Interview: Peter Luongo
By Ukulele Yes!
Who is Peter Luongo? And why is his name synonymous with ukulele in the community of Langley, British Columbia?
An administrator in the Langley School District and the charismatic director of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, Luongo has devoted over 25 years to working with young musicians. Under his tutelage hundreds of students have had the opportunity to further their singing and ukulele playing skills while developing positive attitudes toward leadership and showmanship.
Ukulele Yes!: Who was your first ukulele teacher?
Peter Luongo: Cam Trowsdale was the instructor at UBC who offered ukulele as a classroom music tool for elementary teachers-in-training. I was at UBC and he offered the course. I had heard good things about it so I thought it would be a good thing to do. So, Cam was my first and that was followed up by an introduction to Chalmers [Doane] whom Cam very much wanted me to meet. Cam introduced me to Chalmers during my final year at UBC, leading into my time in Langley which really brought about the third person who was involved in helping me and training me in ukulele and that was, of course, Lorna MacPhee (who founded the Langley Ukulele Ensemble in the mid-1970. -- Ed.).
UY!: Besides ukulele, do you play other instruments? How has that helped in your teaching?
PL: I was an accordion player from childhood; the instrument was my father’s choice. That set me along my musical journey. I can play at the piano and play some of the brass instruments. But to this day I would say the accordion is the most complete musical instrument because it gives the melody, the bass, all the advantages of chording that come with the piano, plus all the understanding of how breath is important, because you’ve got a bellows to deal with. And so one of the things that I constantly refer to in my teaching is that music needs to breathe. And that’s a reflection of my accordion background and understanding that the music that came out of that instrument was completely contingent on how breath was used—how air was used.
UY!: Being a school administrator, how do you find time to teach so much ukulele?
PL: Well, you know what, it’s getting harder and harder to be very blunt about it. But at the end of the day it’s a passion that I have and it certainly is my release. There are folks who run marathons and individuals who have stage careers as a hobby, there are other people who take on refinishing old automobiles. Teaching ukulele is my release. It's the thing I do to try to bring balance to my life. To date I’ve always tried to make time for it. That fact that my own children have been involved and I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many great young people has been a real nice balance and in some ways it’s kept me young at heart (laughs).
UY!: When and how did you become involved with the Langley Ukulele Ensemble?
PL: When I arrived in the district I pretty quickly connected with Lorna MacPhee who was directing the Senior “A” Group. I was invited to sort of come on as, you know, call it an “Assistant Director” but really what it was was me playing with what would be considered the better kids in the district.
UY!: So you were playing along as a member of the group?
PL: Well, I mean, I sat on the end with the boys but the reality was, as you say, that I was sitting in and bolstering the guys’ part if I could. Then I took directorship of the “B” group, while still attending regular “A” group rehearsals. Then, it would have been 1982, I received a phone call from Lorna. It was a Monday night—I’ll never forget it—and Lorna said “Look, I’m leaving Langley effective immediately. As of tomorrow you’re the director of the Senior “A” group.” I went, “oh.”
What I did was I took the existing group which was my “B” group and the kids who were left in the Senior “A” group and I combined them. And by the time I weeded out the kids who didn’t want to be there, we had seventeen kids. I remember making a promise to that group that in five years I’d take them to Hawaii. We were there four years later.
I often reflect back on that phone call and the people I’ve met as a result of it, the things I’ve done as a result of it, the experiences I’ve had and that others have had.
UY!: Over 25 years the ensemble has grown and changed in many ways. How would you describe the current incarnation of the ensemble?
PL: Every incarnation of it is a product of the one that went before it. We can look at the progress that the ensemble has made consistently over time as being attributed to two main functions: one is the people who preceded them setting the bar, and two is my developing as a teacher. And you notice that I don’t say “developing as a ukulele player” because it’s not my playing ability that guides it but rather my teaching ability.
This year’s incarnation of the ensemble is going to have a couple of experiences that will set it apart. We’re putting together a CD right now of tunes from the crooners. They’re pieces that have a swing and jazz feel to them; the complexity of some of the chording that’s involved, some of the harmonic work vocally is more difficult than anything we’ve ever done. And so these kids are going to be asked to do things that no group before them has been asked to do. That epitomizes what happens every year.
UY!: Is there a ceiling to that progress?
PL: Yeah, we’re probably pretty close to it right now. In fact, if you’d asked me that last year I would have said “no, it can go on forever.” But the reality is that the level of commitment, the level of energy and effort that it takes to continue to grow and be better at this level... I mean, our model should spawn good young leaders in our community, a few good teachers, and a few really good players. And that’s what it’s done. For us to go beyond where we’re at now would mean spawning a bunch of James Hills. And that’s just not going to happen.
UY!: You’ve chosen a couple of video clips of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble to share with our readers. Tell us about the first clip and why you chose it.
PL: The clip of the William Tell Overture shows the piece of me, if you will, that’s saying “this is about entertainment.”
UY!: What about the second clip (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee)?
PL: Flight of the Bumblebee demonstrates that it’s not just entertainment; it's also about a truly outstanding level of proficiency. Now it’s not outstanding solo proficiency, it’s outstanding ensemble proficiency. But to that end, you’ve got to have a remarkable bunch of individuals, and that's what these kids are.
UY!: And what about something that shows the vocal side of the ensemble?
PL: How about a clip of twenty-three kids singing the Hallelujah chorus? We did it at every one of our shows last Christmas. We did a concert series of five shows and we performed it at each of them. This rendition was recorded at the Michael J. Fox Theatre in Burnaby, BC.
One of the models that I look at is Victor Borge. I still see that example as being what I hope to do. Mr. Borge could sit down and play like nobody’s business but he was also extremely entertaining. And that’s the model I try to use with the ensemble; as much as it’s entertaining, the quality of musical performance should be beyond reproach. And that’s ultimately what I would want the video clips to demonstrate: it’s fun, but it’s also outstanding.
UY!: You have a wide range of age groups in the ensemble. What’s the youngest and the oldest?
PL: Fourteen and nineteen.
UY!: How do the older students manage to balance work, school, and ukulele?
PL: It’s getting tougher. But you know what, they do it. They’ve got to be incredibly dedicated to this and to what it does in their lives in order to make it go. Many of them see that it supports their getting outstanding opportunities and gaining outstanding contacts. You know, I hope to always be about a win/win. I want the kids to believe that there’s a win for them out of this. I don’t want them to come into it naively thinking it’s just about making music. I want them to see the other aspects. These young people need to recognize that, at the end of the day, it’s about the fact that when they put “Langley Ukulele Ensemble” on a reference sheet that it carries weight. It’s about them being able to point to the experiences they’ve had, the people they’ve met, the opportunity to grow not just musically but also individually and independently.
UY!: Tell us about your “Strings Attached” leadership seminar. Is that something the group still does and, if so, what role does the ukulele play in the presentation?
PL: Yes. In fact, we did one in March in front of seven hundred people to three standing ovations.
The success of the ukulele ensemble that I’ve directed has been founded on four very basic principles. Those four basic principles are attached to four words, each of which starts with a letter that lines up with a string on the ukulele. The concepts are universal but the fact that I can actually attached them to an A, D, F#, and B makes it an extremely effective way to communicate to folks that the excellence of the ensemble is not an accident, it’s founded on:
1. Administration, which is the allocation of your greatest resource: people.
2. A sense of Destiny, that we know that this is part of a bigger good. The bigger good being that we are all going to be known for something other than just playing the ukulele and that we have a purpose that unites us to do something bigger. It’s called destiny.
3. The F# stands for Friendship. There can’t be animosity and jealousy and a sense of bitterness towards those around you, but rather there’s got to be a sense that it’s a family, a group of friends, and that we share in the desire to see the person on either side of me to be successful, as they share the desire to have me be successful.
4. Finally, the B string stands for a sense of Belonging.
Any student that’s ever left the group has left because one of those components has fallen; it’s most often the sense of belonging. The students who stay the longest stay because they see those aspects in harmony with who they are and what they want to be. And then music flows from there.
So when we do the “Strings Attached” presentation we’re speaking to businesses, we’re speaking to folks who are going to step into a leadership position and who are given this bit of advice as to how they can take their organization and make them successful: administer your folks wisely, set a common destiny, have the people feel kinship towards each other, and give them the sense that they belong, that they’re part of the greater good that succeeds.
To prove that this is a legitimate set of skills that the students have acquired, I teach the kids a song that we’ve never done before. I stand in front of that audience, I stand with the kids and they are taught a song that they will perform in four-part harmony (vocally and instrumentally), that will have an introduction and an ending, that will have a solo in the middle, that will be accompanied by bass, and that will be presented so that the audience wouldn’t know—if they didn’t know—that it was just learned.
UY!: And how long do you get for all this?
PL: Ten minutes.
UY!: Has it ever backfired?
PL: Never. The reason it works is the same reason the kids keep getting better: it’s because the way they’re being taught isn’t about what I put into their heads, it’s about the skills that I’m pulling out of them that are already inherently there. What I need to do is help them recognize what they can do with music.
Kevin Hodak, the bass player in the group, never had any music lessons other than ukulele with me. That’s it. When you hear the latest recording you listen to his bass playing; the boy can play. Well, you know what? I didn’t teach him how to play the bass. Mark [Luongo, former LUE bassist] certainly gave him the basic tools that he would need but the reality is, just like in the case of James Hill, the talent was there. All that a good teacher—an outstanding teacher—does is help the student recognize what the talent is, how to bring it out, and how to piece it together.
The greatest quality of an outstanding teacher is not mastery of their subject. It is the ability to motivate others to realize their own potential.
UY!: Describe a typical Langley Ukulele Ensemble rehearsal. How do you get so much done with just one rehearsal per week?
PL: Well, it’s high energy. I have a very clear mental picture of what I want the kids to be able to do. The reason so much gets done and the reason it’s so highly-charged in energy is because the entire time we’re meeting I’m giving a message to them about how to get closer to what needs to be heard for it to be excellent. And you know what? They feel purpose in it because they, of course, appreciate always the end product. I mean, it’s quite a motivator when you’re listening to yourself right in the midst of a two-hour session improving, getting better, and actually being able to do something that two hours previous you couldn’t do.
UY!: That’s all fine and good but can a classroom teacher who is nota music specialist run a successful ukulele program in his or her school?
PL: Absolutely. And it’s been proven in Langley. During the early days, non-music specialists, overall, were far more effective than the music specialists.
UY!: Why was that?
PL: For three reasons. First, they didn’t come in with any preconceived notion of whether or not a ukulele was the right way to teach music. They didn’t come in with an attitude that says “well, if you’re going to teach music properly it has to be with a recorder or it has to be with an Orff instrument or it has to be with the Kodaly method.” They walked in saying “I’m willing to look at it.” So first of all they didn’t come with a bias that precluded them making a good decision.
Secondly, they came in often with a level of energy that far exceed that of a music teacher. Music teachers notoriously burn out. Classroom teachers, when they see something with real passion, are often able to pass that passion onto their kids. Passion = motivation. So they’d come in going “gosh, this is cool, I really like it! Ukulele? Yeah! I’m going to teach this to my kids.” And the kids could see the delight in the eyes of the teacher and they adopted the same passion.
The third thing—and it needs to be said—is that even when the teacher was not a music specialist, they had some music background. You asked me: “can a non-music specialist teach this program?” My answer is “absolutely.” But let’s also make clear: you can’t teach the program if you don’t have some musical background. It would be like asking somebody to coach basketball at a high level when they’ve never played the game. It’s not a fair request.
UY!: Why teach ukulele when you could be teaching recorder or band?
PL: Well, I said earlier that I believe that the accordion is probably the most effective way to teach music. Number two is the ukulele. Number three would be the piano (laughs)! At the end of the day, the ukulele is easy, portable—which is critical for kids—and it’s set up in such a way that it allows for a clear understanding of how music works.
The fact that it’s chromatic, that it’s got a system to it that allows the instrument to be used at a variety of levels from very simple to the very complex. That’s what makes the piano (or the accordion) a very powerful teaching tool. You don’t have to use it to play Bach or Beethoven but if you needed to you could. And if all you wanted to do was to create a very simple melody, you could do that, too.
And when push comes to shove, I think it’s a great “thinking tool.” It allows for a level of cognitive exercise that makes it an ideal tool for people of all ages. Folks who are seniors are attracted to the ukulele right now. I think that’s outstanding because, you know, as I’m looking toward my senior years (laughs), the reality is that it’s a great way to keep the mind active. Obviously I’m passionate about the instrument but I’m just so fond of the notion that it’s such a powerful tool for the mind.
And last but not least, I can’t think of a person who can play the ukulele and not be happy!
UY!: What does the future hold for the Langley School district vis a vis ukulele?
PL: Well, right now we’re in a place that is both very encouraging and also a bit scary.
The program is doing extremely well right now. We’ve got six honour groups, we’ve got a group that is learning from scratch through a grant from one of our local credit unions, we’ve trained students in my group to teach kids to play, we’ve got nearly two hundred kids playing in the community outside of school time, we’ve got—certainly not as many as in the early days—but we’ve got lots of kids still playing in school, and we continue to have a community that is embracing it not just in the schools but we’ve now got three seniors’ homes that are offering ukulele instruction through our kids, and we’ve got an adult community that just absolutely loves coming out to hear our group perform. We sold just over a thousand tickets to our Christmas concert series.
So, we know that there’s a great deal of excitement around the program and around being involved. But I’m needing to look toward transition and a “passing of the torch.” As it stands right now I don’t have somebody to pass the reigns over to and that’s a bit of a concern. So I’ll be looking for that in the next little bit and hoping that it can happen.
UY!: What does the future hold for Peter Luongo and the Langley Ukulele Ensemble?
PL: Next year’s ensemble will likely get a little bit younger. I’m looking at bringing in some younger kids that are probably younger than I would have brought in in the last little bit. But my feeling is that it’s important that we continue to seek out the really keen younger students and continue to foster their passion. I’m anticipating that we may even have a 9- or 10-year-old in the group next year.
But, you know, I’ve got big plans in terms of trying to get Langley’s groups, in particular my senior group, off to some of the ukulele festivals that are now international. I’d love nothing more than to bring a group of kids to New York or to Paris or to the festival in Italy or the festival in Germany.
We’ve had a significant connection to Hawaii. It’s one that we embrace and that we’ve really appreciated because, of course, they no longer consider the folks from Langley as “foreigners,” I think they very much have adopted us as “ohana.” Which is a statement in itself.
UY!: Why do you do all of this when it takes so much time and energy?
PL: At the end of the day, music is just one part of why I do this. More important is the notion of giving back. I’m hoping that folks will recognize that I haven’t been doing this for money or for fame but rather because I believed I had something that I could share with a community of people. And I’m hopeful that there will be others that will step up having that same feeling and that same desire.