Kids of Steel

4455044403_2892697999_o 2The Louisville Leopard Percussionists have made their name over two decades of teaching children about music and other life lessons, with a focus on kids 7-14 years old. But what happens to the kids after they age out? I asked Leopards instructor and assistant director Meg Samples to talk about the roots of their latest production, an album by smaller spin-off group Steel Leopards called “Steel Believin’”

Steel Leopards_3What’s different about the Steels vs. the “regular” group?

The main Louisville Leopard Percussionists range from grades second through sixth. In Steel, we take any graduating members of LLP that are interested in learning another percussion instrument, steel pans, and create this overflow group. We were seeing a lot of kids that still wanted to play and create music after sixth grade, so we decided to venture out into steel pans. We have grades sixth through ninth represented, right now, in Steel Leopards.

How much time do you spend working with them? Are they easier to teach than the younger Leopards, or is it a totally different approach?

The group rehearses once a week, on Sunday evenings, and all the members are incredibly self-sufficient when it comes to learning new pieces. We give them some basics on how and where to hit the pans, what mallets to use, and where all the notes are located. After that, they learn by ear, without sheet music, and we try to arrange all of our songs collectively. We, the instructors, ask things like, “Where do you want the song to go from here?” “Should someone play a solo here?” “How are we going to start this song?” and “How are we going to end it?” The Steel members already know so much from LLP about form, dynamics, scales, etc., that I really feel like it is easier for them to rehearse and learn new songs. This group runs itself. We, as instructors, are really there just to make sure no one loses an eye during the process.

This is the first Steel Leopards album, right? Whose idea was it?

Yes, this is their first album as a group, and the Steel Leopards only began four years ago. The members of the group have been wanting to record the songs they have been playing for a while, but this past year in particular, we had a group that was really driven to perfect their songs and put them on one album to have forever.

Steel Leopards_2Do band members ever write their own songs?

Definitely. All of the kids were part of the larger group before joining up with the Steel Leopards. While in LLP, we really encourage them to write their own songs, whether that is collectively or individually, and we end up performing them throughout the year. On the Steel album, “Steel Believin’” we don’t do any original recording, only covers and a few standards. But we hope to do some on future recordings.

How did you select Kevin Ratterman as the producer of the album? How did the kids feel about working in his studio?

Kevin Ratterman selected us! He is probably the most wonderful person in this city, or at least in the top five. He heard the Leopards rehearse one day, and came to us offering to record any of our projects. We immediately thought of the Steel Leopards group. We were beyond excited to get to record at La La Land with Kevin behind the controls. If you haven’t been there, it is seriously magical. The kids had an amazing experience being in such a great recording studio with a professional, and it made us all feel like our hard work as a group had really paid off.

We did all the songs in one day, all live, with everyone playing together in Kevin’s main space. We have a great group; the kids were professional and did several takes of each tune. We listened and chose the best take of each, and that was about it. Way easier than a lot of recordings I’ve worked on.