Teaching Artist Spotlight: Leon Jordan, Sr.
teachers and mentors included jazz drummers who played with Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and recorded with The Andrews Sisters and Billie Holiday. “I knew many successful career musicians who gave me guidance, and I’ve always valued that advice. They also never treated me like a child and there was a very strict expectation of the work ethic.”
Over the years, Leon developed his own teaching style, including encouraging all students to give their best effort. To him, some of the most important things that can come from studying music are exploration, freedom of expression, and going deep into your soul and mind to come up with new ideas. “The effort is about expression and the extension of an idea,” Leon said. “Expansion of the mind, expansion of the creativity. The bigger your [musical] vocabulary, the better you’re able to articulate ideas. That is more important than being perfect.”
As a Musicopia Teaching Artist, Leon is well known for his bucket drumming program, and for his work with special needs students. Leon was first introduced to Musicopia through one of the artists he toured and recorded with, a jazz violinist by the name of John Blake. Leon and John led in-school workshops and master classes together, and after a while Leon also started teaching bucket drumming at a school in the Chester Upland School District. At that time, due to budget cuts, there were no instruments at the school. “I was not crazy about the idea in the beginning. I didn’t want to bang on buckets. I’ve never been a street performer, and I felt like there were qualified street performers that do that really well, and I wasn’t one of them. But, I figured out that I could learn how to do this pretty quickly and help these students, so I did,” he said. So he went to Home Depot for buckets, and also purchased, and got donations of, drumsticks. Over time, Leon and his students embraced the buckets and sticks, became more and more enthusiastic, and the program grew in popularity.
December 2019…Leon Jordan, Sr. has been a Teaching Artist with Musicopia since 2002. He leads Musicopia’s Bucket Drumming program, co-leads the Voices and Bucket Drumming program with fellow Teaching Artist Alexandra Day, and is a percussionist in Musicopia’s We the People program.
Leon, an experienced musician and performer, has been exploring musical instruments and their sounds and rhythms since the age of 3 when he would bang on pots and pans. He also began taking piano lessons at age 7. “I had a fascination with music and sound, and I remember if I found a certain item in the house that made a unique tone or sound, I was drawn to it, and I incorporated that into my repertoire,” Leon said. “When I played piano, it brought into focus all the musical ideas that I had expressed with my rhythms.”
A few years later, at the recommendation of his piano teacher, Leon starting taking drum lessons as well. By the time he was 12 or 13 he knew he wanted to be a professional musician, and by the age of 15, he was doing professional gigs with adults. Gigging from such a young age gave him the opportunity to meet many people, to travel, and to record. In high school, he also participated in a program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for gifted students.
Leon had many teachers throughout his life who brought him new perspectives, and from whom he learned new skills. “I had many teachers of different genres and styles. It’s important to mix up your learning experience by having a point of view from many different people,” he said. Those
Due to its popularity, the bucket drumming program expanded into Catholic schools, other schools with already fairly robust music programs, and into special needs schools and schools for the blind and visually impaired. Regarding his work with special needs students, Leon said, “One of the things about music that is so beautiful is that a person can express ideas that there are no words for. Autistic students may not be able to articulate everything that they feel, but when they get a bucket, a pair of sticks, or some other combination of percussion instruments, they are surprisingly expressive, energetic, enthusiastic, and creative. Their speech may not be as organized and thoughtful, but their expression of music is.”
Leon also teaches at Overbrook School for the Blind, where he has taught many students to play the drums. He explains that once they sit behind a drum set, they develop an impressive sense of accuracy where everything is, and a sense of how hard to hit in terms of projection, velocity, and volume. “Once they start to play the drums and hear the ring on them, in their mind they know exactly where everything is. For example, they are aware of all the different places on the cymbal that produce different tones.”
Leon’s unique skill sets have also served him well in both challenging and rewarding school environments. He has been in situations where the students were not interested in learning about music or bucket drumming, or had behavioral issues. In those cases, he works with the students on self-discipline, respect, how to work together as a group, and conflict resolution.
Some of the most rewarding moments come for Leon when he works with individual students that tap into something that they never before would have discovered had it not been for a Musicopia workshop. “And that is the reason why we do it. Because there are students who say ‘I never would had tried this, or taken this particular risk or opportunity, had it not been for this workshop on this day.’ And that’s happened dozens and dozens of times.” Many of his students over the years have been able to pursue academic opportunities due to receiving music-related scholarships.
Outside of Musicopia, Leon plays with The Jazz Sanctuary and is the leader of The Renaissance Orchestra, a ballroom orchestra for weddings and other events, of which a majority of the members are also Musicopia Teaching Artists. He also enjoys sports, politics, and spending time with his grandson.
Leon definitely sees the positive impact of his work week-to-week in his bucket drumming programs, in his work with special needs students, and through “We the People,” a Musicopia in-school program that teaches students the functions of government and about the Constitution through music. Regardless of the program, there are always students with no prior musical experience.
“You have to take what natural ability they have and harness that, and the ones that don’t have that natural ability and natural talent and ability, you develop it. They all develop at a different pace and rate in a large group, but they all arrive at the same place. And it’s so much fun.”
By Talia Yellin Fisher