Made by hand: CMU percussion student finds opportunity, inspiration with handpan
Hearing a handpan for the first time is rather like spotting Superman flying through the sky.
Is it a bird? Is it a steelpan? Is it some kind of ethereal-sounding cajón/flute shaped like an alien saucer?
Nope, it’s a handpan, originally dubbed “hang” by its Swiss creators nearly 20 years ago — “hang” means “hand” in Bernese German and its pronunciation is similar to the English word “hung.”
Mark D’Ambrosio was a high schooler when he first heard a handpan at a Hang Massive concert in Boulder.
“It really changed my life,” D’Ambrosio said.
He even had the nerve to ask to play Hang Massive’s Danny Cudd’s handpan. Cudd, half of the Hang Massive’s hang-playing duo, said yes, which was a big deal considering handpans aren’t easily replaced, D’Ambrosio said.
So D’Ambrosio likes to say, “the handpan found me. I didn’t find it ... I think it is a relationship that was always meant to be.”
D’Ambrosio, 22, is a senior at Colorado Mesa University studying percussion performance.
He has played the drum set since he was 10, and as part of his studies and as a percussion member of the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra, he plays all kinds of percussion instruments: timpani, cymbals, triangle, djembe, tambourine, snare drum, glockenspiel, marimba and others.
“I probably play 10 instruments a day,” he said.
Add to that the handpan, which isn’t a classically taught percussion instrument, yet.
“I am older than the handpan,” said D’Ambrosio, who tracked down his first handpan and became serious about figuring out how to play it about four years ago.
“He is extremely talented and creative,” said Darin Kamstra, director of jazz studies and percussion in the music department at CMU and principal percussionist with the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra.
D’Ambrosio is “always very curious and interested in learning new things and improving his skills,” Kamstra said.
And D’Ambrosio has a lot of ideas and projects, among them is helping to organize the Steel Mountain Handpan Gathering (steelmountaingathering.com) set for Sept. 28 through Oct. 1 in Dolores.
It’s already sold out — there are handpan players coming from Canada, Brazil, Hawaii and elsewhere, D’Ambrosio said — and has a waiting list.
The headliners are Peter Levitov (peterlevitov.com) from North Carolina, Philippe Gagné (philippegagne.bandcamp.com) from Québec, Canada, and Dan Mulqueen (danmulqueen.com) from New Jersey.
Fortunately, there are a couple other opportunities coming up to see D’Ambrosio and two of the gathering’s headliners perform.
D’Ambrosio and Gagné will perform on Sept. 23 at The Sherbino Theater in Ridgway. This concert will be recorded and filmed.
A second show, “Sounds of the Handpan,” is planned for Sept. 27 at Cavalcade in Fruita. D’Ambrosio, Gagné and Mulqueen will play.
“The stuff that Philippe and Dan do puts me to shame,” D’Ambrosio said.
But D’Ambrosio is enthusiastic to be part of the driving force guiding this new art form, the handpan.
When D’Ambrosio first picked up the handpan, there was no standard model for learning to play. No books. A few online videos. D’Ambrosio experimented and learned “there is really not one way to do anything,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to be your ultimate creative self.”
His attitude and increasing skill on the handpan opened the world to him.
“It’s completely changed my life,” he said. “It’s like a little steel passport.”
One of the most recent opportunities D’Ambrosio has been given was being one of a dozen student percussionists selected from around the world for the World Percussion Group 2017 European Tour in May and June.
The tour is organized by Maraca2, the name for the well-known U.K. percussion duo of Tim Palmer and Jason Huxtable, which has performed at CMU and brought the previous World Percussion Group tour through Grand Junction in 2016.
On the 2017 tour, D’Ambrosio and the other students gave clinics and performances at universities and music conservatories across Europe and received coaching from Maraca2 as well as a guest coach. To top it off, they traveled via cruise ship.
It was a weird feeling waking up each morning and having to ask what country you’re in, D’Ambrosio said.
He also was amazed at the caliber of percussionists on the tour: Cameron Leach, who is getting his master’s degree at Eastman School of Music in New York; and Samuel Chan from Hong Kong, who is studying at The Juilliard School in New York; and so on.
It was an honor to be on stage with, much less performing with and, afterward, hanging out with percussionists he has admired, “going from contemporaries with these people, to friends,” D’Ambrosio said.
Following the tour, D’Ambrosio attended HangOut USA, an annual gathering for handpan players and held near Asheville, North Carolina.
From there, it was back to Grand Junction and CMU, the plans for the Steel Mountain Handpan Gathering and a few other projects.
He’s working on a new album titled “Bird of Paradise” with at least eight tracks and expects it to be released in the spring.
His past music releases can be found and downloaded at markdambrosiomusic.com.
He also is creating a type of tablature for handpan that any player can read and that can be used with any handpan, of which no two are completely alike, he said.
His goal is to create something others will want to use, a standard that will allow the art form to grow.
“It is cool to be able to have this unique thing,” D’Ambrosio said of playing the handpan. “But I’d like to see a world where it’s as common as the guitar.”