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Campus & Community

BYUH alumnus shares his musical journey and passion of conducting and piano performance

Man playing the piano

Lawrence Laureano’s love of singing and teaching music has helped him and others find emotional support through the demands of life, he said. “I’ve had a profound understanding since I was a little boy that we are all connected and that’s the reason why I love choral music. We are connected in choir.”

Laureano is an alumnus from BYU–Hawaii who graduated in April 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and piano, and said he taught himself to conduct music from YouTube videos of Dr. Craig Jessop, the former director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Laureano said he will finish studying directly under Jessop in his master’s program for choral conducting at Utah State University at the end of the Winter 2023 Semester.

Originally from Davao City, Philippines, Laureano said life was challenging for his family when he was growing up. “We weren’t abundant when it came to food or money,” he explained. Laureano said he didn’t have much guidance from his parents as a teenager, so music became his safe haven.

“I would go to church and play the piano,” he said, “because there was so much pain, hatred and violence where I grew up. Music became my way to escape.”

Laureano said music was his companion because it was the only thing he felt understood by. He said he also found solitude in nature. Laureano explained being in the wild would help him connect with his deeper self, the part of him that was longing for love, connection and purpose.

Laureano’s first introduction to Jessop was when he was a child in Primary, he said. When he was young, Laureano said he would go to conferences and watch Jessop conducting the Tabernacle Choir on screen. “That was a spark of creativity in me,” Laureano said of Jessop’s art form deeply resonating with him. “I have been a keen observer of his art since I was a little boy growing up in the southern part of the Philippines.”

Two men, a teacher and student, stand with their arm around each other smiling at the camera.
Laureano is now a student at Utah State University under Dr. Craig Jessop, the former director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Laureano has admired Jessop's work since he was in Primary.

By the age of 14, Laureano said he taught himself enough to direct his ward’s choir. He said. “It was with that group that I was really able to hone my skills in conducting in preparation for my BYUH life.”

Learning and singing at BYUH 

Jennifer Duerden, an adjunct instructor in the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts and close friend and mentor to Laureano, said she met him the day he arrived at BYUH. Duerden said she remembers him saying he was excited to “have a real piano teacher.” It wasn’t long afterwards Laureano was assigned to Duerden as her piano student, she said.

Laureano said meeting Duerden completely changed the trajectory of his life. “[The Duerdens] have been like parents to me,” he explained.

Duerden said she watched Laureano try different avenues to figure out what he wanted to do in his first few years of school. “At one time he was thinking about doing more acting and being a Broadway singer, and I think he could do that. But he gravitated towards and had a true love for choir,” she said. Duerden noted Laureano has many talents outside of the music world as well. She said when school got hard, he would sometimes joke with her and say, “‘I just want to start my own Filipino bakery.’”

Even though it was hard, Laureano said he had positive experiences at BYUH. In his junior year, he said he was asked to teach the university choral class. He was considered part of the faculty, which he said was an interesting twist to his undergrad experience. “I would attend faculty meetings and the next day go to my biology class,” he said with a laugh.

Photo of a smiling man sitting on a piano bench in front of a piano.

Duerden said when BYUH asked who she recommended to be the new university choral conductor, Laureano was her top pick. “I’ve worked with so many conductors, and [Laureano] just has this magic of getting exactly the right sound out of people,” Duerden said. There were logistical challenges with hiring a student to be a teacher, she acknowledged, but they figured out a way to make it work because of Laureano’s talents.

Seeing Laureano in the contexts of both student and teacher gave Duerden unique insights, she said. “He’s like a sponge,” Duerden explained. “I would see him in vocal master classes and the teacher would say, ‘Do this technique,’ and the very next day I would see him teaching it to the choir.”

When Laureano received a calling to be his ward’s choir director, Duerden said she agreed to be his pianist. “It wasn’t just an average ward choir,” Duerden recalled. She said she told Laureano if he ever got a different church calling, he should start his own choir. One year later, Laureano moved wards and organized Our Voice: a choir with some of his fellow students.

Brandon Sorilla, a senior from Iloilo City, Philippines, was an original member of Our Voice. Majoring in vocal performance, Sorilla said Laureano invited him to join the choir without auditioning. “That kind of made me feel a little special and thankful that he trusts me and my abilities as a singer,” Sorilla said.

Sorilla described Laureano’s conducting as very passionate and strict. He said he joined Our Voice because Laureano was an amazing conductor and good friend of his.

Supporting others through music

Laureano said although students are often taught one way of singing in the world of choral music, there are a lot of different ways of doing it. “Music has this powerful energy that just brings you to a higher dimension when it is done the right way,” said Laureano.

He said he believes choral music can be a platform for him to encourage an inclusive, safe space through diversity. Discussing Laureano’s work, Duerden said, “It’s not a different way of doing things, it’s almost like a whole new way of doing things.”

During his time at BYUH, Laureano said he struggled with anxiety and depression. “I didn’t know about emotions growing up.” He explained his parents weren’t able to help him understand or have tools to work through thoughts and feelings. “When I went to BYUH, a lot of different emotions surged in my body with learning a whole new culture and language,” Laureano explained.

Despite the new environment, he said it taught him to connect with his deeper self. “A lot of students are so identified with their pain because they think that’s who they are. They identify with the roles they play. But the true form of who I am is not my emotions, but that I am the observer of my emotions.”

Laureano said he was not alone in his difficulties. During his time as a teacher at BYUH, he had students write to him about their struggles, he shared. Laureano said nature taught him to be still and present, which allowed him to help his students. “After a concert or rehearsal, they would email me and thank me for that experience, that energy,” he said.

Sharing his own compositions

After he graduated from BYUH, Duerden said Laureano lived with them for a time. “We loved having him in our house,” she said and explained how Laureano began seriously composing in their home. Laureano likely started composing out of frustration, Duerden said, because he couldn’t meet with his choir in-person due to COVID-19.

Duerden said she thought the final straw was when Laureano’s car was broken into and his wallet was stolen. She said he started composing the next day and he couldn’t stop once he started.

Photo of a man playing the piano

Sorilla said his favorite part about being part of Our Voice was being able to sing Laureano’s original songs. It was a blessing, he said, to know the backstory of each of the songs.

Many of Laureano’s pieces have been showcased at the Utah State University Veterans Day Concert and will be at a USU Christmas Concert, where Laureano attends graduate school. Last Christmas, Duerden said one of Laureano’s pieces, “Major Filled with Love,” was performed in Utah at a concert she was able to attend. “It was a really amazing concert, but honestly the best part was his piece,” she said.

The path to graduate school

Laureano explained that graduate school wasn’t always part of his plans. He said he was invited to visit a friend in Logan, Utah, where he had to opportunity to tour USU. He said the more he explored the campus, the more he felt like he should attend school there. “I had a distinct feeling that I had been there before,” he said, “but at the time, they were not offering any choral conducting degrees.”

Laureano said he then returned to BYUH to finish his bachelor’s and forgot about USU for a while. When he was in his last semester at BYUH, Laureano said he was terrified about the next phase of his life. He said Duerden told him, “‘Don’t give up on your dreams. Pursue your master’s degree.’”

Duerden, remembering that experience, said, “I just felt like he was grad school material. He’s such a stellar student, and if anybody should go to grad school, he should.”

Laureano took the advice and started applying to master’s programs. He shared that he remembered how he felt about USU’s campus and looked up its website. When Laureano saw Jessop, his childhood inspiration, had just created a new choral conducting master’s program at USU, he said he thought, “I think this is for me.” In February 2021, Laureano said he found out he was one of the first graduate students admitted to the program. He said it was his dream come true.

Laureano said he’s finishing his master’s degree and is planning on getting a doctorate because he believes in service through music. He said his dream is to return to the Philippines and build a music school for young children, like he once was.