A couple of days ago, I watched the HBO documentary, "The Leopards Take Manhattan: The Little Band That Roared." The documentary follows the Louisville Leopard Percussionists from their rehearsals in Louisville, Kentucky, to their performance at the 2006 International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) conference in New York, where they opened for Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. Opening for Chick Corea at the IAJE conference would be an outstanding accomplishment for anyone, but it's even more remarkable when you consider that the Leopards are all children, ages 7-12!
Led by the award-winning elementary school teacher Diane Downs, the Louisville Leopard Percussionists group is comprised of about 45 children who perform jazz tunes on a variety of instruments including the marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, drum set, timbale, conga, bongo and piano. Before you read any further, listen to this audio clip of the Leopards playing Caravan iwasdoingallright - audio clip. Pretty good, eh? You might be thinking this is a super group of especially gifted children, but it isn't. They're just average kids with normal backgrounds, yet they've come together to create exceptional music thanks to the superb tutelage of Diane Downs.
The most fascinating part of the documentary, for me at least, wasn't what these children could play, but rather how they learned to play it. Following are some key points:
In the documentary, we watch as the students learn the swing classic, "Sing, Sing, Sing." Before doing anything, they sat down together and listened to a recording of the tune. This might not sound like a big deal to some of my readers, but it's definitely a big deal to me. In the eight years that I spent in middle school, high school, and college bands, I don't recall ever listening to a recording of a tune before trying to play it. And if it did happen, it certainly didn't happen more than once or twice.
Why is listening to a recording so important? It's simple: you can't capture music on paper. Take a swing rhythm, for example. Think of all the complex phrasing, accents, inflections, and other stylistic elements that go into a swing rhythm. You could try to squeeze all of that stuff onto a piece of paper, but if the person reading it hasn't ever heard a swing rhythm it won't sound right at all.
Since the Leopards always listen before trying to play music, they begin with a firm understanding of how the music should sound.
LEARNING BY EAR
The Louisville Leopard Percussionists don't use any written music. That's right, all of the music they play is learned by ear. In the documentary, Diane Downs echoes Suzuki's argument for learning by ear. The saying goes: just as people learn to talk before they learn to read, they should learn to play music (by ear) before they learn to read music. I certainly agree with this statement. I also believe that mainstream music education is teaching people how to read INSTEAD of teaching them how to play music, since most music students can't play anything unless it's written down. I don't want to get too carried away on that subject (read this ear training article for more), but I did find it refreshing to hear that the Leopards are learning music by ear. I think the result of that training speaks for itself.
EMPHASIS ON RHYTHM AND PHRASING
In my Learning to Improvise series, I discuss the importance of rhythm and phrasing in jazz improvisation. In short, without good rhythm and phrasing, any group of notes will sound boring and lifeless. While it might seem natural that a percussion group would have a better grasp on rhythm than your average middle or high school band, I believe the Leopards have a leg up due to the way that they learn rhythms. When learning rhythms, the Leopards sing their rhythms aloud, adding words to the rhythms so they internalize both the rhythm and the phrasing of those rhythms. Since they've all practiced the same rhythm and phrasing, they are more cohesive when it comes to group performance. Their emphasis on rhythm and phrasing also carries over to their improvised jazz solos. These young children have a better grasp on rhythm and phrasing than many of the students I've heard in college jazz programs!
PRIDE OF OWNERSHIP AND TEAMWORK
As stated on Diane's page of their website, Diane lets the children experiment and come up with their own parts. This gives them ownership of the music, which in turn helps them to care more about the program and each other. For instance, if one child is having trouble learning something, another will gladly help them to learn the part, offering positive reinforcement along the way. The children know that as a band, they're all in it together and every member is as important as the next. Clearly these children aren't just learning about music, they're also learning tremendously valuable lessons that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
I definitely encourage you to watch this documentary the next time it's aired, especially if you're involved in music education. With music programs shutting down left and right, it's inspiring to see what can still be done.
These clips aren't from the documentary, but they do give you some greater insight into the program.
The above clip is a promotional video for the Louisville Leopard Percussionists group.
This clip was shot by one of the Leopards' parents during their 2006 IAJE performance.