Hitting All the Right Notes

On one of the final balmy evenings of Louisville’s Indian summer, an awe-inspiring sound emanates from a nondescript building on the corner of Third and York. Notes from a legion of marimbas dance in the air as drum sounds start filling in the gaps. When one gets closer, an unmistakable melody emerges – “Back in Black” by legendary rock group AC/DC. But the musicians playing the song are not your typical rockers. Rather, they’re kids from 26 different zip codes and 48 different schools in Louisville. They are the Louisville Leopard Percussionists.

The Fabulous Leopard Percussionists were founded in 1993 when elementary school teacher Diane Downs discovered some percussion instruments in the supply closet of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary. Now known as The Louisville Leopard Percussionists, the organization has grown from an after-school passion project of Downs’, limited to her own school, to a city-wide group that became a nonprofit in 2003 with the aim of teaching kids throughout the Louisville Metro area the benefits of playing music.

TVT_4323In order to join and be accepted into the program, kids have to be aged between 6 and 14 and show a willingness to learn. Downs does not place emphasis on ability but rather on the desire each child has to embrace the music and be part of a team. In fact, in recent years, so many kids and parents have wanted to take part that Downs and her colleagues have had to create a new program – Leopards Lite – a less intense, once a week program that revolves around rehearsing one song. But one thing is for sure, it’s no less fun or beneficial. At the end of the day, kids are taught to work as a team and trust each other – only then will they be able to grow as musicians and as people. That’s the idea behind Louisville Leopard Percussionists.

“If the kid does not learn it from me,” say Downs, “they will learn it from another kid. If a kid is struggling, I tell the other kids to help them.” It’s this reason that at every performance, kids rotate at the front of the stage. In the mind of Downs, everyone needs to have a chance to shine because everyone has worked equally as hard toward making the piece of music the best as it can be.

“Everyone deserves their turn in the spotlight,” explains Downs. “When you come to one of our performances, I don’t want you to be able to tell who the talented kids are because everyone gets a turn here.”

group big gigAnd it’s the blistering performances that have earned the group plenty of acclaim. This year,Ozzy Osbourne donated $10,000 to the group after seeing the Leopards cover a Black Sabbath track. Led Zeppelin also posted a video of the Leopards covering one of their songs on the band’s Facebook page. Because of this public presence, the Leopards have only been moving closer and closer toward the spotlight.

Teaching music is only one facet of the Leopards. After all, what good is learning music if you don’t have anyone to perform for? Over the years, the Leopards have traveled far and wide, staging performances from New York to New Orleans. Recently, they were the opening act at a TEDx event in Kansas City. While this has provided a chance to show off the talents of the kids, it’s also enabled some to travel and see the world, to broaden their horizons and minds.

“Outside of Leopards I have barely traveled,” relates Brittany Lee, who has spent the majority of her life with the Leopards. She began as an original member of the group in Downs’ class at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary and now teaches three times a week at rehearsal. “With Leopards, I have been to New York, New Orleans. For some of these kids, it’s the only way to travel.”

Just ask Quincy Robinson, a student at DuPont Manual High School and an aspiring saxophone player who got his musical bearings at the Leopards. His mother convinced him to give up piano lessons and Cub Scouts to take a chance on something new and exciting.

“I remember traveling to New Orleans, eating beignets and drinking coffee and being in the center of jazz. Music changes lives and changes them for the better.” Robinson, now 16, recently left the Leopards but, like hundreds of others, is indebted to what the program has given him and wants to pursue music professionally.

“It had a huge impact on my life,” adds Robinson. “Some of these kids are going to go on from here and do something big. Hannah Ford, who used to be in the Leopards is now Prince’s drummer … it’s awesome to look back, watch the Leopards perform, think that I used to be on that stage and know that one of those kids might do something big too.”

One Leopards alum is Dani Markham, a professional drummer and member of acclaimed band Tune-Yards. Markham has lived and performed around the country but comes back every summer to teach a summer camp and arrange a song for the kids to perform.

“I definitely owe everything I do to the Leopards and to Diane,” contends Markham. “She inspired me to want to do music, and she made me love music. I don’t think I could ever repay her, but it’s why I keep coming back each summer. Diane is cool to be around; she’s just a great person. But I love being around these kids, and they inspire me.”

Aside from providing a musical education though and giving children  the chance to travel around the country, the Leopards are also a place to bond and make lifelong friends. Kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds and schools get to mix together, laugh together and build relationships that sometimes are based on having the freedom to be different.

“Some kids are quiet; some are loud and all that matters is that they work well together and they like learning to play music,” concludes Markham.

Adds Lee: “I don’t know what my life would have been like without the Leopards. I know that there are some kids who come through the Leopards who I know just need this. They don’t have a wonderful environment outside of this, but when they come here, they get to let loose and not worry about the heavy stuff they have to worry about at home. It’s an escape for some of these kids. I always say that this is the place where the weird kids come to feel normal.”

Presently, though, the Leopards are facing a big challenge – to find a new space for their rehearsals. With the current building for sale, they will soon be in need of some new digs.

In the meantime, Downs and her fellow teachers will keep spreading the Leopards message: that music is fun, is something to be embraced and is an endless land of discovery. Or as young member Brando Taylor – who has been with the Leopards for only a few months – puts it:

Toby“I like playing music because it can be really creative,” he exclaims. “It’s basically like drawing but with sound.” The Louisville Leopard Percussionists plan on drawing some stunning pictures for many years to come, but for the kids, it might be years later that they realize that picture is even richer than they ever realized.

“The simple stuff is that we’re learning how to play the music together, but that’s not the message of the group,” concludes Downs. “This music we’re playing and how we learn to play it, it’s about real life. When you pick something and work really hard to make your part good, you also make sure that the people around you are also good because that makes your part stronger. You go out and present it, and then you’re rewarded for it. When you get out into the real world and you have to work on something, you present the best work possible, and then you get your rewards. That’s real life.”

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS & SCOTT DUTHIE