Isabelle De Leon’s music career had a bit of a shaky start.
As a child, she took to the stage with her family band, Ivy Rose, for their very first public gig at a nursing home. But even with a fairly forgiving audience, things didn’t go well.
“We were so bad,” De Leon said of the performance. “This old guy was holding his ears. …We sounded terrible.”
Their skills improved, however, and Ivy Rose went on to produce two albums, perform at the Kennedy Center and DAR Constitution Hall and even make the callback round for the 2012 summer season of America’s Got Talent. Now, as a senior music major at this university, De Leon is preparing to launch her solo career as a professional drummer.
“This is the first year I’m promoting myself as a solo artist,” she said. “It’s kind of scary [but] I’m still going to put myself out there.”
Earlier this month, De Leon sold out her first show at the Strathmore Mansion as part of the center’s 10-month Artist in Residence program. She was one of six musicians selected out of 100 applicants for the program, which mentors talented artists and prepares them for the management aspects of a professional music career.
Her three performances at Strathmore showcased her original compositions and the center’s website described her musical style as fusing “the intensity of rock music with the harmonic complexities and feel-good groove of jazz.”
De Leon said music always defined her unorthodox childhood. She first learned piano at age 4 and started playing the drums, her self-proclaimed passion, at age 7.
She said she was inspired to take up drumming after watching the movie Selena, in which a minor female character said, “Girls don’t play drums.”
“I’m proving them wrong,” she remembered thinking after watching the scene. “I’m going to do it.”
Tito De Leon, her father, also required his children to learn “a minimum of two instruments” and practice weekly family music lessons, which sometimes inspired tears from Isabelle and her siblings.
“It was difficult to explain they would come to enjoy it,” Tito De Leon said.
The siblings’ first few performances were in their church choir, and as their musical skills improved, a close family friend joined their group to form Ivy Rose.
De Leon spent the bulk of her high school weekends and summer vacations touring the East Coast and the Philippines with the band, with her father acting as manager. The band even performed at this university’s 2010 Art Attack, opening for Weezer.
De Leon attributes her success to her father, who she said has been her biggest supporter throughout her life and music career. He even saved her from derailing her music career during her freshman year; having previously performed rock music, De Leon struggled with jazz drumming at first and considered dropping music as a major. Her father talked her out of it and encouraged her to stick with the program.
“I’m so glad I did,” De Leon said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
De Leon said drumming provokes in her a sense of excitement and passion that is reflected in her face as she plays.
She always tries to convey a sense of joy in her music, she added.
Music lecturer Chuck Redd, De Leon’s drum teacher of four years, recognized her talent. He regularly hired her to perform with him at area jazz festivals and said he is convinced his student has all the right qualities for success.
“She is without a doubt one of the best students I’ve had at University of Maryland or anywhere,” Redd said. “It is not always magic or luck or rocket science … What really impressed me about Isabelle is she takes initiative and goes beyond homework … expanding and going deeper.”
Sleep is a rare commodity for De Leon.
In addition to doing two to four hours of jazz assignments a week, she practices a minimum of an hour every day while juggling performances, the Strathmore program and typically a 19- to 20-credit course load. She is also following a premed track in addition to her music major; if her music career fails, De Leon said she is prepared for a career as a doctor or physician’s assistant.
De Leon said her next step after graduation is to move to Los Angeles to pursue her dream.
While she is not naive or unprepared for failure, her family, friends and mentors said they are confident in her ability to succeed.
“She better get me comp tickets,” Redd said.