BY JIM D’VILLE
The typical ukulele group experience is a number of players sitting around strumming and singing their way through selections from a songbook. That is not what happens at the Luongo Ukulele Experience.
The inaugural three-day event is the brainchild of Doug Reynolds, promoter of the wildly successful Reno and Palm Springs ukulele festivals. “The idea was to inspire adults to extract a higher level of musicianship,” says Reynolds. “I noticed that adult ukulele players fell into two general camps—those who use the ukulele primarily as a common bond for their social interaction, and eager learners, who took on the instrument as a musical and artistic challenge.”
The event is named for Peter Luongo, a renowned ukulele educator and choir director, who for 35 years was the director of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, a group of high school students from Langley, British Columbia. One alumni from the Langley group is ukulele master James Hill. Luongo and the LUE are featured in the 2010 ukulele documentary The Mighty Uke.
“The Luongo Ukulele Experience was created for eager learners,” adds Reynolds, “and Peter is the only instructor, in my opinion, who can both instill the desired level of inspiration and extract those previously untapped abilities. We also wanted to explore the possibility of creating an adult performing group, similar to Peter’s Langley Ukulele Ensemble youth group.”
When the date for the first Luongo Ukulele Experience workshop was announced in May 2016, it sold out in four hours, so a second two-day session was scheduled (that session sold out in four days). The workshops were held September 15–18, in Minden, Nevada, just south of Reno in the beautiful Carson Valley (think Bonanza). Each session consisted of 45 students. I assisted Peter throughout the two sessions.
Over the course of each two-day session, students were taught correct singing techniques, ear training, music arranging, harmony singing, music theory, music notation, and the importance of using the ukulele as a melody, harmony, and rhythm instrument, with or without the voice.
“In the over three decades working with the Langley Ukulele Ensemble I came to realize what an incredible resource the ukulele is to teach music,” says Luongo. “In my travels to festivals in the US and Canada, I noticed the focus was limited to strumming, singing, and playing solos. There seemed to be no attention paid to the concept of using notated music and/or using the instrument’s ability to play melodies or to play in an ensemble format. So the idea behind the Luongo Ukulele Experience was to offer the same opportunity to adults as with the Langley group and provide a setting for those ready to embrace a new musical challenge in their lives. We would use the ukulele to teach music with the hope of developing a group of proficient musicians who could become performers in an ensemble setting.”
Over the course of the two-day sessions, the students learned arrangements to six songs ranging in musical diversity from big band to Hawaiian to jazz. The event concluded with a 30-minute outdoor concert for a handful of friends, family, and passersby. According to Reynolds, the next step for those who attended the first LUE sessions is to “determine the feasibility of creating an adult ensemble with the goal of performing at the Palm Springs and Reno ukulele festivals.”
For me, the Luongo Ukulele Experience was unlike any ukulele workshop I’ve ever attended. In a mere 14 hours of instruction over a two-day period I witnessed two groups of 45 strangers transform into musical ensembles under Peter’s tutelage. They were singing in up to five-part harmony and using their ukuleles as both rhythmic and melodic instruments.