Shaftesbury Handpan Sessions Promise An Emotional Experience

Steve ‘Highhawk’ Cloudsong has toured the Southwest for the past three years, playing his Native American flute and a newer instrument, the handpan or hangdrum.

ThisIsAlfred’s Keri Jones attended the first of three Shaftesbury events where Steve promised to help people achieve a relaxed ‘alpha’ state of mind and ‘connect on a higher level’ after experiencing this sound therapy.

It is a relatively new complementary practice. There hasn’t been much scientific research in this area yet, but followers believe that every part of the human body vibrates to a specific frequency. They say that if your body is ‘off-tune’, you will feel out-of-sorts. But you can restore your ‘balance’ by listening to sounds that resonate on certain frequencies.

Steve ‘Highhawk’ Cloudsong

The handpans vibrate and Steve says the music always brings a reaction from his guests. “They can be really emotional, or they are completely wiped out and it takes them ages to wake up, because they’ve been asleep,” said Steve.

As I walked through the doors of the Royal British Legion on Coppice Street, Steve’s enchanting, ethereal music filled the hall space. He was warming up, before his guests arrived.

Steve’s set up was more like that of club DJ. He was standing next to a mixing desk. The handpans, which resembled Saxon shields or maybe upturned woks, were positioned at Steve’s waist height on stands. Microphones leaned out on their metal arms, over the handpans, to amplify their sound and increase the level of vibration.

Steve has three handpans currently. He wants to have seven. That’s because ancient meditation practices refer to chakras, the focal points in the body. There are said to be seven chakras and Steve wants one pan tuned to vibrate to each chakra.

Whether you believe in the theory or not, you can’t deny Steve’s musical skills. I noticed how his finger was quickly tapping the large discs at the speed of a fast touch typist. “I am lightly touching the pans. There is a technique to it. I never hit the metal instrument. A very good light flick, depending on what type of part of the finger that I touch it with, creates the different sound. The tips of the fingers are great for the soft sound,” said Steve.

“I do get the public to come and have a go just to see how difficult they are to play,” Steve added, as he encouraged me to try. It was it really difficult. I was using what I first thought would be appropriate pressure, but I quickly learned that it was lifting my finger up from the pan that made the music, rather than striking it. “You need to feel the force coming off, rather than coming down on the pans,” said Steve. “Spring your hand off it quickly,” he instructed.

A handpan

The tone of the instrument sounded Eastern and slightly Oriental. So, I was surprised to hear that the pans originated in Switzerland as recently as the early 2000s.

Steve’s musicianship is influenced by many different cultures. He learned to play the Native American flute and African drums before he picked up the handpans. “There are lots of African rhythm patterns in my head, but it’s a combination like a jigsaw puzzle, putting them all together,” he explained.

Steve wasn’t considered musical in school and he doesn’t read music. He says that his playing is guided by the energy given off by the people who attend his sessions. “They’re just resonating energy, like mobile phones. I will pick up on, and read, that emotion. I’m an emotional human being so I play to the emotion, whether within me or, preferably, to an audience,” he said. This means that every performance is different.

Steve picked up his Native American flute. He started playing the rich, deep and haunting notes but he added a technological trick to enhance the impact of the music. By pressing a foot pedal, he started playback of the atmospheric sound of waves crashing on a beach. The resulting effect was calming and dreamlike, but Steve says his music can change in speed and mood.

“I can play up to 180 beats a minute on these pans, for a quite considerable length of time. The volume goes up and down just like our voices, depending on what mood we are in. I play the pans and the flutes exactly the same way.”

On the floor, below the hand pans, a row of bottles was lined up. Steve sells ‘energised vibrational water’ and believes that it offers special qualities when the liquid has vibrated from the handpan playback. “It’s been proved that playing through the water changes the molecular structure of water, so my music will generate that,” he says.

Steve’s guests would soon be arriving, and they have been briefed on how to prepare for relaxation. “I’ve asked them to bring their blankets and their yoga mats because they literally lie on the floor. If people come closer to me, they will get more of the vibration from the pans and it has more effect, from what I gather. They will just lie on the floor and relax. It’s time for them,” said Steve.

Steve sometimes plays in one-to-one sessions. “I play the pans for somebody just sitting in front of me, and it’s a very personal thing because there’s less energy in the room – there is only mine and hers. So, then I will pick up on hers and read it and play it. Sometimes people say, ‘that’s lovely and beautiful’. Not many say otherwise, but when they do, it’s because there’s something within that chakra they’ve got to work out or balance.”

We finished chatting and I prepared to leave before the first paying guests arrived. Some attendees become so relaxed, they drift off during the session, but Steve doesn’t mind. He can sense when his playing has made a connection with someone. “If they’re slow in waking up from what I’ve played, and no words are said when I finish, then that’s enough for me. I don’t need any more words, do I?”

Steve’s next Shaftesbury events are on 13th June and 11th July at the Royal British Legion Hall. Doors open at 7pm and the evening starts at 7.30pm. You can pay the £15 fee on the door. Email with questions.