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Ear candy and sound healing: Meet the Saraz Handpan

Taking up a soothing musical instrument like the handpan may just be the perfect way to start or enhance a self-care routine.

A peek inside the workshop of Saraz Handpans

People often say that handpans look like little UFOs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The first time I heard handpan music was when I stumbled randomly upon a YouTube video of a performance by a duo called Hang Massive. A couple of guys played metal drums that looked like UFOs, producing a sound so magical that the recording had racked up almost 50 million views.

After hearing just a minute of these ethereal tones, I was hooked. What on Earth was this instrument, and how had I never seen or heard of it before? More importantly, where could I buy one? The sound was enchanting -- resonant, mysterious and soothing. And it looked as if, provided one had rhythm and decent dexterity, it might not be a difficult instrument to learn.

Finding handpans

I dove down the rabbit hole and learned that handpans were originally developed in 2000 by a Swiss steel drum company called PANart. By the late aughts the small company's original Hang drum model was in such high demand that hopeful buyers were sending it essays about why they wanted one so much. Some had waited years and months to buy one, if they'd even received an invitation to do so at all. 

Though PANart has ceased production of their original Hang years ago -- it now sells a reimagined instrument design -- some occasionally sell on Ebay for upwards of $10,000 a pop. As the sensation swept Europe other manufacturers developed their own instruments based on the concept and there are a few US companies who've developed incredible handpans, amassing a following of enthusiastic players. 

One of the longest running is Saraz, based in Swannanoa, North Carolina, just outside of Asheville. When I found myself working and living there during the coronavirus pandemic, I contacted Mark Garner, Saraz's founder and maker. He agreed to let me visit and shoot a slideshow demonstrating how he and his team create these intriguing modern instruments. It was fascinating to see how much craftsmanship goes into building each Saraz Hand Pan (the company refers to the instrument with two words), and to hear what makes these instruments so special.

Finding a key

According to Garner, handpans have mass appeal for several reasons: Firstly, each one is tuned to have a set of notes within a certain key, or one scale (more on that in a minute). That means a first-time player won't sound like they're screwing up since there's really no chance of playing the "wrong" notes. Anyone can enjoy improvising on the instrument once they get the hang of striking it gently with their fingers to produce its resonant tones. It's easy to perfect your techniques and grow as a player. 

Saraz's custom hand-crafted models, which sell for around $3,000 or more (depending on material style and number of notes chosen), add even more of a bell-like quality. This gives them a superior sound from the cheaper "steel tongue drums" or imitation models you might see on Amazon. Saraz's handpans can also have several other "shoulder tones" tuned into each note. Those are harmonic notes, or other "frequencies" of sound. Garner says the instrument sounds so magical because it's presenting the most simplified frequency ratio possible. Any time a note is struck, you hear a fundamental, an octave and a compound fifth. This sort of music theory went over my head, but this chart from Saraz's website helped me make sense of the frequencies and ratios:

handpan-tuning-fundamental-octave-and-compound-5th-600x294
Saraz

Garner has dedicated the last decade of his life to developing his building and tuning processes, spending way over the 10,000 hours it's said to require to master any skill. He estimates that less than 10% of today's handpan-makers are able to tune the elusive "shoulder tones" on their instruments, making Saraz's models comparatively rare and sought-after.  

With proper care and appropriate playing techniques, Garner says his instruments stay in tune for several years, if not longer. Customers can send him their instruments for retuning when needed, as well. Will he tune the cheap handpan you bought on Amazon? Nope, and nobody else will either, so save yourself the headache and save up for a quality instrument if it's captured your imagination. 

A peek inside the workshop of Saraz Handpans

Mark Garner, founder of Saraz, uses a hammer to fine tune the dimples in his steel instruments, creating sought after "shoulder tones"that make their sound so special.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Since March, when lockdowns, layoffs and working-from-home swept the world, Mark says orders for his instruments have increased by 60%. I truly can't think of a more soothing thing to incorporate into your self-care routine during these stressful times. Playing can be a relaxing outlet for emotional expression and a kinetic form of meditation or sound healing. Rob Jacoby, a therapist in AshevilleRob, regularly uses handpans with his patients. He's interviewed here in Saraz's fascinating new short film series, More Than Music.

Choosing and playing 

Suppose you're sold on the handpan and you're desperate to obtain one. You've saved up, and you want to invest in a hobby that will change your life and enhance your health and wellness. You'll have to choose which musical scale you want to play in. Handpans can be made with almost any notes, so for a person with limited musical knowledge, this is an intimidating choice. 

The most popular handpan scale is by far the D Minor, but there are a ton of options available. As it's a major investment, you don't want to pick something you won't absolutely love. Saraz suggests choosing a scale that "speaks to your heart, your emotions, and your spirit." If you need more guidance, this page goes into detail about various considerations. Handpan musician David Charrier has some great advice here. The handpan makers at Pantheon Steel have an online virtual player, which allows you to play notes on various models. The naming system was confusing because it doesn't reference the scales directly, but it lists the notes included in its various models.

A peek inside the workshop of Saraz Handpans

Garner demonstrates playing technique on one of his handpans. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Your next challenge will be learning to play! Teachers are hard to come by and they were in great demand even before COVID-19 shifted so many of our interactions to online spaces. Handpan gurus such as Charrier were pioneers in online education, which is how they've spread their techniques to fledgling players around the world. Check out Master The Handpan, which begins with a free beginner-level series of lessons. Once you're more confident, you might try one of the paid masterclasses Charrier recorded with a slew of the world's most renowned players. 

If you're an introvert like me, you might prefer to practice in privacy anyway. The nice thing about video lessons is you can do them at your leisure and rewatch lessons until you've got the hang of a particular exercise. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.