From Young Student To Inspired Teacher: How One Woman’s Journey Took Her Full Circle In Music Education

by Kelsey Lee

When most children are six and seven years old, their extra-curricular activities involve soccer balls or baseballs, and maybe even some piano keys or a chess board. I grew up around all sorts of musical instruments and submerged into a musical language and understanding that even some adults have never had the chance to experience. To grow up around the Louisville Leopard Percussionists program — first as a young student, and now as a teacher — has been an incredible journey for me. It taught me patience, understanding, adventure, problem solving, how to enjoy a wide variety of music, teamwork, and other lifelong lessons that I am still figuring out along the way. I went into the Louisville Leopard Percussionists group at the end of my kindergarten year over 22 years ago, thinking I was going to perform some music for a small crowd and it was a little something to be involved in along with the sports teams.  But, much to my surprise and appreciation, it turned out to be one of the biggest influences in my life and created the path for my ultimate dream job.

Not only has being a lifelong “Leopard” helped me grow musically, it has also helped me outside of the music world. Having an Elementary Education degree, I have an understanding that children learn and express themselves in different ways and styles and if certain children don’t understand something one way, I need to reteach those specific kids in a way they will grasp the subject. I strongly believe all children can learn anything they put their mind to; it just depends on teaching them in a way they can understand the information. Most students also find that learning music will help them in other subjects in school as well. If a child is learning a Latin rhythm or a certain style of music from a different part of the world, they are more prone to make connections in their social studies/geography class and have a greater appreciation along the way.

When I was a Leopard, it opened my eyes to the music world at such a young age. The program’s Director, Diane Downs, set us up with amazing opportunities that I couldn’t fully appreciate as a child. I started learning about the importance of Jazz and where it came from in the second grade. A year later, I received my first jazz drum set part in the third grade playing “Take the A Train”. Diane was my classroom teacher at the time and whenever we were writing or reading and needing to concentrate, she would always begin to play jazz music. It was soothing. For once, it calmed down the 50 million thoughts racing in my head as a child and I could be taken away from the classroom walls by the music and my creative side would come out. Listening to Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Monk, Ella Fitzerald, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Count Basie, and so many more great artists, how could you notbe inspired? How could you not want to go out and conquer the world with the way the music made you feel? These people were playing their souls and leaving everything they had on the stage and in the albums. I have always felt that playing jazz especially was comparable to someone opening up their diary and playing exactly what they’ve been holding on to and getting ahold of those deep feelings. It’s therapeutic. It’s healing. It’s vulnerable. Being able to close my eyes in the second grade and pick out what instruments are being played, what’s happening music wise, and when the call and responses were happening was an amazing jump start I got in the early stages of learning music. That was all due to sitting and listening to jazz.

At the age of nine, I was trading solos with Ndugu Chancler and traveling around the United States performing for huge events with other world class musicians. A few years later, I got the chance to meet jazz vibraphonist, Lionel Hampton when he performed one of his last concerts. A few days before the concert, I met Kim Hampton (Lionel Hampton’s niece) at my elementary school. She was giving a clinic on her basketball career, telling us to always follow your dreams, and to never give up on yourself no matter what. Her speech made a huge impact on my future and my thoughts about music. When I ran into her at the concert, she remembered I was the little drummer girl and she took me back stage to meet and greet her famously talented uncle. I remember watching him play that evening and being so moved with his passion when he was performing. I wanted that for myself. The Louisville Leopards were not just a music group for me, it was an experience that was setting me up for what I was meant to do. I was able to feel the music and love the music before I even learned how to really play.

After graduating from Louisville, Kentucky’s Youth Performing Arts High SchooI in 2007, I got the opportunity to come back to the Leopard family as an educator. I didn’t even need to think twice about the decision. I wanted to pass on the lessons I got from being a Leopard and attending a strict performing arts high school to the next generation of music enthusiasts. Being involved in music could be an experience where you just go and learn a few things, or it could be a life changing event. Every person is different and I wanted the chance to change lives through music and be able to reach children on a level they never thought would be possible, or teach them something they never thought they could learn. We should all be lifelong learners and strive to always want to know more.

I see the importance of jazz music being taught and played and it truly frightens me when I run into eighth and ninth grade students who have never come across jazz before. Whenever I am teaching a music camp or doing a clinic with children, a jazz song is normally the first genre the kids will learn. Sadly many of the children that come through have never experienced jazz, but I am always glad to introduce this style of music to their repertoire. Jazz makes learning fun and free by using swing, syncopation, polyrhythms, blues notes, call and responses, dynamics, and improvisation. Give me and any of my amazing colleagues at least 30 minutes with any child and/or adult and they will be playing a basic swing pattern on the drum set or an easy jazz song in no time. It’s all about grabbing the attention and keeping it, and to make the learning fun and exciting. We also teach “C Jam Blues” to new percussionists who have never touched mallet instruments before by making it enjoyable for them. After going through how to hold the mallets, how to strike the marimba/xylophone/vibraphone, and how to find key notes such as a D, we will show them the G note and C note and take off from there when we are teaching “C Jam Blues”. “G G (rest rest rest) G G (breath) G G (breath) G C.” The G to the C can be a little complicated, but once the students get the feel for that rhythm and the placement of it, then the melody has learned a good portion of the song. The next part of the song the children always love learning because we get them to sing the rhythms first saying “1..2..3 Banana Underwear (1 2 ready go) 1..2..3 Banana Underwear.” Then they will learn the notes that go with what they are singing. The Louisville Leopards are firm believers on if you can say it, then you can play it. This has always been my motto when I am teaching anyone and with kids, if they are singing something silly, they’ll understand the concept and rhythms even faster because they are having fun with it. At this point, you have new percussionists playing the melody part to “C Jam Blues”! From there an educator can dive into soloing, improvising, dynamics, and so much more.

The way we teach the drum set pattern is also unique. Some people learn better with words, numbers, charts, diagrams, written music, etc. A great way to start would be asking the person to play the ride cymbal with their right hand and singing along “I love the drums love the drums love the drums love the drums” in the swing groove. It’s very important that they get the feel for swing before moving on to anything else and sometimes having them close their eyes and move to how jazz makes them feel will help them understand the concept. Once they have that, add in the snare part on the word “LOVE” (counts 2 and 4). Sometimes you need to be clear with them that they will now be hitting both the ride cymbal and the snare on the word LOVE. After the snare has been added in and the player is comfortable and confident, add in the bass drum on the word “I” and “DRUMS” (counts 1 and 3). They will only say the word “I” to kick off the swing pattern, so the bass drum will mainly be on the word DRUMS and it will also be played as the same time the ride cymbal is being hit. If the person playing takes out the ride cymbal, they should be going back and forth between the bass drum and snare drum going BASS SNARE BASS SNARE.

Another great reason to start a beginning player with jazz is because the bassline can loop their part while the drums are swinging and holding the tempo, so the other mallet players can improvise on the correct blues notes. This will bring in the lesson of soloing. First and foremost, I am a strong believer on wanting the children I am working with to feel as though they are in a safe environment. They can express their thoughts and try new things on instruments without being laughed at or made fun of because this is a very vulnerable time for them. I know from experience that when words have failed me, music has been my voice and the way I express myself. Exercising improvisation and soloing with the children truly lets them open up and be free. The sky is the limit for them and us as educators cannot limit them or cut off the ideas they might have. We need to embrace and build off of their ideas and not be so caught up in telling them what to do without any freedom to express themselves in the music they are playing.

Being a performer, as well as being an educator, I am blessed on so many levels to watch these kids grow and find the “good music” in the world. These kids are learning to look past the often shallow songs on radio stations today and they are googling and researching jazz, rock, latin, and hip hop artists that made a difference in history. I believe I have the best job in the world because I get to see these kids discover this music for the first time and work so hard and get to see how their work pays off. Hopefully they can carry this throughout their entire life and remember these lessons, but we all need constant positive reminders with the world we live in today. I know in my soul this is what I was born to do and by listening to and watching (in my opinion) some of the best musicians in the world, I have learned to never give up on that dream because there is no better feeling than spreading the love to everyone through the music you are playing. Working hard for something you’re passionate about pays off.  I strongly believe that being open to what others have to teach and passing on the good that has been given to you is a universal truth.


Kelsey Lee is a elementary education graduate of Indiana University, currently assistant directing for the non-profit organization The Louisville Leopard Percussionists in Louisville, Kentucky. She assists in the direction of the Leopards experience group, Leopards Lite, and co-directs the Steel Leopards and beginner group. Kelsey is endorsed by Toca Percussion and has performed with world-renowned musicians including CJ Vanston, Michael Fitzpatrick, Victor Mendoza, Dani Markham, Jerry Steinholtz, Hannah Ford Welton, Louie Bellson, Ruben Alvarez, and Ndugu Chancler. She had the pleasure opening for Bruno Mars in the Congo 2014 Festival along with kicking off the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards. She is involved with many music projects around her city including most recent all girl group, Bungalow Betty.