At 33, Randy Wong is the youngest-ever executive director of Hawaii Youth Symphony, which turns 50 this year. A product of the orchestra, he returned from a successful career on the Mainland and in Europe with plans to make music available to even more Isle keiki
If you’ve ever suffered the screeches and honks of a budding French-horn player, flutist or cellist at home, you’ve prayed to be fitted instantly with the best noise-canceling earplugs on the market. You’re also familiar with practice-time protests and your child’s bouts of frustration, of even wanting to throw in the towel at times.
But you’re also familiar with the glow of satisfaction on your child’s face when he’s tackled his first musical piece, the pride swelling in you as a parent attending his first concert and the amazement at the delicately honed, melodious notes emanating from that instrument when he has his first solo. And you know the incredible team of effort it took to get him there.
May we introduce Randy Wong, who not only can commiserate with such a scenario, having practiced music from early childhood, but also as a lifelong music educator and recent appointee as executive director of Hawaii Youth Symphony (HYS) ― at 33, he’s the youngest executive director ever to fill the position, and he’s an HYS alumnus.
Randy’s mom was adept at piano and harp, and dad studied under renowned slack key guitarist and composer Auntie Alice Namakelua, who propitiously counseled Mr. Wong, “Get your son involved in music as soon as you can, starting at age 3, because the sooner you start the more exposure he has.”
“They took that advice,” says Randy, “and I started off, not with instrument lessons, but with solfège, a French style of learning to read music and sing.”
After dabbling in instruments like piano, drum set and percussion in marching band, Wong junior found “his” instrument, the upright bass, as a third-grader at Hanahauoli School, the same year he joined HYS. Music remained Wong’s passion through middle and high school at Iolani. By college, it was all about music, from a bachelor’s in classical music performance at New England Conservatory to a master’s in arts in education at Harvard, and further grad studies at Carnegie Mellon University. And that’s only the tip of Wong’s iceberg of musical accomplishments, which begs the question: Who are the 650 music students throughout the state that HYS serves each year? Are they all prodigies destined for symphonic greatness? Certainly not, at least not to the intensity of the drummer whose beat Wong follows.
“Music is my life,” he responds to a question about what he does with his leisure time. “It’s recreational, it’s a sport, it’s my passion and it’s my livelihood. Music is everything to me.”
During his 12 years away from home, he served as program director for Boston-based Music-in-Education National Consortium, a research-oriented music integration curriculum in public schools, overseeing projects in cities throughout the U.S. He’s published research on music ed, performed on upright bass throughout the world and continues to perform with his exotica group Waitiki 7 and Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, along with wife Helen Liu Wong, who plays first violin. He plays in a couple other groups as well and teaches privately. That caliber of musical tenacity and accomplishment is rare.
“A lot of times, parents aren’t sure what their kids are going to get out of music,” says Wong. “Everybody I’ve talked to either personally or through youth symphony has said that music did something great for their kid. The goal of Hawaii Youth Symphony is to produce compassionate, well-rounded, empathetic adults. We’re going to succeed, because one thing I learned is no matter what city you live in, some of the hardest-working, most earnest people around you are people who are alumni of some youth symphony or music program. We’re investing in these youths and they’re going to come out and wherever they land, they’re going to be positive contributors to their community.”
The distinguishing earmark of success in the music field is hard work, and Wong’s resume proved exemplary. When he returned home with a wealth of musical, educational and administrative experience under his belt, the HYS job fortuitously opened. He was one of the last to apply during the national search and went through rounds of interviews before finally being selected. Not only did the position mean returning full circle to his alma mater, but it also meant partnering with HYS music director Henry Miyamura, who’s been with the youth symphony 30 years and a mainstay in Hawaii’s music community for upward of 50 years.
“Growing up, he was one of my mentors, my idols,” says Wong. “He’s trained thousands of musicians.”
In fact, Miyamura was Wong’s impetus for joining HYS, and “He’s still a great mentor,” adds Wong. I learn a lot from him every day.”
As executive director, Wong covers finances, does strategic planning, some program development and oversees operations, and his musical background gives him insight into how to best support his staff. Artistic and administrative duties are quite distinct, but, says Wong, “Musicians can be great administrators because we’re detail-oriented and we’re also thinking about the big picture.”
Speaking of the big picture, this is a standout year for HTY, marking its golden (50th) anniversary, and Wong and his team have a string of celebratory concerts planned for the occasion. The highlight is a Nov. 23 kickoff, He Makana O Na Mele, featuring Makana and HYS’s most advanced orchestra, Youth Symphony I. To follow are a Dec. 7 winter concert featuring winners from the Aloha International Piano Festival, and an April 12 spring concert featuring young piano sensation Conrad Tao and Hawaii’s own Iggy Jang, among other events.
HYS students perform 24 concerts a year, most of them free and at least half geared toward children who otherwise might not have the opportunity to attend an orchestral music function. Therein lies the symphony’s mission: bringing music to the children of Hawaii, including those who might not normally be able to afford an education in music.
Tuition covers only a third of the organization’s budget, with the rest coming from fundraisers, grants, corporate sponsorships and contributions. A number of HYS programs help reduce the financial burden for students, including low-cost instrument rental, subsidies for students who fly in from Neighbor Islands three or so times a month, financial aid, scholarships and a partnership with Boys & Girls Club that teaches general music concepts and beginning band to underserved youths in the Moiliili, McCully and Ala Wai areas.
Symphony students are placed in seven levels of expertise, each an individual orchestra, that plays the range of instruments from strings (violin, viola, cello, bass) to woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, English horn), brass (French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, euphonium) and percussion. The program is headquartered on Oahu, with Youth Symphony I visiting a different Neighbor Island each year to play a community concert, as well as educational concerts for students.
A noteworthy element of HYS is its family atmosphere. Youths ages 7 to 18 are guided through the program, but it rarely ends there. Whether in college or beyond, they often return to volunteer with HYS.
“Our music staff,” notes Wong, “are some of the finest music educators in Hawaii’s public and private schools. Many of them have served the youth symphony for 10-30 years.”
The majority are alumni of the program. Other notable HYS alumni include Santana bass player Benny Rietveld, Japan-based jazz trumpeter Eric Miyashiro, multi-instrumentalist Abe Lagrimas Jr., Broadway tubist Morris Kainuma and many more who play with various top-notch orchestras and music societies around the world.
Youth symphony students got a taste of some of their own star-quality success resulting from their Na Mele fundraiser last year. For the event, the orchestra teamed up with Jimmy Borges and the tropical cadences of Wong’s Waitiki 7, which Wong recorded and turned into an album that was a finalist as instrumental album of the year at the Hokus.
“Importantly,” says Wong, “it was a great validation for the kids that what they do in music really means something to somebody else.”
When relishing the “world of merriment, the gush of euphony voluminously welling” (to wax poetically in Poe’s musical words) from the students’ instruments, it’s easy to overlook the tremendous dedication, not only of the students, but of their parents, teachers and conductors.
“The success of the youth symphony is the culmination of all these (elements) manifesting themselves through the students’ music,” says Wong.
The very qualities that ushered Wong to success beginning in his HYS student days are being passed on to upcoming generations whom he is helping guide.
“HYS instills a high professional standard in the kids,” he says, “because we hold them to a high standard in their performance, behavior and attendance ― the sort of things that translate not just to music, but to life.”
For more information on the Nov. 23 youth symphony concert, or any of its 50th anniversary celebrations, visit hiyouthsymphony.org.