The Louisville Leopard Percussionists are kind of famous.
The lovable grade-school ensemble plays numerous events across the region. Social media videos of them covering rock classics have garnered millions of views, with the likes of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page proudly sharing. They appeared on Ozzy Osbourne’s A&E Network Show “Ozzy & Jack’s World Detour” and HBO’s film special “The Leopards Take Manhattan: The Little Band That Roared.”
But if you ask artistic director Diane Downs what impact the group has had through the years since she founded it in 1993, those brushes with fame don’t top the list. Instead, she prioritizes the smaller, personal conquests kids have enjoyed because of their participation. As an example, she remembers a girl who overcame stage fright to play her first solo on a jazz arrangement.
“That’s a major triumph when stuff like that happens,” Downs said. “All the notoriety and accolades are a great reward for the kids who’ve worked hard. But sometimes it’s the little things that happen inside these kids — when they change, and their confidence level changes, when they meet people who don’t look like them and make friends and like them — that’s the triumph. And that’s why we do it.”
As the Leopards have evolved through the years, with many ups, downs and bumpy transitions, a constant has been their connection to UofL. By providing space, mentorship and a next step in youths’ educations, the university has formally and informally supported the group’s growth over time.
Along with Downs, who earned her Rank 1 teaching certificate at UofL, several of the group’s leaders have Cardinal connections. Carly Rodman, a rising junior political science major, is the lead arranger and ensemble director for the beginner Leopards. Rising senior Sam Universe previously was an assistant director for the expansion group Leopards Lite. Alumni Meg Samples ’10 and Aaron Klausing ’10 were directors and musical arrangers with the group before moving out of the city; they still volunteer with the Leopards when they return to town.
Currently, the nonprofit has around 60 students in grades 2-9 who play music on percussion instruments through a unique but simple system. They learn a part and then, through listening and teamwork, bring the parts together to make a whole song. Almost none of the students — who come from nearly 50 schools across 30 ZIP codes – has a musical background.
Calling campus home
The Leopards began when Downs was pilfering through the closet looking for bulletin board paper at King Elementary where she taught second grade. There Downs found little instruments. Having had some music training, she took them back to the kids and promised that if they did well in their classwork, they could put on a concert.
“We played a PTA meeting, a nursing home, the mall and then it absolutely exploded from there. I never had any kind of intention on what to do or a plan; it just happened,” Downs said.
Downs has a natural ear and was a music major before switching to education, so she could break down songs to teach her students. But, her early methods were time consuming. A jazz pedagogy class with Jerry Tolson, jazz professor at UofL’s School of Music, helped her process enormously.
“He taught me the way I learn, which is different than most people,” she said. “He was wonderful. I learned so much.”
Leopards eventually transitioned from being a school-based group to a 501(c)(3). The group had some drums but needed more instruments and practice space. Tolson worked it out so the young students could practice in the School of Music’s Bird Recital Hall and found a closet in the music building the Leopards could use for storage. Greg Byrne, percussion professor, let the Leopards use the music school’s instruments until they acquired their own.
Months passed, and the group grew, got more instruments and needed more space. They hopped around until they settled in a building on Spalding University’s campus. While they’re no longer physically at UofL, the university is still a positive influence on the Leopards. Tolson has remained a steadfast friend of the organization and helps whenever needed. For example, he acted as a consultant when the group landed its HBO special, helping figure out what the network should tape.
“The mission calls to me,” Tolson said. “The experience the kids have with music forms a lifelong connection. Also, they develop personal skills — skills for everything in life really — the ability to function in society in a positive way, and socially, they meet people from all over, from different races, economic backgrounds. It’s an experience that has lasting effects.”
Downs and Tolson have forged lifelong relationships with numerous participants who’ve gone on to enroll at UofL’s School of Music and other universities. A few former Leopards have even enjoyed star-studded careers with artists including Childish Gambino.
“A lot of them have become really good humans — teachers and police officers and doctors,” Downs said. “I hear from our alumni all the time. They come back and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that when I was a kid.’”
Many former Leopards stay engaged, like Rodman, the ensemble director. The 22-year-old undergrad went to her older brother’s practices in utero and then a baby stroller. She joined as soon as she could as a second grader, but after she aged out, she and her friends didn’t want to quit, so they started the Leopards’ steel drums group for middle schoolers.
“This has been part of my whole life. The mission and the positivity of the community is absolutely amazing,” Rodman said. “I’ve seen the impact it has on the community and the kids and the happiness that it brings to people.”
When it came time to choose a college, UofL was a natural fit.
“I really love Louisville, wanted to stay close to home and to the Leopards,” Rodman said. “I heard great things about UofL’s political science program, so I was excited to be a Cardinal.”
Rodman, who has also served on several national political campaigns, says she someday wants to run for office and work to improve her home state. Her UofL classwork and her time with the Leopards helped prepare her for that challenge and, in turn, she became a role model for the Leopards who follow.
Improving the community and enriching lives is what Downs always hoped for the Leopards.
“I tell the kids all the time, ‘Look around you; pay attention to what’s going on,’ ” Downs said. ‘You’re going to grow up and you’re going to be the leaders of the world one day.’ ”