Success Strategies of the Louisville Leopard Percussionists

Harry Pickens

Acclaimed jazz pianist, educator, and community activist Harry Pickens wrote a paper in 2006 in which he outlined the unique aspects of Diane Downs’s teaching methods and style that serve to create the amazing results we see from the Leopards. Below is an edited summary.

Mr. Pickens has noted seven principles inherent in Diane’s work that contribute to the remarkable achievements of the Leopards. Each can be applied to help children fulfill their potentials in any domain, subject, or area of study.

1.    Flower In The Seed.  The talent is already in the child – it just requires an environment that will allow it to grow, blossom, develop. Leopards are chosen, not based on demonstrated talent, but based on attitude and temperament.

2.    Only We.  Adults and children are equals. Adults have been around a while longer, but they aren’t inherently smarter or wiser.  There’s no sense of us and them (adult/child; black/white; older/younger; professional/amateur) – only an all-embracing ‘WE’.  Leopards are respected and treated as equal partners in the creative process.

3.    Can You Feel The Love?  The learning environment overflows with positive emotions: enthusiasm, excitement, exuberance, discovery, delight, the thrill of accomplishment.  The process of improvisation creates ‘positive stress’ that keeps the children challenged (within the context of emotional safety).  Children form strong bonds (with one another and with Diane and the other leader/mentors) both within and outside of the performance/rehearsal context.  The environment is appreciative and encouraging, building on the children’s strengths.

4.    Everybody Matters. Everyone – without exception – has a part to play.  No one is left out – ever.  Beginners may have simpler parts, but they play right alongside those more advanced.  Younger and less experienced children are given roles commensurate with their current abilities (This parallels how drumming is ‘taught and caught’ in traditional African villages; where the youngest children play simple parts that increase in complexity as they become older and more skilled; everyone participates all the time).

5.    The Children In Charge.  Much of the ‘curriculum’ emerges organically from the children’s interests and passions.  The adults (including Diane) see their job as one of guiding, cultivating, coaching, and empowering the kids, rather than authoritatively imposing a fixed ‘we know better than you, so do as we say’ set of learning tasks.  The children write new songs (with assistance from the youth and adults).  They help to choose the songs performed.  They set up and clean up.  They take turns as master/mistress of ceremonies during their gigs.

6.    Each One Teach One.  Every child is a learner, a teacher, a teammate, and a coach.  The children constantly help one
another.  The older children mentor the younger; the more musically gifted help those whose talents are not so well developed yet.  At least as much (or more) teaching and learning goes on peer to peer than adult to child.

7.    Play – With A Purpose.  Play, fun, creativity, and improvisation are an intrinsic part of every rehearsal and performance.  Improvisation provides a synthesis of discipline and spontaneity.  Performance provides ongoing challenge, increases group bonding (and feeling of being special) plus consistent opportunities to share collective accomplishments with the public.

Report Copyright 2006 Harry Pickens. Reproduced by permission.