For nearly 30 yearsPeter Luongo has been the director of the internationally acclaimed Langley Ukulele Ensemble in Langley British Columbia, Canada. The LUE routinely performs across Canada, in the continental USA, and annually in Hawaii. The LUE have also recorded ten CDs.
1. What are the challenges in teaching and leading a successful ensemble?
There are 3 challenges to leading The Langley Ukulele Ensemble. The first involves getting the students together to rehearse. This ensemble is community based. It is made up of students from throughout the Langley community and indeed includes students from surrounding communities too. Our students do not come from one school or one neighborhood. Furthermore, the members have a wide variety of talents and interests. Though the ensemble members are quite dedicated to individual practice and skill development, it is difficult to regularly pull together a group with this dynamic to rehearse as a complete ensemble. I too find it a challenge! As a school administrator I have a number of commitments both in my building and in the school district and am also an active participant in church and community leadership.
The second challenge is to respond to the number of concert requests and performance opportunities that we receive. As the ensemble has gained acclaim and notoriety the number of requests to perform have continued to increase. My mandate with the ensemble is to develop leadership and personal skills (enrich the lives of our members) through musical experiences. It would be impossible to accept every opportunity presented. This said, it has been difficult and disappointing to have to turn down some opportunities that I know would have been great for the students but simply could not fit into our schedules.
The third challenge is the most significant. Finding a successor to take over the ensemble and continue the long-standing tradition of excellence has been extremely difficult. The musical and teaching skill level, the vision, and the commitment of time necessary to lead a successful ensemble is challenging enough, but adding to this the very specialized requirement of being able to play and teach the ukulele add a profound challenge to my role as director.
2. How does one develop left hand (fingering) speed as required to play one of LUE’s most popular tunes Flight of the Bumblebee?
There a few things that need to occur before embarking on trying to learn to play a piece such as “Flight of the Bumble Bee.” To start, the ukulele needs to be tuned with a low 4th string. This provides additional notes allowing the player to perform pieces extending down the scale. Secondly, there needs to be an appreciation that it will require a significant amount of practice and thought. Finally, most players that I’ve met strum chords and add some picking of individual notes to their style of playing. Developing left hand technique, fingering, speed, etc., to be able to perform a piece such as this requires the player to development specific techniques and an understanding of music theory. Beyond these things here are some hints which should help a uke player develop left hand technique and speed:
1. Learn about how the instrument works: The ukulele has frets which allow notes to be played from the nut to the end of the neck. You need to know the patterns of notes and the positions of the pitches up and down the neck. Most players use the first 3 frets for picking out melodies. Some actually venture up the 1st string, but few have taken the time to “learn the instrument” along the neck. Play major and minor scales, learn the positions of chords, trying picking melodies so that your fingers begin to go to the right place without thought.
2. Efficiency is a key: avoid skipping along the neck. Find the easiest, shortest path to the next note. Wherever possible find a pattern. Sometimes this may require selecting a more appropriate key for the instrument.
3. It takes two hands: Develop the left technique definitely helps: Learn to hammer and pull notes with your left hand helps play with greater speed, however the right hand also has a role to play. Whether using a soft pick, finger tips, or a long thumb nail, the ability to move nimbly from string to string with the right hand is a key to picking out pieces with fast moving passages, or sections with multiple notes.
4. If you build it, it will come: If you can adopt the skills and understandings identified above you’ll be on your way, but the skill level needs to be developed. You build skill through a process of taking on challenges that incrementally become more difficult. In other words, you keep raising the bar as you learn to play more difficult repertoire. This process is called “Scaffolding” and it a critical strategy that any competent teacher uses. The Langley Ukulele Ensemble went through several selections of music, over several years to develop the ability to perform Flight of the Bumble Bee. Be patient, work hard, pay attention to detail, and follow the hints above and you will get to this level too.
3. How do go about arranging songs for the LUE?
Originally, all the arrangements that we performed were either borrowed from others or developed totally by myself. As a director I would go back to my musical experiences and select music that I both knew and that I could visualize being able to be performed on the ukulele. As my proficiency on the ukulele increased, and as my students’ skill level allowed them to perform more difficult repertoire I was able to include them in the process.
At first, all of their playing was the result of them using a musical score (notes and chords notated). Over time, I was able to have them develop their ear playing so that they could figure out the melody line without having it notated. The next step was for them to be taught to understand chord structure so that harmonic structure of a piece could be both sung and played on the instrument. From there it became a matter of collaborating our arrangement. THAT’S WHEN THE MUSIC MAKING REALLY BECAME A LOT OF FUN!
Today when we create an arrangement it involves my presenting a piece that I think would suit our students’ skill set, or would challenge that skill set. I introduce it as a challenge. We play the melody and the chords. I allow individuals within the ensemble to present their ideas. Sometimes I need to give them an idea of where to begin, but often they have ideas that they start to teach other members. Within a short time we have a number of ideas which we then put together into a rough arrangement. From there it is up to me to challenge/ teach to what’s been created. We’ll talk about the chord structure and whether or not the harmonies fit. I’ll challenge individuals to come up with solos, throw in a key change (or two), ask students to switch parts so that we experiment with timbre and tone. Finally, the pieces will be put together in a “performable” format and we’ll present it to audiences to monitor reaction. One more thing, I reserve the right to change an arrangement at any time; including during the middle of a performance.
This process gets the students to buy in to the arrangement, it keeps them thinking musically, it makes them feel like their say counts, and it reinforces the learning that the skills that the students are learning. It also makes making music fun for the director.