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Interview With Peter Luongo, Director of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble

The Langley Ukulele Ensemble is the premier ukulele group of Canada. Made up of students aged 12-21, the LUE has performed around the world and shared the stage with the likes of Ohta-San and Jake Shimabukuro. Peter Luongo has been directing the LUE for 30 years and agreed to answer some of my questions about the ensemble and his role as director.

Brad Bordessa: Give a quick overview of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, how it came about, and how you became involved.

Peter Luongo: The ensemble got it’s start in the late 1970’s when the school district decided to implement the ukulele program as part of it’s music program offerings in elementary schools. J. Chalmers Doane, a Canadian educator from Nova Scotia had created a music program that would incorporate the use of the ukulele and the Langley Schools saw it as an effective way to motivate and encourage children aged 9 to 11 years to play. An ‘honor’ group was established to allow students who were both talented and interested in participating at a higher level after school.

At the time, I was a university student and one of my professors also recognized the merits of the program and introduced the uke to his students. As I graduated from university the Langley School District hired me and as part of my duties I taught ukulele to approximately 100 students at my school. I was blessed to have had students who were both motivated and talented; they responded to my teaching and very quickly became recognized for their skill with the instrument. Within a year they were being highlighted at music-teacher conventions, serving as a demonstration group for teachers, and performing in the community.

In 1980, I began working with the ‘honor’ group and was given a group of my own to train. One year later, I inherited the top ensemble as my own and have continued to direct the Langley Ukulele Ensemble for the past 30 years.

BB: So where was your ukulele career when you got the teaching job? How were you pursuing music at the time?

PL: As I started my first teaching job in 1979 my only uke experience was the ukulele course at university. I certainly understood the instrument and how it could be used to help children become musically literate. Over the years I’ve gained a far better understanding of the instrument but my focus continues to be as a teacher.

My music performance background was keyboard instruments. I spent my childhood playing the accordion. During my teen years the instrument was an important part of the cultural fabric of our community. From the time I was 14 years old through my to my early 20’s I got the opportunity to lead and perform in a dance band that performed every weekend. That background provided me with the skills that I still use today in putting together our musical presentations.

BB: What is the selection process for choosing ensemble members?

PL: Any student, regardless of age is able to audition as long as they have the skill, the motivation, and the character necessary to become a member of the ensemble. We currently have 4 ensembles; 2 intermediate groups, a senior ‘b’ group and the top group which travels internationally. The children can be promoted through the groups as they meet the criteria for each.

About 10 years ago several of our elementary schools dropped their ‘in class’ programs due to loss of qualified teachers being available. At that time, the Langley Ukulele Association adopted a program of offering lessons. At this time we have 150 students involved in our after school program and from these I select the top 10 to 15% to form the group that represents Langley when we travel to Hawaii and through out North America.

BB: How do you arrange your songs and divide up the parts?

PL: All of the arrangements are based on the skill level and capabilities of the students in the ensemble during that year. In the early days they were ‘my’ ideas and very much directed by me. Classical arrangements still tend to be ‘scored’ and the parts are assigned. However, as the students have developed a greater knowledge of music theory through our program, the arrangements (especially the vocal pieces) have become collaborative efforts. I try to include the students as much as I can in helping to create the arrangements that the audience hears. In this way, the students develop their musical skill while at the same time developing a sense of ownership of the music that we perform. Of course, the final word on all arrangements rests with the musical director but the students’ contributions most certainly are part of our final arrangements.

BB: I’m sure many have flown under your fingers, but what is the LUE’s current “signature” or favorite song? The one that closes out a show with a big bang?

PL: We end our programs [with] one of 3 pieces (depending on the audience): Israel [Kamakawiwo’ole]’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World“. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a very impressive and powerful vocal arrangement. But the most impressive end to our show is when the entire ensemble performs “Flight of the Bumble Bee“.

BB: This year is the ensemble’s 30th. What have been some of the big highlights of the LUE’s journey?

PL: One highlight has been seeing that the ensemble has lasted for 30 years! It’s also been a thrill to see peoples’ willingness to buy into the vision of excellence, of being ambassadors for the community, and of developing a passion for what we are doing with the ukulele. We have certainly traveled extensively and seen many countries and met a great number of wonderful people. But the 2 greatest highlights are:

1. The life-long friendships that have developed among students and with the people that we’ve met through the years and

2. The ongoing positive reaction of the audiences for whom we perform. After 30 years, the smiles that the ensembles’ performances brings to our audiences’ faces and the standing ovations never get old!

BB: The LUE was sort of a proving ground for James Hill during his teenage years. As we all know, he’s gone off and done well on his own. Are any of your current members planning on taking the leap into a solo career?

PL: It’s been great to see what James has been able to do with the uke. While we have a number of talented young musicians involved in the program, the current rising star is Paul Luongo. Paul has many Youtube clips and he has developed his own style and repertoire on the uke. Paul is developing quite a following; he’s got a number of people following his exploits with the instrument. He is one of our country’s top players and his skill and left hand technique is really quite outstanding. He’s recently begun to write his own material and is set to release a CD of uke solos and original songs. In addition to being a great player, Paul is a natural teacher and has taken to teaching like a duck to water. He enjoys working with children and adults of all ages.

BB: Thanks so much for your time Peter.

PL: Thanks Brad.