From Handpan to Hang Drum: An Interview With Stevan Morris, Founder of Hamsa Handpans
Matt Waters: Today, we're here with Stevan Morris, founder and owner of Hamsa Handpans. Steven, you’ve taken quite a unique path in your musical journey. How did you move from university to making handpans, to getting involved in that community?
Stevan Morris: Well, when I first started at conservatory, I really just knew that I wanted my future to be with music, and this was the only avenue I knew to pursue that. The problem was that once I was there, I actually got really nervous about the future because I realized that this path I was taking was very narrow. As talented or successful as I may have been up to that point, post-college, there’s such a small sliver of opportunity for someone with a base of only performance skills.
M: And what were you studying at that point?
S: Percussion performance.
M: The classical side or the jazz side?
S: More on the classical side, but I was almost double majoring in jazz bass. I don’t know how it would have looked on paper actually. I was taking private lessons in both disciplines. Anyway, as far as the classical percussion world goes, its such small world. The Boston Pops doesn’t have openings very frequently, and even if there’s someone who dedicates their life to it, they might never even have the opportunity to win that spot, you know? It's something that someone carries for life a lot of times. I was very overwhelmed by being someone with a fresh music degree and then competing with a bunch of people that had been in the field for 20 or 30 years.
The below video is on a handpan Steven helped make from Dave's Island Instruments.
M: So what catalyzed the line of thinking that that maybe this wasn’t the right path for you?
S: There were a lot of things in my personal life that were distracting me from school, so I actually just dropped out. That was prior to the handpan coming into my life. I had dropped out of school and had a falling out with music. I wasn’t playing much, and I was burnt out, if you will. I was going through the motions of life for a little bit. I was still going to a community college to finish up some GE credits, because I needed to continue making progress towards something. It was all because I needed to take a break from being at conservatory and reassess. It was during that time being away that I got the opportunity to work for the local steel drum builder, Dave’s Island Instruments. I already knew him through playing steel drums at Cal State Long Beach.
M: Was he an instructor there?
S: He wasn't an instructor, but he was an alumni from the same generation as some of the instructors that were there. He went to school with some of them.
M: So you met him through the grapevine?
S: Right. Being a local tuner, he’d come out and tune the steel drums. I was using the mallets that he made. I was using his equipment already. We were playing music that he arranged, his name was all over our sheet music. I had met him once or twice through that. Luckily, he was looking for a music store manager during this period in my life, and at my second interview there- my in person interview- he said, “Oh I just started making these instruments.” He disappears in the back room and comes out with a handpan. It was my first time seeing one in person, and my jaw hit the floor. The rest is history. I knew what it was already. Probably as far back as high school I had seen videos of it online on YouTube, was super excited and wanted to get one. When I found out about it, they were only made in Switzerland. You’d have to fly out and pick it up.
M: That was when Hang was the only maker, right?
S: Correct. It fell off the radar for me because I was 17. It's not an option for me to fly to Switzerland to go spend a couple thousand bucks on an instrument.
M: Even then, there are so many people that do that. They’re coming out of high school, need an instrument for college, and say, "I’m going to spend this amount." My bass trombone right out of high school was four grand, and that was one of the lower priced ones.
S: That was probably one of the reasons I switched to percussion instead of bassoon.
M: Yeah. Jeez. How about that forty thousand dollar bassoon?
S: They’re definitely five figures plus.
M: It's sometimes ridiculous in how expensive musical instruments can be, especially if you get into the violins or the string family. It's not necessarily uncommon for someone to have a fifty thousand dollar violin.
S: Its funny. My average customer is not a professional musician and they are usually surprised the cost. My handpans right now cost about two thousand for a case and everything. From my perspective, knowing what people pay for a professional level instrument to be a performer, it seems rather on par to spend a couple thousand dollars to buy a professional quality, handmade instrument. I think that surprise is because there’s not a two hundred dollar version. With any other instrument, guitars, trombones, there’s going to be the knock-off that is totally fine for learning on. You can go down to guitar center and buy yourself a starter acoustic guitar for a couple hundred bucks and it’ll be in tune and you can play on it and it’ll be ok, but you can also go and spend ten thousand on a hand-made Taylor. It's interesting that I’m coming from a heavy musical background when the handpan community is kind of the antithesis of that, but it also puts me in a good place to help people acclimate. It's beautiful to watch this whole community of people that was very interested in music before have a way to express themselves.
M: Why do you think that is? Why does the handpan appeal to newer musicians?
S: It's an extremely approachable instrument. I had to undo a little bit of my conscious decision making based on my musical background and just sort of let go and not think so much about I need to change to this chord here and resolve this this this way. With other instruments, that’s much more important. You've got all the black and white keys on the piano, and there's a lot more wrong notes that you need to intentionally skip, but on a handpan, the point of it is that all the notes work together and flow.
M: Talk to me about the different scales on the handpan. That’s super interesting to me. That’s not something that I think most people reading this will know.
S: It's a new realm of music that has sort of become part of the discussion through handpans. If you call an instrument a C Major or something, that’s only giving you a part of the picture. There are only 8 notes in a C Major handpan, but which octaves? Which notes are on it an which notes are skipped? Which notes are doubled? So rather than saying this is C Major or having to spell it all out, its got the third the fifth and the flat sixth, but then this one’s a spicy one and we raise the seventh, that’s a lot to have to communicate to a community of people that don’t have a background in music theory.
M: So basically, you build the handpans with the tunings built in?
S: Yeah. Some makers call them sound models as opposed to a scale because its not truly a C Major scale, but its a collection of notes that are hand selected from within that mode. They all have their own fun unique names that will emulate the mood of that sound model or scale or collection of notes. One of my favorites is called Magic Voyage. It's a rather versatile scale that runs on both the major and minor side of things so it can take you between a lot of different moods. It's really a hodgepodge right now because of how young the instrument is.
M: And how young is the handpan?
S: The instrument has been around for a little over 15 years now. 2001 was when the first Hang's were on the market. Not even 20 years yet. A lot of it is still being worked out and standardized as we go. Some of the same sound models even have multiple names.
M: That's really interesting. Something that attracts me to the handpan is that its not only a melodic instrument, but it is also a harmonic and percussive instrument. You have these these three components that are all coming together in this big steel drum in a very unique way.
S: Its definitely a new world of music. Tuned steel in general is less than 100 years old going way back in the steel drums. It hasn’t even been 100 years yet that we’ve been tuning steel. It hasn’t been 20 years yet since the handpan was invented. Melodic percussion has always been a draw for me. I’m really excited about the future of the handpan because its very much in its infancy right now. I think that the future is so unwritten. Where is it going to end up being utilized musically?
M: I want to jump back to your introduction to the handpan. How did you go from being introduced, to playing regularly, to starting Hamsa? That's a lot, but I’d love to hear it.
S: Originally when I was hired by Dave’s island, I was hired to run his store. It was all ukuleles and steel drums, and the handpans were kind of this new thing. I really fell in love with the handpans right away. Dave noticed and wanted to feed that. He encouraged me and kept putting more opportunities on my plate to run more of the handpan side of things. It was probably after a year and a half or so that he finally agreed to take me on as a pseudo-apprentice. I still had some responsibilities at the shop as the manager, but I slowly transitioned into starting to make my own instruments, helping him to make his main line. It was about a year and a half before I picked up the hammers, and then another six months where I worked pretty much exclusively in the shop.
M: At that point, did you think of making handpans as a profession, or was it something that just seemed interesting to you?
S: I was really thinking of wanting it as a profession. I was gigging somewhat regularly playing handpan in various yoga classes, festivals, and private parties. Part of the reason why I had burned out on music back in college was the thought of trying to make a living solely through gigs didn't seem feasible. It wasn’t a ‘go to work, collect your paycheck and pay your bills and live life.' It was constantly paycheck to paycheck, looking for the next gig, income going up and down. Having a high paying gig and then not finding work for weeks. I really liked the thought of having regular steady work that utilized the vast amount of musical knowledge and experience I had acquired over the years. Starting the business seemed like a win-win to me. I could still take my gigs, but I could have a day job so to speak that was still in the music world.
M: So how did you go from “I know how to make handpans” to “I should start my own company”?
S: I got fired. That’s how. I wasn’t necessarily in a hurry to start my own company. I just wanted to make handpans. The more I learned to do there, the more capable I was, the more time I could spend and could accomplish something. It was time to cut the cord if you will. In retrospect, he set me up for success. In the last few months there, I think he was anticipating that shift happening, and he gave me a lot of opportunity to learn and to instill confidence in me that I could build an instrument from start to finish. He kind of threw me under the bus with a few tasks where I was like “Whoa. Do you really think I’m capable of this?” I proved to myself I was capable of it, and then we went our separate ways.
M: It seems like that was a really good experience for you because you not only learned the business side of things- you were learning how this business runs- but you were also learning how to actually do everything behind the scenes, which is exactly what you’re doing now with Hamsa. It seems like all of that was a very formative experience for you.
S: Very much so, yeah. I was really happy where my life was and where it was going at that point. I was kind of blindsided by the cutting of the cord, but at the same time, I was also… it was so crystal clear to me that i wanted to keep doing that work.
M: So in retrospect, in letting you go when he did, do you think that was good for you?
S: Totally. I even talk with him about it. He’s probably the nicest, most happy-go-lucky, generous person that you will ever meat. He’s unreal on the positivity scale. I could tell that it was really hard for him to do what he did because we had a strong relationship. Looking back on it, I told him, “Look. I can’t be mad at you for pushing me out of the nest after you taught me how to fly.” That pushing out of the nest was for sure not a pretty moment at first. I was shocked by his actions, but also just trying to figure out what to do next. Am I going to work for another maker, am I going to do this myself? I don’t have one, let alone two feet to stand on to start my own company, how is this going to happen?
M: So was that the catalyst for your current company, or did it take a little bit?
S: It was definitely the catalyst for the current company. The fast track option was to do some sort of crowdfunding rather than have to get some 9-5er and save up money to do it myself, or to find an investor to give me money and own part of my company for the rest of its existence. I decided that that was a great first try. What did I have to lose? Worst thing that happens is that I don’t raise the money, and I’m back where I was.
M: But that crowdfunding campaign went well.
S: It definitely did. I actually had to write to indie-go-go and get passed up through their management a few levels because I was asking them to close the campaign so I could receive the money and just get started. The majority of the crowdfunding came from preorders and I had a finite amount of preorders. I didn’t want to take on too much work for myself.
M: So after you were done with this crowdfunding campaign, how much work did you have for yourself?
S: I had 35 people expecting instruments.
M: And how long does it take you to make an instrument?
S: That’s kind of a tough question to answer. Each pan takes around 20-40 hours, but there’s a lot of downtime in the process. I wasn’t making one a week, especially at first, since we were purposefully moving slow to figure out how we wanted to do this. It's kind of like baking. There’s a lot of ways to bake a cake. Imagine trying to bake a cake with no recipe, and guessing amounts for ingredients, or even what ingredients to put in. I was kind of like “I kind of know how to bake a cake, but I want to make my own recipe right now.” So, it took a while to actually learn how to make a cake, and then let alone the cake I wanted to make, so we moved slow intentionally at first. We maybe make a couple a month. Then I started working with a partner. I’m now working with a guy that does a lot of the earlier and shaping steps for me. That increased the production a little bit. We were still only averaging a few instruments a month for the first year or so, but in the last 6 months, maybe last year, we’ve started to get into a better production flow. With both of us working full time for a month, we could probably average 2-3 instruments a week for the 2 of us. 10 a month is a good goal for us.
M: So you’ve taken an unusual path in getting where you are right now. You’re a freelance musician, you play the handpans, you run your own business, and its so interesting to see all of that coexisting. If you had a student come up to you and asked about a career in music, knowing that a career in only performance may not be completely feasible, what skills would you advise them to learn?
S: Once you’re at the conservatory level for music, there are one of two routes- performance or education. Education is a great route to go, a route a lot of people take, and its something that I strongly considered either as a teacher at a grade school, privately, or at a higher education institution. It's certainly a way you can have more of a consistent and steady lifestyle and make a living through your music. That’s one way I’ve seen a lot of people continue to perform, but not feeling the pressure of making performance the only source of income. The world obviously always needs more music. It's very fulfilling because you’re giving someone else tools to better express themselves, and its a gift that keeps giving.
M: So beyond the teaching side of things, what skills do you think that were necessary for you to get where you are that are not music related?
S: I definitely think that networking, and an understanding of social media are a big part of it. If you’re not trying to be a gigging studio musician, but rather want to start your own band or make your own music, or go off the conservatory orchestral path, then you’re really your own business. You really have to make a name and a brand for yourself through stuff like social media.
S: Try new things, go outside of the box and don't hold back! Stay open to the thought that you don't know what you are supposed to be doing until you are doing it, but when it comes, take the opportunity and run with it. I've always followed my intuition even if it has come off as indescisive in the past. But it's brought me right to where I am through my extremely winding road of music. Explore it all.
M: Were there any resources that you found helpful while going through this transition yourself? For creating a brand for example, was there anything you read, were there people who you talked to, did you find this out from your friends, or did you just kind of do it and saw what worked?
S: I definitely consulted with a few people. For branding, figuring out what it is that you’re trying to do early to establish your brand early. Obviously things grow into new ways, and you need to be open to new ideas, but even before I started the indie-go-go campaign, or before I was public trying to do something new or different, I had gone and found a graphic designer that was also a web designer, and I found a videographer to find a very professional looking video for the indie-go-go. I think just making sure that out the gate everything you do is professional. I think a lot of people just start posting videos, but with how many people are doing that, its easy to get lost in the noise. Make a big splash at the start. Have an idea of where you’re going, or the core values of the company, or any of that is absolutely essential when it comes to an online presence. I see a lot of people that start off on a more amateur level, and its hard for them to shed that skin in a public setting.
M: That certainly makes sense. When you create a brand, people associate everything you post with that brand. If its amateur, its amateur. So, if someone wanted to order a handpan, or hear you play, or just kind of find out more about Hamsa, where would they find you?
S: I have a website at hamsahandpans.com and that website is predominately focused on the instruments I make, but there are links to my personal music page as well, which is just my name, StevanMorris.com.