be? And he said it would be 750 USD and you know, I almost hit the floor because I thought, oh my gosh, this is going to be amazing to get one of these instruments. So that's how I got on my first, my first and only Hang was, um, through retuning Michael's on through, um, Felix in Switzerland.

Sylvain: No Way. Wow, that's incredible. And I can't help but see the, the fruits of generosity because that was a super generous move of you to care enough for your friend to facilitate that and, and you were rewarded for that in an amazing way. Um, wow.

Kevin: I had no idea. Yep. I had no idea that that would even happen. I just thought, well, um, you know, and of course I asked him if he had any instruments at that time and I think he was a, Felix was a little vague. And whatever I did, that was when I first sent it in and I just said, well, I just want this returned. And I think that he and Sabina and I think this instrument, Colin Foulke looked at it and it has some strange markings on it and it has what Colin called some kind of like Sabina markings where he felt that this instrument was developed by her. And Colin really likes this instrument. In fact, he was the first person to ever retune it. So I got it in 2006 and I took it to where I met you at Hangout USA in 2014 and he retuned it there and he thought that it, you know, it held its tune pretty well over the years. And of course I didn't know, um, you know, where I could get retuned and it detuned such that I could still play it any instrument if it detunes, if all the, all the notes detune the same way you can still play the instrument and not feel that it's flat or sharp or anything. But, um, so yeah,

Sylvain: And if I remember correctly, you have a second Gen Hang in that, that's a remarkable, that's a remarkable era of the Hang, probably the climax, right. When you, when you talk about Pan Art, uh, in handpan circles, I think everyone's favorite. Um, sound texture is that of the second Gen Hangs so it's pretty cool that you have one.

Kevin: Well, I know that there are high, there's a list of people that say if you ever want to sell your Hang or please contact me. So, um, I don't know. Eventually I plan on just giving it away because you know, I don't really want to sell it. I was reading how, um, who was it, one of your other interviewees had talked about how they had developed an emotional connection. Well it was you, I believe you talked about you developed an emotional connection with each of your instruments, with each of the builders of the instruments. And it's quite unusual that in the handpan community, we actually know our, um, the builders of our pants. I mean, how many people, how many pianists really know the builders of their pianos? I mean, sure. You know, um, professionals in, in Virtuoso, musicians will develop a relationship with whoever creates their instruments. But in our particular circles, I think there's more hand pan people that know they're the creators of their instruments than probably any other musicians.

Sylvain: I agree. And that adds so much value to the whole experience and it turns them into these sentimental items almost regardless of the quality. Cause you know, a lot of us may have early prototypes of builders who are now world renowned and some of the world's best makers. But having a prototype that maybe isn't as good quality still holds so much value, historical value, sentimental value. Um, so we really truly are in the golden age of handpans. I think with the level of connection that we all enjoy. Um, okay. Let me come back to something that is so incredible that you just said and I don't want to miss it. Um, you said that ultimately one day you might just give it away, give away this, this instrument that's so precious to you. Um, I'm not going to put you on the spot and I don't mean to embarrass you, but I know that you have given away handpans before. Uh, we won't say any more than than that, but man, this, uh, this is really incredible and, um, I just want to acknowledge that, uh, this kind of generosity. It's a thread in your story. So thank you for providing a model for, for us to, to, to explore that kind of outrageous generosity.

Kevin: Well, thank you. I, I have been very lucky in my life to have had been around people who were, who showed me this way of just, um, giving things and you don't, you don't know what's going to happen. Um, once you give something away. And I know that with this community, I've seen people who swore that they could never play a note of anything, have this, um, have a handpan, um, maybe come to gathering and they don't have one yet. And they're playing other people's handpans. They get their own. And after, you know, a year or two having their own, they come to gathering and now I see that they're carrying a native American flute or they're carrying, you know, some other instrument because the Hang opened up a world of music to them so that they could actually, they feel comfortable playing a Hang or playing a handpan rather, and then they could play other instruments. So that is what is truly remarkable about this instrument because I, I believe everyone is programmed to play music. Uh, many people are shut down early on in their lives because they aren't the best singers and they aren't the best musicians, but they just haven't had enough time to practice. Um, or it wasn't their passion because I think that many people are drawn to this incident because of the resonance of the instrument because of the beauty of the sound. And I think that's something I'd kinda like to talk about maybe a little bit later, that I believe that we all have a resonant frequency within us. And we, um, when we play these instruments, it actually activates something deep within us that is resonant with the instrument. Um, for example, I really like music and I didn't realize this until about eight or nine years ago. I like music that's in the key and, um. My resonant tone, pretty much people have, have tested it to see, you know, what I respond to an F#, F to F# is sort of my resonant tone. So, um, I think that these instruments affect us on a physiological level and maybe we don't know very much about that, but we just know that it pleases us and it makes us feel good. So I think that the instruments, um, you know, have that, um, potential and to be able to see someone open up who has never ever, um, played an instrument before, to see them explore and to see their face light up is just, it's worth it. It's worth, um, anything you can do to give that opportunity to someone. And I want to do that.

Sylvain: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. And there's so many things you just said that are so powerful. Um, the handpan being a gateway instrument to um, teach us how to get pleasure from creating music as opposed to feeling intimidated, being afraid to fail. Um, and, and what you mentioned about finding that, that pitch, that frequency, that's amazing. That's super perceptive. Um, how, how do you think someone can, can find that? Did you sort of pay attention to how you felt around, um, certain ranges of, of frequencies and to make it very concrete? So with handpans it's easy because the center note is within a certain limited range, you know, pretty much between like F2 for the lowest to A3, maybe for the highest pitch of the center note. Did you just identify that there's certain instruments where the center note really resonated with you? Is that how it went down?

Kevin: Well, actually I discovered this more with doing of my heart therapy because the other instrument in my life and besides the Hang, um, handpan, was a harp because it just very quickly I grew up, my father was a musician, he was a piano player. And a singer and I played piano for awhile and I was the only one of four children that really showed an interest in music. And, um, I played the guitar for a while, but it just, it wasn't resonant. The Piano didn't resonate with me and there are all these kinds of songs we had to learn. And the guitar was, I just, you know, wasn't into the guitar, wasn't into the pain of the callouses on my fingers and I let it go for a long, long time. And it was the fire tribe Hawaii that really reawakened, um, first of all it was percussion and since they, um, they, uh, pretty much based their percussion on North African rhythms and belly dancing and that kind of thing. So I learned how to play doom back, how to play frame drum. And then the Hong came into my life there as did the harp one night around the fire, a woman brought a very small harp and then about two years later I found that there was this program online of harp therapy of using the harp for healing, um, purposes. And one of the main tenants of the international harp therapy program of where I'm certified is that, um, there is a, everyone has a resonant tone and if you find someone to rest, if someone, when someone is ill and they're, they're feeling weak, their resident tone is probably weak as well. And if you could find out what the resonant tone is and play music in that key to sort of give them sympathetic vibration through your instrument to them, that's why you have to sit in a room that's close so they can actually feel the resonance are we believe that perhaps that can strengthen their resonant tone and provide relief of a certain kind. And we don't profess to be any kind of miracle workers. We just hope that what we do can be palliative and can be therapeutic and can be added to other kinds of, of modalities such as, you know, medicines, um, uh, physical therapy, uh, occupational therapy and so forth. So, but it was just the whole idea of finding someone's, um, resident tone. And you can do that by giving someone an instrument and just having them play. And say, well, what note sounds good to you? And then if they say, well, they play it, oh, this D sounds really good. I really liked the D. If you're, if you're with the piano, then you can maybe start playing a chord, a d chord, um, and then playing, you know, it's fifth, which would be an A chord and see how they react. So that's how one can develop, um, a way to find out what one's resident Tony's. But often people do it by accident. They'll just, they'll have to be playing a handpan that they've never played before and they just, the first note just sends them off. I mean, there's just something about that connection with the first note and, and that's it. So some people find their resident tone by accident.

Sylvain: Yeah, that's fascinating. And without really knowing the physiological or the, I guess the process behind it, I've seen it happen over and over again. Um, and I think it's happened to me too, but just a couple of days ago, there was a gentleman who visited me here to just, um, try handpans for the first time. And I have a few. And so I was happy to like walk him through the evolution from the first Gen Hangs to all the way to my, you know, 2019 Halo, which is kind of a prototype. Um, and um, and you know, he, he tried one with a G center note and you know, it's relatively high-pitched and he really, really liked it. But then he tried a C# center note and he really lit up and that was um, it was really neat to see that on his face. And it was clear to him that if he was going to get a hand pan, it would be a C# center note. Um, so I could see that happen and I, I always wonder, you know, don't you want to ask PANArt a million questions about why the hung size, why that the specific scales, you know, leading all the way to one and only scale offered the integral scale. It makes you wonder, was it sort of random through trial and error or was it very intentional to, to target this range of frequencies?

Kevin: Yeah, that's it. That's it. Cause I think that the Hang that I have is a d minor. Um, and it has that more kind of melancholy tone, which I believe one would say it's a, it's in the Aeolian mode, which if you, if you know that the kind of the modes that, you know, people talk about the Phrygian mode and the ionian mode, the Aeolian mode, it's, it's the mode of green sleeves. It's the where, where the music begins on an A and usually end on an A, uh, and, and if we're talking the scale of C, um, so I don't know it, it could be that a, who knows, that's a very good question about how the origin of, of how the tunings came to be. Because I know pan art, I don't know how many tunings they've ultimately had, maybe 10 to 15 at one point or maybe more. But, uh, I think, um, it probably for production purposes it was good to just stick to the one. And I did read, um, I think, when you interviewed Josh Rivera, I think he was talking about the tuning aspects of it and how, um, some people wanted it to be zeroed out where the tuning was perfect. The three green lines of, of the linotune would line up and it would be perfect. And then how Felix had developed the integral where it was the free tuning where he just did it, not according to, um, linetune tuning but just to his own ear. And, um, you know, there are some hard players that do not use tuners at all. They just tuned it here. They just use, I think they use 440hz. Uh, the A above for a above middle C is 440hz. They start out with that and as soon as they get a tone out of that from their tuner, they put the tuner away and they tune the entire heart by ear. Um, which I guess this is what a Felix did in a way with the, um, the free tuned, um, integral.

Sylvain: And isn't that so inspiring, so artful and romantic and poetic?

Kevin: It is, it is too to think that you can just put the computers and all the electronic gear away and just, you know, tune according to what resonates with you, what sounds good to you.

Sylvain: Hmm. So since acquiring your Hang, you've developed your creative handpan world, and it seems to me like you're someone who has very thoughtfully curated that creative world, almost protecting it from being maybe perverted. Um, tell me about how you've enjoyed the handpan. Um, what was that journey like?

Kevin: Well, first of all, you, you have this unique instrument that no one's ever really seen and a lot of people want to touch. And so there is one protective aspect of it is that you want to instruct people on if they want to play an an I, I share the instrument. Um, but I, you know, of course do tell them, please take your rings off and that kind of thing. But I know that I started early kind of even in this journey and back when I started, there were no manuals to play and I just watched how others played. And then I think it was, you could probably help me out with this, with the years 2008, 2009 where the, the Daniel Waples videos that were on youtube that introduced a lot of people to his style playing. And so, um, it then more people would upload their videos to youtube and a lot of them were, were people who were very masterful players. They're very fast players, uh, putting a lot of notes out there. And for me, I'm more of an introspective kind of person and there's many different styles that, of, of music to play and, and I like them all. But for me, I think more space between the notes because I think that's what Claude Debussy. The, uh, um, French composers said that the music is actually between the notes. And so I thought also about using this more in a therapeutic way, um, for people to listen to and for people to play as well. Um, so I sort of drifted off and I, you know, acknowledged the masters that were developing a place of playing this instrument in a different way that they're attracting, um, you know, more attention to them. But then I wanted to see what else you could do with this instrument in a more, um, quiet and introspective way.

Sylvain: Hmm. And then over the years you got into music therapy, right?

Kevin: Well, it's actually, um, I'd wanted to just correct that. A lot of people, um, confused the terms of music therapy and therapeutic music and they're actually different. So, so music therapy really requires someone who has attended four years of college and often has a master's or a phd and, um, they follow the, the prescription that a doctor gives for a patient to deliver some kind of, of service to the patient in a musical way to, to make a change for that for that patient. And that could be, um, helping them learn how to sing or maybe play an instrument or listen to different kinds of instruments. Whereas the therapeutic musician is primarily one who plays for other people. And we hope that we can maybe make a change of state in their mood, um, or how they're feeling at the time. So, and we don't necessarily have college degrees as music therapists do. And also music therapists are board certified. They go through a very rigorous, um, uh, certification and examination process as well. But therapeutic musicians have the freedom just to be able to play, um, their music and styles that they hope will make a change. And that's usually by conferring with the patient and the families, um, beforehand and then mostly being an improvisational musician. You just make it up as you go.

Sylvain: Yeah. Well, it's, um, it's so revealing of our culture that music therapy would be this institutionalized regulated, structured field of work where there are gatekeepers and then therapeutic music is this organic, uh, inviting, um, really greater area where people can chime in and contribute, um, in a much more fluid way. And, and while there is obviously value in, uh, the authority and expertise of a medical field, it's Kinda sad that, um, it's all about credentials, uh, to a certain extent. And, and I can't help but think that all of us, but really all the folks who have played hand pans for people in a variety of settings, they have in essence served that same purpose of soothing, uh, alleviating pain. Maybe helping folks rediscover wonder, uh, that typically music therapists could maybe be entitled to do, but without the credentials.

Kevin: That's true. Music therapy actually, um, was sort of born after World War II when a number of soldiers came back to the United States with what we now called post traumatic stress syndrome back then. I think they called it, um, um, uh, bomb, no, not bomb shock or something they called it. Um, there was a term for it, uh, battle fatigue. But anyway, um, they saw physicians in the forties, 50s, and sixties saw the, the importance of music and it developed a whole different profession of people who would be trained to learn how to apply music and, um, psychological ways in, um, physiological ways. And then the music profession started to want to have some sort of a, um, established, uh, uh, program established, uh, shall I say, literature, Scientific Literature in order to show that what they did was scientifically proven to be good. And it was also a battle with the American Medical Association. And so they've always, they've just now in the past maybe five or 10 years have been very established now in, in hospitals, in health and healthcare environments across the country that they now command respect from physicians. But it always hasn't been that way. And I think they've had to credentialize themselves as a way of showing that they are legitimate. And so there's some tension between therapeutic musicians and music therapists because most of the public, when they see someone playing a musical instrument in a healthcare environment, they think, oh, you are a, uh, a music therapist. And we kindly have to say, no, we're not. We're actually playing therapeutic music because we don't want, um, to get, uh, we don't want to be perceived as being music therapists because there's also a pay scale involved. The, the music therapists are paid a lot of money, more money than music, uh, than therapeutic musicians are. So it gets a little, uh, there's a gray area. So I have been very fortunate in playing when I played at the Queens Medical Center in Honolulu that the music therapists there was very open to being, um, uh, from my being there. And she would often send me to places, uh, with patients that I would be able to play for that she thought, um, my presence would be helpful. Um, so if as long as the music therapists and the therapeutic musician can talk about what they do that's the same and what they do differently and work out how they can provide the maximum benefit for everyone, then it's a win win for before for both of them.

Sylvain: Yeah. That's fascinating. And I really appreciate the explanation and clarification there. So in which in which setting did you get to play therapeutic music?

Kevin: Uh, I played therapeutic music in hospitals. This could be in, in patient's rooms. Um, I've played in the neuroscience unit. Uh, I've played in the emergency unit for the people that are waiting for their loved ones to be diagnosed with whatever they came in for. And I've also played in hospice, um, playing for people who are dying. Uh, I've played for people who are in the last stages of life and that kind of playing is much different because it's very intuitive and usually you're constantly having to scan the faces of the people in the room to just sense the energy, what is needed here. Because sometimes along silence between a note is what's needed or just breathing or a single note. Um, depending on where that person is in their, when they're transitioning, um, from being alive to the next world. Uh, so they're in this harp therapy program that I was in. There are methods that one can use, um, to, to work in that kind of space. And so I've used what I learned there when I took my handpan and played in that space.

Sylvain: That's incredibly meaningful, impactful as well. Do you have any stories of how maybe some of these patients were impacted by the music?

Kevin: Well, I had one person who was in intensive care and he could not get to sleep for two days. And the nurses were, uh, at a loss as to how I could help. And I just happened to walk in there and I said, could I help in the situation? And they were just exasperated and they said, sure, give it a try. And I played for about 15 minutes and I was playing, my, brought me in my halo. I had a halo, a, a limoncello halo, um, and it was a in c tuning and it was kind of a happy sort of, of, it's a happy, happy song. And so I just started playing and within 15 minutes he had drifted off and I played such that I kind of lulled him to sleep. Um, and the limoncello in the Ionian mode. It's in the major mode. So there aren't a lot of opportunities to, um, to, to play anything but kind of major keys. But that seemed to be enough for him to, to drift off. And, um, of course now this is something that therapeutic musicians love is that we hope that you fall asleep. We hope that you're so relaxed that you fall asleep. So if you fall asleep, because sometimes the, um, the family members will kind of shake your head and said, I'm sorry that he fell or she fell asleep and say, no, that's what we want. Um, because they're so relaxed, they let go and they go to sleep and, and that's exactly what it's. So it's, it's one of those things when you're a therapeutic musician that we constantly have to tell people we are not entertainers, we are clinicians in a way. We are providing a modality of care to people in a sound realm, um, that we hope that will allow people to let go and relax and hopefully fall asleep.

Sylvain: Yeah. Mission accomplished when the patient falls asleep. Yes. That's it. Yeah. I've had that with, you know, friends. You have maybe a newborn or, yeah, typically with children, um, where the handpan, we'll have this, uh, sleeping effect on them and they'll ask you, come back, come back.

Kevin: They do. That's true. I've, I always offer wherever I have a hand pan or the harp, if I'm traveling, if there are any children that are just crying, you know, I'll go up to the parents as I'll be glad to, to play for you. And I've done that a couple of times and I've met one child who just wasn't having it, but most of the children, they'll look at me and they'll look at the harp, the handpan, and then I can say, would you want to try it? Do you want to play it? And sometimes they look a little scared but then there's that curiosity in their eye and they reach over and they tap it and I can kind of turn them in from crying children into smiling children in a couple of minutes. So that's a kind of fun power that anybody with a handpan or with a musical instrument can do with the child.