Playing It by Ear
|Eleven years ago, teacher Diane Downs stumbled across a set of percussion instruments in a storage closet and launched what would become a renowned children's musical ensemble.|
The "lawn mower story" is something Diane Downs half-jokingly asks her students not to repeat to grown-ups because, she says, "it might get me fired." But during a three-day period in mid-May, the music teacher at Norton Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky, told the story twice: first to a 5th grade class; then, two days later, to the Louisville Leopard Percussionists—the nonprofit, community-based music ensemble she runs, along with a board of parent volunteers, out of the University of Louisville. The first time, she told the "long" version, a 10-minute account of an incident that occurred when she was a kid. But the second time, Downs kept the story short, seeing as the 45 or so 7- to 12-year-olds gathered round her were due to perform for a crowd of 300 just as soon as two of the group’s veterans—known as "Dino" and "Snake"—showed up.
All the kids from her rural Louisville neighborhood were out that day, she recalled, preparing their friend Keith for a ride in a bucket down a mudslide and into a creek. Suddenly, Mr. C, who’d been cutting his lawn just after a rainstorm, reached under the mower to unclog it. "Can you imagine what happened?" asked the 41-year-old Downs. "Whack-whack-whack—three fingers shooting out in the yard."
While neighbors whisked Mr. C inside to prepare him for a trip to the hospital, Anne Downs, Diane’s mother and a registered nurse, told the barefoot kids to scour his lawn. The first finger was found by Diane’s older brother, Paul, now 42 and a longtime Leopards supporter, who was standing backstage, verifying the story’s authenticity. Another was found by Becky, the neighborhood priss, who refused to pick it up. So Diane did, begrudgingly giving Becky credit for finding it. But the last finger, still missing as Mr. C was driven to the hospital—where was it?
"This part of the story, she’s in her own world," Paul whispered. Translation: She’s making the rest up. Diane told the kids that Augie Dog—a feisty black mutt who actually didn’t enter her life until she was about 20—grabbed the last finger and, after being chased around the block, buried it someplace. Two days later, she continued, a neighbor let out a howl, then called the cops, telling them a body was buried in her garden. Anne Downs soon corralled her three children—including Danny, the youngest—and discovered they’d fibbed about not knowing where the last digit was. "Moral of the story," Diane told the percussionists. "Don’t lie to your mother, and don’t stick your hand underneath a lawn mower."
Pulled from a repertoire of often-embellished tales, this not-for-the-squeamish story served two purposes: It reminded the elementary-age kids that Downs was one of them—a "big kid," as she often describes herself, who, when she was younger, had lots of fun and got into lots of trouble. But it also helped ease the backstage tension, the kind of obstacle to a successful performance that Downs has dodged many times in her 11 years at the helm of an ensemble that’s earned her, among other accolades, Kentucky’s highest arts education award. Meanwhile, the Leopards have recorded three CDs and played gigs across the country, to the acclaim of many professionals. When he first saw them perform several years ago, "I flipped out," says Victor Mendoza, a vibes player and percussion professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
While Downs is reluctant to take credit, veteran Leopards, alumni, and their parents are choruslike in their claims that she’s the one who set the kids—musically, socially, and academically—on the right track. Entering his second year at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, 19-year-old Nick Leahy says he didn’t even know what "percussion" was before joining the Leopards at age 8. Downs, he recalls, "was always letting us try new things."
Such an endorsement is music to the ears of Robert Morrison, founder and chairman of Music for All, one of several nonprofit organizations in the United States that tracks trends in music education and offers support to arts program advocates. But budgets are tight, standardization is the norm, and, despite research to the contrary, music is still considered an "extra" by decisionmakers. "This is the worst period I’ve ever seen for music and arts education in our public schools," Morrison says.
He saw the Leopards perform last fall, at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Louisville, so he’s witnessed the fruits of Downs’ labors. But the highlights of the Leopards’ story overshadow what’s exceptional about Downs. When she first established the ensemble, she wasn’t a music instructor; she was a regular teacher who’d simply found a way to make music part of her elementary-level curriculum. She’d also discovered her primary talent—"bringing out a kid’s creativity and individuality," as one Leopards parent puts it.
Mendoza concurs. "Even if they don’t become musicians," he says of the percussionists, "they’re going to be professionals of one sort or another."
It was almost 11 years ago, in December 1993, when Paul Sr. and Anne Downs stopped by Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Louisville—the school in which their daughter was working at the time—for a holiday party. Anne visited with the kids while Paul, now deceased, dressed as Santa Claus and passed out candy canes. At one point, Diane told her 2nd and 3rd graders to set up the percussion instruments she’d found in a storage closet a month earlier while searching for bulletin board paper. Soon the keyboard instruments, tambourines, bells, and hand drums were laid out on the floor, and 20 or so kids eagerly awaited their teacher’s signal.
"And then," recalls Anne, "they were playing all this music. I said [to Diane], ‘How did you teach them to do that?’ She said, ‘I don’t know. They can just do it.’"
Diane Downs in
action. Even today, she has trouble explaining her
Even today, Downs has trouble explaining her methodology. Asked recently by one publisher to put it on paper, she told him, "I don’t know what to write."
Standing backstage during the run-throughs for the Leopards’ last performance of the 2003-04 school year, Jerry Tolson did his best to explain. A jazz musician and a professor of music, Tolson helped the group move to the University of Louisville after Downs decided, in June 2003, to pull up stakes from King and expand the program so that kids from more than one school could participate. Choosing and arranging songs, according to Tolson, is a relatively simple process. Downs, whose CD rack is stocked mostly with jazz, introduces new songs during the Leopards’ Tuesday- or Thursday-night rehearsals. If something sticks, they live with the tune for a while, singing and dancing along with it to get the "feel."
Then Downs breaks the song into parts—bass, melody, and what the Leopards call "chunk-chunk," the accompanying chords. Even the chord parts are split into pairs of "bottom" and "top" notes, otherwise known as "boogers" and "maggots." Although Downs does acquaint her kids with some formal terminology, they prefer the silly—hence, more memorable—language. And they don’t read music.
"All of the great music researchers talk about experience first, then labels," the tall, goateed Tolson explained backstage. "And so, this is the ultimate in experience first." It’s a way for the kids, Mendoza says, to find their "inner groove."
This organic approach comes in handy for songs like Charlie Parker’s "Ornithology" and Dizzy Gillespie’s "A Night in Tunisia," with their complicated rhythm and chord changes. "The thing of it is," Tolson said, raising his voice above the music, "if you don’t tell a kid, ‘You can’t do this,’ they don’t know that it’s hard. Like this tune they’re practicing now, ‘Birdland,’ they don’t know that’s a really complex tune. They just learned it piece by piece and put the parts together."
Earlier that week, Downs took the same approach with some of the kids in her classes. Kentucky schools were days away from summer break, which meant the brown-eyed, curly-haired Downs—in her daily uniform of shorts, T-shirt, and white New Balance sneakers—was finishing up her first year as "arts and humanities" teacher at Norton Elementary. She’d been hired by principal Lynne Wheat, who was familiar with her work with the Leopards, to execute the musical component of Norton’s humanities program, which includes drama, dance, and the visual arts.
With her 5th graders, Downs had been rehearsing all-percussion versions of "Low Rider," "Louie, Louie," and other tunes for their upcoming graduation ceremony. But the younger kids had no performance to prepare for, so Downs, who’s always on the move—flailing her arms, flashing a toothy grin, making goofy faces—improvised. She told stories, sifted through her box of animal bones, and passed around her Madagascar hissing cockroaches. And during one kindergarten class, she handed out Boomwhackers, a set of multicolored plastic percussion tubes, then split the kids into four rows.
Some of the sayings Downs has come up with over the years, to encourage her Leopards to memorize rhythmic patterns, include "I’m a stinky roach, step on me right now" and "Underwear. Alex Arrowhead’s underwear" (the latter a nickname reference to one of the kids in the group). But this time, with the kindergartners, a simple 4/4 count was overlaid with "ap-ple, cher-ry, piz-za PIE," with the first three words split into half notes and "PIE" serving as a whole-note accent on four. Then, for fun, she added the "Jingle Bells" chorus and wrapped the package with a Downsian ribbon:
Ap-ple, cher-ry, piz-za, PIE
Ap-ple, cher-ry, piz-za, PIE
Jin-gle bells, jin-gle bells, jin-gle all the WAY
I’m a doo-doo HEAD!
Her brother Paul, who’s been band director at Moore Traditional High in Louisville since 1984, says that even before Diane started the Leopards, she found creative ways to engage her students at King Elementary. One day, he recalls, her 2nd and 3rd graders slung water balloons at the back of the school—"to test trajectory." Another time, the students were given bulbs and asked, Where would you like to live if you were a daffodil? "And the next spring," Paul says, "there were daffodils all over the school property."
King’s principal at the time, Mae Kennerly, preferred sunflowers. Small plastic versions of the plant hang from the ceiling in Downs’ Norton classroom, where the walls are crowded with percussion-company posters, artists’ renderings of classical composers, black-and-white photos of independent thinkers like Albert Einstein and Amelia Earhart, and snapshots from her past. But the sunflowers are for Kennerly, who died of cancer in July 2002, two months after she’d retired, at age 49, from a 28-year career in Jefferson County Schools. Kennerly—an open-minded administrator who loved the arts—was exactly the kind of principal the then-30-year-old teacher needed in her corner in November 1993.
What Downs found in the closet that month were Orff mallet instruments—marimbas, vibraphones, and xylophones—designed specifically for younger children. "You had to sit Indian-style on the ground to play them," recalls Nick Leahy, who was a 3rd grader in Downs’ class. A few years earlier, Kentucky public education—due to a history of inequitable funding—had been overhauled, and, as part of the reform effort, kids were grouped in two-grade teams. Brittany Lee, who graduated high school in May and is now a music major at Bellarmine University in Louisville, was a 2nd grader in the same class. She remembers playing each instrument with just one mallet and banging out "Chopsticks" and the "Star-Spangled Banner."
Raised on a 12-acre farm, Downs was the kind of teacher who took her students on hiking and camping trips. So "messing around," as Leahy puts it, with percussion instruments made sense. But it soon became clear that Downs, who had attended Morehead State University on a clarinet scholarship, was onto something big. She was soon collecting other unused instruments—tambourines, shakers, orchestra bells, and snare and bass drums— from additional storage spaces at King, and within months, the Fabulous Leopard Percussionists (named for the class mascot) were playing for the PTA, the school talent show, and local churches.
With Downs' guidance,
kids create their own solos during impromptu classroom
The songs back then, according to Lee, were not-too-challenging crowd-pleasers like "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "Love Will Keep Us Together." But word spread about the talented performers, and Kennerly made sure that Downs and her kids were given the time needed to rehearse and perform, often during the school day.
King Elementary, located in a low-income, mostly minority section of Louisville, is an arts magnet school—so established as part of Jefferson County’s effort to promote desegregation by providing families with choices. But that didn’t mean Downs’ students were musical. They were typical 2nd and 3rd graders who, like all King kids, were permitted to focus, during extracurricular periods, on the visual and performing arts. Seeing how her kids took to percussion, with its spectrum of melodic and rhythmic instruments, Downs made sure to inject music into her curriculum. ("During Black History month," she says by way of example, "instead of covering civil rights, we’d do research on jazz musicians.") And the FLP, with membership open only to her students, including those who’d moved on to 4th and 5th grades, kept growing.
Of the 24 kids she had in her class each year at King, 18 to 20 would stick with the group, along with another 20 or so older kids, according to Downs. And nobody auditioned—a rule that still stands today. "The top requirement to get into this group is not talent," she explains. "It’s ‘Do you want to do it, and are your parents into it?’" Accordingly, Downs had the Leopards and their parents sign contracts, promising the kids would behave during rehearsals and maintain good grades.
What Kennerly realized early on is what, by the mid-’90s, drew more and more families to King: Downs was providing the ideal music ed program. Not only were her students honing their musical skills; they were also putting into practice concepts such as responsibility, discipline, teamwork, and self- esteem. Norton’s principal, Lynne Wheat, says that when she first saw the Leopards perform, "the children were so professional and also engaged in what they were doing. And they were obviously proud of what they were doing."
A glimpse inside the three Leopards scrapbooks, Downs’ documentation of the ensemble’s history, demonstrates how effective her methodology has been. By the end of the ’90s, the Leopards had performed at just about every Louisville public event, including the Kentucky Derby, and for visitors ranging from Wynton Marsalis to Coretta Scott King. In one photo, taken backstage at a rock concert, Carlos Santana is seen playfully pointing at Downs, who was invited to be his guest after Hal Miller, a jazz historian, showed the guitarist and band leader a videotape of the Leopards. A few months after Downs’ visit backstage, Santana’s Milagro Foundation, a nonprofit that awards cultural grants, gave the ensemble $2,500.
Also taking notice—thanks to the group’s performances at conventions—were percussion companies, which sometimes support music education programs with discounted or free equipment. The Percussion Marketing Council, in fact, named 1999 "Year of the Leopard," and professionals such as Louie Bellson, Ruben Alvarez, Jerry Steinholtz, and Victor Mendoza took an active interest in the youngsters.
Downs also was being singled out—for awards like Jefferson County’s "Golden Apple" in 1996 and, in 2001, a governor’s award in the arts, which she almost didn’t accept. Downs says she told state officials she’d travel to the capitol in Frankfort only if the Leopards could perform. "I didn’t want to show off," she explains. "We won the award, not me." The state balked at first, but finally Downs got her way. The Leopards crowded the rotunda balcony and cheered as she was given the award, then played prior to the luncheon that followed. That was as far as Downs was willing to step into the spotlight.
"You gotta get the point across that teachers are not the all-knowing beings that they think they are," she explains. "Those kids, they’re smarter than me, and I know it—the way they think and the way they reason and their problem-solving skills. I tell ’em, ‘I know more ’cause I’ve been around longer. And I’m bigger than you, so I get to be in charge.’ Those kids, their minds work in a way that mine doesn’t, and I’m totally fine with that."
Downs won’t go so far as to say she’s dyslexic or has ADHD, but, growing up—in the 1960s and ’70s, before those diagnoses entered the lexicon—she struggled with reading and couldn’t sit still. In class, she avoided having to recite out loud; and in band, which she and her brother Paul joined in middle school, she learned most parts by ear. Paul played trombone, and although Diane specialized in clarinet, she sampled numerous instruments, from trombone to sousaphone. "She did tend to want to try different things," Paul says.
Despite her natural talent, Downs switched her major at Morehead State from music to elementary education (in which she later earned her master’s) after spending a year in Jamaica, at age 20, teaching elementary and high school kids music. "I failed music theory," she recalls. But she’s been able to do intuitively what those who fight fiercely for arts programs argue intellectually.
"We are creating the world’s greatest test-takers, but we’re not going to be able to create our ways out of a wet paper bag," says Music for All’s Robert Morrison. A venture philanthropist who was a senior executive with the Pearl drum company, then served in top positions with the VH1 Save the Music Foundation and the National Coalition for Music Education, Morrison justifies arts ed from both cultural and commercial perspectives. He says, for example, that he knows of several computer companies that will only hire engineers with music backgrounds.
The 7- to
12-year-olds switch instruments on every song.
Research over the past 10 years suggests, specifically, that music and math skills are linked. One often-cited study, reported in the journal Neurological Research in 1999, found that after six months of piano lessons, preschool kids dramatically improved their spatial-temporal reasoning, a useful tool in tackling analytic math. Another report, from the nonprofit Arts Education Partnership, makes use of U.S. Department of Education data on 25,000 students to demonstrate that kids actively involved in the arts outperform "arts-poor" students in virtually every area—including standardized testing.
And standardization, combined with diminishing school budgets, has created what Morrison calls "the perfect storm," with arts programs in danger of sinking. In March, the Council for Basic Education released a survey of K-12 principals in four states—Maryland, New Mexico, Illinois, and New York—that reported the following: To meet the demands of No Child Left Behind, 25 percent of public schools have decreased instructional time in the arts, and 33 percent anticipate further cuts in the future. The worst part, according to Morrison, is that 42 percent of the traditionally arts-poor schools surveyed—mostly urban, high-minority, low-income—anticipate future cuts.
This kind of trend, he adds, damages more than commercial potential. It has a long-lasting impact on societal health—an aspect of the arts Mendoza touches upon while summing up what he’s learned as both musician and teacher: "[Music] has to be just simply part of [kids’] lives. We’re not talking about actually becoming a musician, but enhancing your life."
At 4:30 sharp, two nights prior to the Leopards’ end-of-the-year gig, Downs swept into the University of Louisville’s School of Music and told the handful of punctual kids: "Come on, everybody, grab some instruments and head to the freight elevator." For the next half-hour, dozens more 7- to 12-year-olds arrived and transported keyboards, drums (including a custom-designed set decorated with leopard spots), and instrument stands through a labyrinth of hallways leading to the elevator. As raucous and fleet-footed as the kids were, it was a miracle no one banged a knee or crushed a finger; and whenever the pace slowed, Downs, who goes from Best Buddy to Drill Sergeant with the flick of a switch, kicked it back into gear.
The destination, one floor above, was Comstock Hall, a modest-size auditorium of white pillars, blond wood floors and walls, and, overlooking the stage, a massive pipe organ of copper and tin. As Downs supervised the arrangement of instruments—three rows of keyboards stage right; drum set, timbales, and congas stage left—the maelstrom of activity called to mind a few of her Norton classes, during which she and the kids simulated "storms" with handheld instruments. For four years, Downs has been married to Ben McRoberts, a lawn-cutter, sports coach, and father of three adolescent children, two of whom were in Downs’ class at King Elementary. McRoberts is the charismatic 47-year-old son of a minister, and he had a rough time, he says, playing by the rules growing up. Part of the problem, he adds, was that he didn’t have enough teachers like Downs, whom he describes as "a vortex of chaos, and people float around in her vapor trail."
Perhaps that’s why the handful of parents sitting in Comstock’s crushed-velour seats seemed unfazed by the commotion. One of them, Lisa Wilner, is a musician, psychologist, member of the Leopards’ board, and mother to members Eliza and Ben Scruton. A few weeks prior to the Tuesday night rehearsal, Wilner had pinpointed what enables Downs to find a role for all Leopards, soloists and roadies alike. "She’s quick and intuitive about deciphering students’ gifts and in knowing how to utilize them," she’d explained.
Downs also knows how to whistle. The ear-piercing jet stream of air that is legendary among the Leopards quickly reduced, that night, the roar of 45 kids to a trickle of indecipherable chatter. "Under the Sea," a song from the film The Little Mermaid, was up for a run-through, and the Leopards (who switch instruments every tune) quickly got into position, two or three to a keyboard. On drum set was Price McGuffey, then a 9-year-old 3rd grader at Norton who, according to Downs, is a "real musician." She kicked off the 4/4 count, and, with a cymbal crash from Price, the introductory measures of the song rang out, Caribbean-inflected high notes dancing atop end-of-measure accents. It was a soothing sound delivered, in some cases, by kids who could barely reach the tops of their drums or keyboards. This went on for eight measures or so; then suddenly, THWAP, Price hit the snare with his stick, and the song kicked into gear—all instruments blazing, the rhythm section pushing the melody across the auditorium like a massive wave.
And that’s when it hit—the indescribable feeling hinted at in people’s accounts of Leopard performances, on the CDs, and in what Paul Downs says he witnessed when he saw professionals, at percussion conventions, watching the ensemble for the first time: "There were grown men crying."
Downs’ partner in Norton’s arts and humanities department, Laura Guissinger, is a veteran teacher who spent most of her career in special ed. She now teaches art, in the room next to Downs, where collapsible walls do little to absorb the onslaught of percussion. But Guissinger knew exactly what she was getting into working alongside Downs; her two sons were students at King and played with the Leopards. Although they’ve chosen to focus on sports in middle and high school, Guissinger believes that the effects of their formative experiences will be long-lasting.
"By the time they were out of elementary school, they could do stuff," she explains. "As individuals, they could perform on their own, and they knew what it was like to reach that level of excellence."
The same can be said of the 12-year-old Leopards nicknamed Dino, Weasel, and Snake. They are, respectively, Joseph Bronner, Alex Weaver, and Ben Scruton—the first two polite, stocky, and short-haired, the third a string bean with shoulder-length hair reminiscent of late-’70s rock bands. Jazz, however, tops their playlists, and, as middle schoolers, they’ve experimented with wind and brass instruments. And the formal training they’ve had to undergo, including reading music, has been helped, not hurt, by Downs’ methodology. "It helped me gain rhythm and beat," says Weasel, who improvises his solos during Leopard gigs, "so that I can count very well and then play notes in different times." Dino adds: "It’s taught me not to be nervous, and that it’s OK to mess up. Just pick up where you left off." And you, Snake? "I’m with them," he says.
Five years with the Leopards has also taught them how to compose music. On the group’s latest CD, New Spots, eight of the 14 songs are original. This is nothing new; early on, Leopards were encouraged to come up with skeletal song structures to be filled in later by the band, and several professionals have written tunes either with or for the Leopards. Among the originals are "The Weasel Experiment," "Cartoon Pancakes," "Difficult Spotted Cat," and "School Trouble Blues." Some are simple in structure, others more complicated, but most have that let’s-have-a-party feel normally associated with a gang of almost 50 kids.
The exceptions, on New Spots, are "Midnight Hours" and "Under the Light of the Full Moon." These slow-paced, Asian-tinged pieces sound like late-night jazz-radio fodder or part of the soundtrack to an Ang Lee film. "Midnight Hours," originally written by Snake and Weasel in 2nd grade, then refined over the years, even sounds contemplative, as if inspired by a long walk along the beach. Dino says he wrote "Under the Light" as a "sequel." But the trio can’t explain their motivation.
Victor Mendoza, who’s made a few critically acclaimed CDs himself and tells his college students, "Beware what you listen to," said of the Leopards’ influences: "Bad music sticks to the ear just like good music does. And [Downs] has impeccable taste."
She also has faith. Of the trio’s efforts, Downs said: "You don’t just write a song; you gotta get it from somewhere. But you don’t think 9-year-old kids can be that deep, you know? But that’s the problem: People don’t realize kids are that deep. Look what they can do."
Thursday night’s gig began with Price McGuffey’s THWAP, then didn’t let up for the next hour. As she’s wont to do, Downs—dressed in black T-shirt and pants, with a leopard-spotted scarf serving as a belt—spent most of her time in the wings, only occasionally moving upstage to keep things rolling. The spirit of the night was exemplified early on by a couple in their early 30s dancing, Woodstock-style, in the balcony during a rendition of Paul Simon’s "Late in the Evening." Although the roughly 300 other audience members weren’t doing the same, the hall pulsed with positive vibrations.
The professional playing with the Leopards was Gary Falk, a laid-back, Louisville-based saxophonist who, in his black outfit and gray goatee, looked like a middle-age beatnik. During rehearsals, he’d won the kids’ admiration for his booming, melodious solos, but now four of them held their own as they traded "chunks," or several measures of solo time, during "Ornithology."
Downs keeps Leopards gigs relatively short and eclectic. "Batman," played by the "beginners," kids who joined the band this past year, as well as Stevie Wonder’s "Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing" and Harry Belafonte’s "Jump in the Line" were automatic crowd-pleasers. But "Birdland" and "A Night in Tunisia" are compositions that, in the wrong hands, could serve as proof that elementary-age kids can’t handle complex jazz. Any doubts, however, were quickly obliterated. "A Night in Tunisia," in particular, featured eight soloists, with Falk’s sax leading a train that, car after car—including Dino, his blond hair glowing in the spotlight, the keys of his gold vibes sparkling—delivered, garnering sustained applause as well as the biggest smile of the evening from Downs.
It didn’t hurt that the concert wrapped up with a Leopards staple: a medley of "Low Rider" and the Tito Puente song that Carlos Santana helped make famous, "Oye Come Va." After the extended jam ended, the audience rose to its feet with a roar, then followed with whistles, cheers, and applause, washing its own wave of joyous sound over the Leopards, who bowed and waved in return. Tolson, who’d introduced the group an hour earlier, boomed into the mike: "Thanks, everyone, for coming. And remember, this is just the start of bigger and better things to come."
Plans are under way
to expand the university- affiliated program, with Downs at least
Plans are under way to expand the university-affiliated program, with Downs at least tangentially involved. Christopher Doane, dean of the university’s School of Music, said after the concert that a recently awarded $15,000 grant will enable another ensemble to be run from a Louisville community center starting in 2005.The Leopards board helped Doane research the grant, and Downs’ group will serve as a model. "This is the kind of thing we need to do to step in and supplement what’s happening in music education programs," he said. Other grant applications, he added, are proceeding apace.
But the question no one, including Downs, seems able to answer is, can anyone duplicate her success? Tolson, who’s been sending college students to observe her, hopes they’ll at least understand how difficult, and rewarding, Downs’ job is. "One of the things we definitely want to do," he says, "is to put out students who have a passion for [teaching], because there are a lot of people who pass through the profession on the way to something else."
Not Downs. She’s repeatedly said that leading the Leopards—a job the board hopes to remunerate her for, for the first time, this fall—"is what I’m supposed to be doing." Indeed, as she exited the building an hour or so post-concert, after the instruments had been returned to storage, she said of the kids, "I just love watching them play."
Then she spotted someone in the parking lot and yelled, "Hey, Granny!" Megan Handley, one of the Leopards, was out there, with her mother (who’d become a grandmother that week) and another woman Downs didn’t know. All three walked her way, Mrs. Handley raving about the performance. Downs playfully responded: "Yeah, it wasn’t too long, was it?"
But the unidentified woman wasn’t smiling. "You know what the best part of it was?" she said, finally. "It’s that your love for teaching really comes through."
The woman was introduced as a cousin from Atlanta. And although Downs, Megan, and Mrs. Handley continued to joke around, she hadn’t finished.
"You do a great job," she told Downs. "And I want to tell you something."
Suddenly, everyone was quiet.
"I have seen some people who are truly gifted at teaching small children music," the woman said, "and you just outshine them. You ought to be very proud of yourself, and very proud of your children."
"Well," Downs said, finally in the spotlight, "thank you."
Vol. 16, Issue 1, Pages 34-39Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Playing It by Ear