The Louisville Leopard Percussionists Students, Instructors & Alum Talk About Life-Long Impact of the Program
Writer / Shannon Siders
Musicians from Louisville have shot to the national spotlight before, but the latest group to experience viral success and the attention of iconic rockers Ozzy Osbourne and Jimmy Page are a percussion performing ensemble comprised of students in second through ninth grade.
The Louisville Leopard Percussionists had an exciting 2018 that included playing the local stage at Forecastle and performing their cover of “Crazy Train” live for Osbourne, a performance that was later included in an episode of his A&E show “Ozzy & Jack’s World Detour.”
Diane Downs was a teacher at King Elementary when she launched the Leopards in 1993. Downs had a background in music, but the Leopards came about largely by accident.
“I was looking for bulletin board paper in a closet, and saw a stack of instruments,” she says. “I looked at them for a minute, and said, ‘I can do something with this.’”
Downs and her students moved the instruments into their classroom and formed the Fabulous Leopard Percussionists. The group played their first gig at a PTA meeting, then went on to perform at a nursing home and the mall.
“It snowballed,” Downs says. “I never had the idea that I was going to start a children’s percussion ensemble, it just fell right in my lap.”
Downs directed the Fabulous Leopard Percussionists for 10 years before officially creating The Louisville Leopard Percussionists, a non-profit, community-based group. In November 2017, the group moved into a new rehearsal space just south of downtown that they rent from Spalding University.
The building buzzed with excitement during rehearsal one night last August. The young musicians were wrapping up one of their first practices of the school year, and by the looks and sounds of things, having a lot of fun. Laughter and chatter filled the space between pieces, but it was obvious these kids were here to work.
“You don’t want to yell at them and beat all the fun out of it,” Downs says. “Once the kids have had their first gig they understand why we work so hard. When good things happen to them because they work hard, that motivates them to work even harder.”
As an instructor, Downs draws from her own experience. Her mom was a bluegrass musician, and when Downs brought home a registration sheet for the school band when she was in fourth grade, her mom’s question was not if she wanted to join but what instrument she wanted to play. From that point forward, Downs was a staple in school band, learning to play just about every instrument. She didn’t read music well, so she would listen to the person next to her play a piece, then repeat it back to them.
“That’s why we teach the Leopards like we do,” Downs says. “We don’t rely on hearing music, we rely on feeling.”
Many of The Leopards join their respective school’s bands and have successfully picked up new instruments.
“Once the children get to band in middle school, they don’t struggle with reading music because they know how to feel it,” Downs says. “They can tell if they’re hearing the wrong note, because they’re used to using their ears.”
There are three levels within The Leopards: a beginners group and an advanced group of second through sixth graders, and The Steel Leopards, seventh through ninth graders who graduated from the main program. Each group puts in at least a few hours of rehearsal time every week during the school year.
Considering the time commitment and prestige of the program, it would make sense for The Leopards to search for the best and brightest musical talent in the city. Downs and her team take a different approach.
“We’re not necessarily looking for the most talented kids we can find, we’re looking for the kids who are interested and have a certain level of maturity,” Downs says. “I’d rather have a bunch of good group members than stars.”
Members of the performance groups are chosen from The Leopards’ summer camp by students who are graduating from the program. Kids get in for different reasons, often not tied to their musical ability.
“We can teach them how to play,” Downs says. “They have to start somewhere.”
Students are typically accepted into The Leopards when they’re in second grade, and there is a cap of 10 students per grade. The 2018-2019 group features 20 beginners, 28 advanced and 19 Steel Leopards to round out the 67-member performance ensemble. The Leopards come from 49 different schools and 33 zip codes in the Louisville area, culturing an environment of diversity and acceptance.
“We teach them to be good to each other and be kind,” Downs says. “We want to teach them the beauty of everybody. It’s a comfortable place for these kids to be as weird as they want, and it’s okay. Nobody is going to judge them.”
Fifth-grader Asa Spears, a purple-haired percussionist with a shy smile, admits he was anxious at the thought of joining The Leopards four years ago. That anxiety quickly gave way to excitement.
“If I have a rough day at school, coming here is a lot of fun,” he says, flashing a thumbs up. “Playing music makes me happy.”
Sixth-grader Sami Fouts joined The Leopards after one of her friends told her about it. Her mom is a big Ozzy fan, which made the “Crazy Train” performance even more memorable.
“I was excited, not scared,” Fouts says. “But it was my first time performing in front of someone who made the song.”
Spears and Fouts both say being in The Leopards has taught them a lot about responsibility and being accountable.
“The Leopards helps you be more responsible because you have to work with so many people,” Fouts says. “You have to get over it if you don’t like somebody because you have to work right next to them.”
The Leopards overwhelmingly seem to agree the instructors are one of their favorite parts of the program.
“They’re really funny,” says sixth-grader Annika Gordon. “If we had different teachers, it might be boring.”
The legacy of The Leopards is strong, and many alumni have returned to help the program as instructors and volunteers.
Carly Rodman was practically born into The Leopards. Her brother Andy was in the program when she was a baby, and their mom would pack the family minivan full of gear to haul to shows. Rodman, now 21 years old, joined The Leopards when she was in second grade. She loved the experience so much that she and her fellow Leopards fueled an expansion of the program in 2009.
“My graduating class didn’t want to leave, so we convinced Diane to get a grant to buy steel drums so we could stay,” Rodman says.
After graduating from the Steel Leopards, Rodman began to volunteer at summer camp and rehearsals. She became an official staff member after graduating from high school, as an ensemble director.
“Being born into this positive family environment means so much to me,” Rodman says. “It has definitely molded who I am today.”
Although she has other interests, and is studying political science and anthropology at the University of Louisville, Rodman says music is her, “number one most beloved thing.” Aside from being a creative outlet, The Leopards helped her gain courage and confidence and has allowed her to make a difference in the lives of other young, budding musicians.
“I think the biggest thing is the opportunity The Leopards brings to travel, to play with amazing musicians and to have that experience as a young kid,” Rodman says, who opened for My Morning Jacket at Waterfront Park when she was a Leopard. “Arts programs in school aren’t as good as they used to be, so giving them an artistic experience means everything.”
Percussionist Dani Markham, who was a touring member for Grammy-winner Childish Gambino and has played all around the world, got her start with The Leopards when she was eight years old.
“Dani had that drive, she had something in her that I knew she was going to make it,” Downs says. “She did it all right. She’s educated, and she’s playing music as her job.”
Markham returns to help with camp and rehearsals as her schedule allows.
Professional musician Mark Charles Heidinger of Vandaveer, whose eight-year-old son Nika is in his second year with The Leopards, also gives his stamp of approval for the program.
“This has become central to Nika’s budding identity. “He wants to be a musician when he grows up, despite all my warnings,” he says laughing.
The Leopards has quickly blossomed into Nika’s favorite activity, and Heidinger said Nika is eager to practice without being asked. He appreciates the approach Downs and her team takes in teaching music to The Leopards and educating them on music history and transformational artists.
“It’s not stuffy,” Heidinger says. “It doesn’t feel like work, like a typical music lesson might feel to an eight-year-old.”
Heidinger says he and his wife get just as excited for the performances as Nika does and have enjoyed seeing the continuing legacy of the program.
“When our program is validated by real musicians, it really does mean something to me,” Downs says. “It’s an honor that someone the caliber of Mark Charles Heidinger is going to drop his kid off with us.”
You can catch The Louisville Leopard Percussionists live at their annual BiG GiG on Sunday, March 24, at the Brown Theater. For more information, visit louisvilleleopardpercussionists.com.