Commitment to Excellence

By Kevin McKay

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Peter Luongo was destined to be a musician from an early age.

“My father was an immigrant from Italy who loved music but could not afford lessons when he was growing up,” says Peter. “He vowed that at least one of his children would play music and he started me on accordion lessons when I was six years old.”

A far cry from those early days, Peter is now the leader and spokesperson of the highly acclaimed Langley Ukulele Ensemble.

As a student at UBC, Peter aimed to be a teacher and took a course on classroom instruments. Though his long-term goal had been law school, it quickly changed when he excelled on the ukulele.

“I was one of the few people being offered employment before I got my teaching degree,” says Peter. “I was hired six months before I started teaching. I looked at it and thought the good Lord was telling me this is something I should be doing. My instructor recommended me for a position in Langley, and I took the job despite other offers because of the opportunity to teach the ukulele.”

Peter gives the credit for the decision to his father.

“The message Dad got through to me was if you have an education you wouldn't have to work a labourer's job that would get your hands dirty,” he says. “He was right. I work hard but not doing physical labour. The preference is making a living by using your skills.”

When Peter started teaching that fall something clicked. Teaching 11 and 12 year olds, over the course of the school year many music educators came into his class, which was seen as an excellent example of how music education should occur in the school system.

Opportunities followed over the next few years for Peter and his students to attend many conferences and seminars at schools and other venues across Canada.

“I thought there must be something to this,” says Peter. "Within a couple of years of being in the system, I took a group of kids to meet after school to practice. Within five years of starting these groups, we were performing in Hawaii. From there, it quickly evolved into the Langley Ukulele Ensemble. Just about right away, we started performing at senior homes and local community events.”

In the early days, the members of the group spent a lot of time in various fundraising ventures, but thanks in part to the exposure received from more than a dozen bookings at Expo ‘86, they soon realized they could raise money solely through their performances.

“I decided we were going to play and that was how we were going to fund our trips,” says Peter. “In addition to concerts, we also put on major shows in the community. We started making CDs to supplement our income. All of this allows us to afford our concerts abroad. We’ve had the odd sponsor, but we’ve prided ourselves on having the means to travel based on performing.”

The group continues their annual trips to Hawaii and has even taken trips to Japan, as well as performances at various venues around North America. But, for Peter, what the young members get from the experience is more important than just learning to play the instrument or travelling to new places.

“My philosophy is if you build it they will come,” he says. “Excellence from youth is the focus; ukulele playing is just the vehicle. I take the same mindset into coaching basketball as I do ukulele. I taught math and took the same mindset into it. I am preparing my students to be thinkers. It has been a mindset from the beginning to have the kids be ambassadors and get out there and meet the people after the shows, but the message only gets through if they are good.”

Peter leads the group with a unique blend of talent, humour and a flair for drama, honed from years of performing at restaurants and clubs on weekends during his teen years.

“In order for that stuff to work you need a group that can sustain it,” he says. “It takes the quality on stage for the humour and message to come together.”

Peter believes the future of the group is bright, though things won’t always be easy.

“There is never a shortage of interest from the students, but the reality is finding top quality teachers is tough. We need people dedicated and willing to work with the youth in our community, not a clone of Peter Luongo. Anything that is going to be excellence-oriented is going to require a teacher or coach who is excellence-oriented,” he says. “The only issues I ever have are with people who can’t share that vision. They don’t want to get invested in that standard. They want the easy way but it isn’t easy. That is my philosophy: I don’t teach ukulele, I teach kids.”



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