I’m just learning ukulele. Still.
Yes, it’s been more than a decade since I attended my first ukulele festival (Ukulele Hall of Fame’s Uke Expo, Rhode Island, August 2003) but that doesn’t mean my skills have grown to “Hey, she’s really good,” over all that time. In fact, they haven’t.
Until September 2016.
That’s when I signed up for a two-day workshop led by Peter Luongo, the founding director of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble. I’d taken a few one-hour workshops from Peter at the Reno Ukulele Fest in the past; Peter’s an energetic and inspiring teacher.
So when I spotted the Luongo Ukulele Experience, presented by Doug and Melinda Reynolds (the same clever folks who produce the Reno and Palm Springs ukulele festivals), I thought I’d give it a try. Sure, it said “intermediate” level players and sure, it listed a whole page of skills players should have to get the most out of the workshop. But I figured I could easily get up to speed and enjoy the two days—so I signed up.
In the weeks preceding the September event at Minden, Nevada (an hour south of Reno on Highway 395), I worked at memorizing various scales and making sure I had specific chord shapes down. I read standard musical notation slowly so I worked on that, too.
On Friday afternoon I happily pointed the 4Runner south on the four-hour drive to Minden and listened to an Audible book as I traversed Highway 70 (my all-time favorite drive ever) and then south on 395. Checking in at the Carson Valley Inn, I noted a few other ukulele players sitting to the side of the lobby. They’d all just finished the same workshop, which had been offered in two sessions: Thursday/Friday and the one I was enrolled in (Saturday/Sunday). These folks—whom I didn’t know previously—were playing songs Peter had just taught them. And they were playing with a pick. And they were playing really fast. And they were singing. Ummmm….yeah….
That was my first intimation that this workshop wasn’t the typical festival workshop. Still, I wasn’t overly concerned. Not yet, at least.
The concept of LUE is “to provide an ongoing, life affirming musical experience for ukulele playing, music-loving adults.” Well, yes, that all sounded right up my alley.
Then I discovered this program descriptor: “Peter Luongo directs an inspirational, high energy, two-day program for adults that extracts musical skills and achievement beyond what the participants ever thought they could accomplish.”
The “high energy” part started with the 7: 15 am breakfast Friday. At LUE it’s all about the ensemble so breakfast and lunches are typically taken together as kind of a group bonding experience. I sat myself down to my plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and croissant and met others at my table. Frankly, we were all smiling happily and quite confident we’d be able to breeze through these two days and have a great time doing so.
Have you ever met Peter Luongo in person? We’ll get the obvious out of the way right from the start—he’s not physically really tall. But you know, other than his frequent jokes about it, you don’t really notice his height (or lack of) at all—because this guy is so darn intense and charismatic and “in charge” that he fills up the room.
Peter teaches with a focus and skill that I’ve not experienced previously in any teacher of any subject. He constantly assesses the group as well as its individual members, tailoring his instruction to create success for each player. Peter told me once that he teaches to the highest—rather than the lowest—skill level because that will leave no one bored and will elevate everyone’s playing to the best level they can achieve at that session.
He means it.
I went into my first LUE feeling pretty confident and perhaps even a bit cocky. By 10:30 am I’d crashed. Peter uses a variety of teaching methods, from “watch and follow me” to “listen and do it” to “look at the written music” to “here are the notes’ names.” Unfortunately, none of those methods were working for me. I found myself underwater more and more often as Peter introduced new passages and skills. The other 43 people in the room seemed to “get it.” I didn’t. I was drowning and I knew I didn’t have a hope.
I panicked. How could I handle all of today’s workshop and another tomorrow of more of this? I couldn’t.
My brain went into overload. By the time my watch read 10:45 am, I began scoping out my options for leaving the workshop, creating the least commotion possible. I mentally recalled where my uke case was so I could grab it and go, determined the best way to lift my music stand out of the cluster in the row I sat in and wondered if it was too late to cancel that night’s hotel reservation. My feet were itching to get me out of there.
Thank goodness some form of sanity flooded me—well, that and pure embarrassment at “failing.” I recalled one thing I’d heard Peter say earlier that morning: “Find something you can do and do that if you can’t do anything else.”
Well, I could pick the notes at the first fret that I knew (I’d memorized scales, but only in first position and Peter had the group gleefully gallivanting about the neck at the fifth fret for heaven’s sake). So I did that. Just that. My overclocked brain slowed a bit as I was able to catch up with the group. I breathed a bit. I didn’t fret (ha, a pun here, see?) about not doing everything perfectly.
I stuck it out. And, without realizing it, I became part of the ensemble.
I sang (my personal nemesis activity—just ask how I was kicked out of seventh grade girls’ chorus and told to be the mimeograph person instead). I played notes at the first fret and even a few up the neck. I learned to hold a pick in my right hand and boisterously make really “articulated” (Peter’s word) sounds with it.
By the end of the second workshop day, I gleefully joined our fledgling LUE group in a public performance of the five songs we’d just learned, ensemble-style. I relished sitting in the midst of others as we created a wonderfully rich sound, sometimes in four-part harmony playing and singing.
I was hooked. Finally I have a solid reason to get better at ukulele and music. I want to keep playing with LUE so that means lots of work—and I’m up for it. In the months since September, I’ve attended two more LUE workshops and I’ll be at another this week at the Palm Springs Uke Fest. There’s another in March and one more just prior to the Reno festival. We’re gearing up for performances at all those events—the LUE folks playing in the “A group” may even “open” for the acts on the main showroom stage at both festivals. If Peter says we’re good enough 😉
I play almost every day for as much time as I can squeeze out of my busy life (geesh, most of my LUE colleagues are retired—I wish I had that kind of time available for ukulele playing). I don’t call it “practicing” because that implies a certain lack of desire to play, as in, “I have to practice.” Instead, Peter—and thinking of my fellow LUE players—inspires me to do whatever it takes to get better. I don’t want to disappoint the group—nor get “stink eye” from Peter with bad playing.
I’m still challenged with one of the songs needed by this Wednesday—so tonight I’ll be playing “El Cumbanchero” at the 208 tempo again…and again…and again. But every time I play I get better—and, while I’m still not “really good,” (yet!) my LUE commitment and involvement have made me infinitely better as an ukulele player. I’m also developing a sense of “musicality” that I never thought would be intrinsic to me.
And, most importantly, I’ve learned a really, really important lesson from this: It’s vital in my life that I tackle—and accomplish—things I never thought I’d be able to do. I conquered my attitude of quitting because I’m not good enough—switching it out for the excitement of learning something new, even at 59 years! My life is richer for this awareness…and it leaves me thinking what else I can now attempt. Who knows???
The LUE program is an evolving one. We have members who travel from as far as Washington, D.C. to join in the workshops. There are hints from Peter and Doug that a Southern California group may form as well as one in the Pacific Northwest. Members will be tackle the same curriculum and perfect (note that word, please) the same songs so they can join in performances at festivals and other events.
If you’re at all interested in this program you can do a mini “test run” at both the upcoming Palm Springs and Reno festivals to try it out. And, you can always email me or comment here and I’ll answer your questions!