Steve Werner is a multi-instrumentalist and Scranton native. He plays the handpan among many other instruments. A graduate of West Scranton High School, Werner studied human development and family studies at Lackawanna College and Penn State Worthington. He is employed by Keystone Community Resources and works as a vocational job coach. He lives in Scranton.
Meet Steve Werner…
What do you do at Keystone Community Resources?
Basically what we do is we work with kids with disabilities and we give them job training, so whatever they’re interested (in), we just show them around and give them experience.
What is your musical background?
I started playing in middle school, because they offered band class. They just asked me what I wanted to play, so it was the drums. I was probably the worst one in the class. I didn’t get it for a while, and then it just kind of clicked. I’ve been playing ever since.
What other instruments do you play?
When I was about 18, I started playing guitar, and I did both (guitar and drums) for a while. With drums, I played more rock music; with the guitar, I liked classical music better, so I started to learn how to do that.
Can you compare playing solo, in a duo and in a group?
I love being a solo artist because I can just do whatever I want when I want. I get to do different kinds of gigs; with the handpan and the solo stuff I do, the music is more mindful. I do stuff for yoga, meditation. I just got done doing something in the ICU at Geisinger Hospital. I take it to schools where there are people with disabilities and play for the kids and in nursing homes. I really enjoy doing that as opposed to playing in bars all the time.
Many people have probably seen you playing the handpan. What exactly is that, and can you give some background on it?
Basically it has anywhere from eight to 18 notes. Mine has nine. It’s in a circle, and it’s a key. Mine is in D minor. It starts with the base note on top, and from there it goes around through the whole scale. They’re made by hand, so each one takes a while to make. Most people have to be on a waiting list to get one. I think it took me eight months to get mine from the day I ordered it. Some people wait even longer than that. They wait years. Just because you want one doesn’t mean someone is going to make you one.
How did you get into playing this unusual instrument?
I had back surgery in 2013. I had a lot of nerve damage in my leg and foot. The doctors didn’t know how much use I was going to have. I started (looking for) drums I could play with my hands because I didn’t know if it was going to work to be able to play drums (and tap) with my foot. I looked around, and this popped up. They’re hard to get. Mine is from Germany. I had to write this guy a letter. I knew nothing about him, nothing about these drums; he could have been a scam, but I wanted it so badly. That’s what I did, and it worked out.
What is the music program at Geisinger you were recently a part of?
It’s a county program run by Maureen McGuigan. It’s called Arts Heal. I play music in the ICU. I couldn’t really talk to the patients, but the families gave me a lot of feedback. They said it’s very soothing to hear the music. The doctors and nurses came up to me; they said it’s really helpful because it drowns out the background noises and beeping in the hospital. It’s really nice.
What thoughts or emotions do you have while playing around people in places such as the ICU and hospice?
You definitely want to play with more of an intention to relax people or calm someone down. Families don’t always get the best news. You want to go in there and have a lighter touch to everything. I’m really glad the county does it. It blends the two things that I do. I’m really only good at two things, and they’re my two passions, so to be able to combine them like this, I’m really grateful.
Talk about your recently released solo album.
It’s called “Incantation.” It’s got nine songs and has the handpan on it. It’s focused around the handpan, but it has some other instruments. I use a lot of acoustic instruments; I play the acoustic guitar, I have somebody play the piano, I have a cello player. I kind of blend electronic sounds into it. It’s kind of natural sounds of music versus the scientific side of music.
How would you describe your own style as a musician?
I sent (the album) out to a bunch of industry professionals just to get an idea of what I was working with. A lot of them said it’s kind of in the ambient, new age (genre), but it’s kind of its own niche too. I would classify it as new age music, but it also has its own unique sound to it.
Who are your musical influences?
A woman named Loreena McKennitt, she’s a Celtic world music artist. She’s from Canada, and Tori Amos, I’m a huge fan, that’s probably my biggest one. I really like the band REM and Led Zeppelin.
What has been your most memorable music experience?
Definitely going to see Tori Amos was really cool. As far as performing, the ones I get the most out of are the ones playing for the disabled children. I really like that stuff more than everything else I do.
What is something that sticks out about the NEPA music community?
This is the best community. Everybody is so tight; there is no competition, and everybody is supportive of each other. We share musicians and bands and bounce back and forth. It’s like one big family. It’s great. We promote each others’ bands, we play on each other’s albums, we get shows together, we’ll help people get shows out of the area. It’s just everything.
What is something being a musician has taught you?
I had a teacher when I started playing in sixth grade. When I was having trouble, he told me 90 percent of music is listening. I kind of took that and put it to everything else in life and just listened to what people say and take everything in before I act or open my mouth. I’d definitely say listening is the most important thing.
What are some of your hobbies outside of music?
I really like football; I like the Eagles. I like going to baseball games. I don’t like watching baseball games because that’s boring to me, but going to baseball games is really fun. I’ve always watched it on TV, but then I went to a Phillies game a few years and thought, “This is fun,” and people get rowdy and stuff, so I really like watching baseball live.
Have you had a moment or time in your life that helped shape you into who you are today?
Definitely working in the field that I work in made me grow really fast. In my field, you see a lot of bad things every day, so it kind of gives you a perspective on how things are. I started doing that when I was around 20 for a college internship and just stuck with it.
Photos by Emma Black