Marcus Tsutakawa

Mike Lawson • Archives • January 1, 2003

A performance tour through parts of Europe. Joint concerts with Japanese ensembles at home and overseas. A clinic with faculty from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, China. These are a few of the experiences orchestra members at Garfield High School (Seattle, Wash.) have been offered in recent years.

In 1985, director Marcus Tsutakawa took over Garfield’s then-waning orchestra program and, over the years, has rebuilt it from a handful of players to three ensembles totaling 145 students, this year.


“When I first came here, Garfield High School had a very small orchestra program. However, walking around the school were a lot of extremely fine musicians, who were members of the Seattle Youth Symphony. They just weren’t playing in the Garfield Orchestra. They didn’t feel it was interesting or challenging enough,” Tsutakawa recalls. “As we started to do more exciting things, they all gradually wanted to join. We were doing more exciting repertoire. The kids felt more challenged and they were learning more. Now there’s nobody out in the halls who’s a Youth Symphony member who’s not playing in my program.”

Tsutakawa’s students have made annual recordings of some of the “more exciting repertoire” that the director refers to. In recent years, they have performed “Symphony No.1 in E Minor,” by Jean Sibelius, “Night on Bald Mountain,” by Modest Mussorgsky, and “The Firebird Suite,” by Igor Stravinsky. The orchestras perform new selections at each of their concerts, and it is an ambitious schedule, with one concert almost every month of the school year. However, quality is not sacrificed for quantity: in a 12-year period, the orchestra placed first at the Northwest Orchestra Festival 11 times.

The orchestra program is structured to emphasize excellence, but not at the expense of the majority of students. While in some schools the top orchestra singles out about two dozen elite players, Garfield’s premiere orchestra – the Symphony Orchestra – is also the largest of the three groups, with 74 players.

The program features a three-tiered approach. Each freshman string student who enters the high school orchestra program begins in the String Orchestra, which Tsutakawa also refers to as the ninth-grade orchestra.

“I like having all of the ninth graders in the String Orchestra class so they can get used to me and see how I teach,” he explains.

After freshman year, these students audition for a place in either the Concert Orchestra (intermediate) or the Symphony Orchestra (advanced). The wind, brass and percussion players who fill out the ensemble are assigned to the orchestra class full-time. For concerts, the String and Concert Orchestras combine for a “strong sound.” The combined orchestra and the Symphony Orchestra perform at the same concerts, which creates a supportive environment, Tsutakawa points out.

“At concerts, the combined orchestra plays the first half of the show and the Symphony will play the second half of the show. It’s good for the younger students because they stay to watch the older orchestra play and they get excited about working on their playing so they can join the Symphony Orchestra,” he notes. “And it’s good for the older kids because they support the younger kids and give them encouragement sitting there in the audience.”
As students advance through the orchestra program, Tsutakawa encourages them to take responsibility for playing as an ensemble. He molds the principal players into the leaders of the orchestras and trains the younger students to follow the principals.

“I tell the students they should be doing the exact same movements, bowings and articulations as the principal players. They should sit so they can see the bow of the principal players. The principal players will stay with me because they’re sitting right up close,” Tsutakawa relates. “Sometimes I’ll tell the students they have a choice: they can either follow me, or they can follow the principal player. They don’t have to follow me if they follow the principal player because I’m counting on my principal players to be right with me.”

School Band and Orchestra: How is the orchestra program structured?

Tsutakawa: We have three orchestras: the String Orchestra, the Concert Orchestra and the Symphony Orchestra. The String Orchestra is all ninth graders; they all start out there. After that, they move up to either the Concert Orchestra or the Symphony Orchestra. The Symphony Orchestra is the most advanced orchestra.

I like having all of the ninth graders in the string orchestra class so they can get used to me and see how I teach, my teaching style. We do string fundamentals – scales, hand position, technique and sound production – and work on literature as well. For concerts, my string orchestra class and my concert orchestra class combine. It makes for a nice large string section. The freshmen sit in the back of the section – even if they’re stronger players – and I have the older players sitting closer to me. It actually makes for a strong sound, when you have stronger players in the back as well. I like to acknowledge the students that stay with the program. They are leaders. They’ve been with me. They know what I expect. Even though perhaps they’re not the strongest players in the school, they’ve developed how to play in a section. Sectional playing is something I really stress – everybody working together and staying together, the same bowings and the same timing, attack and release. They know what I expect.

I feel like I’m teaching them how to play in an orchestra. When they leave here, if they go play in a community orchestra, they’ll have a good concept.

SBO: Once the students finish the ninth grade, how do you determine which students will go into the Concert Orchestra and which will go into the Symphony Orchestra?

Tsutakawa: I’ll audition everybody in May – all of my students, except for the seniors. The seniors get excused from the audition. All of the other students have to play for me. I do after-school auditions for three weeks. Incoming woodwind, brass and percussion students who are coming to Garfield the next year have to play for me. I take any string player. Any kid who says they play the violin, I’ll take them. If the wind and brass players don’t make orchestra, then they can sign up for concert band or marching band. So they have an opportunity to play. We’re not excluding anybody. If they play an instrument, Garfield High School will take them.

I’m very fortunate. In Seattle, there’s a strong music education program in general throughout the city. The students all study privately.

SBO: The largest group is also the top group?

Tsutakawa: That’s an interesting point about my program. For me, the most important group is the largest group. At some schools, the best players are in a very small, select ensemble – a 20-person string ensemble. But I think it’s healthier and, in my opinion, it does the most good when you put your energies into the large ensemble. So that’s where I put my focus. I try to make the large ensemble the premiere group. The best players are the leaders in that group. It’s more work, but directors should put their primary focus in the large group. I think it’s great to have these other small groups, but I really think the schools where the concert band or wind ensemble is the top group, that really says a lot about their program. If you could teach a wind ensemble of 70 and do a lot with that, that’s really cool.

SBO: Are the orchestra classes part of the school day?

Tsutakawa: The orchestra classes are part of the school day. We hold evening rehearsals about once a week. The non-string students (winds, brass and percussion) are assigned to the orchestra class every day. They don’t come in for only some of the time. It’s a very unique situation. Very few schools in the country have orchestras with full winds and brass every day. We just happen to have a good arrangement, the band director and myself.

SBO: What is your approach to teaching the orchestra ensembles?

Tsutakawa: In my Symphony Orchestra – and in my Concert Orchestra, but even more in my Symphony – I put a lot of responsibility on the principal player, the first-chair players in every string section. I tell the students they should be doing the exact same movements, bowings and articulations as the principal players. They should sit so they can see the bow of the principal players. The principal players will stay with me because they’re sitting right up close. Sometimes I’ll tell the students they have a choice: they can either follow me, or they can follow the principal player. They don’t have to follow me if they follow the principal player because I’m counting on my principal players to be right with me.

The principal players are the leaders. In the winds and brass sections it’s a little different, but the principal players tend to be leaders. I always make sure the principal players understand what I want to do, particularly the strings. The principal players talk about bowings and what works best. Of course, students need to play in tune. We stress – besides playing the correct notes – playing the correct notes in tune. It’s so important.

SBO: What kind of a curriculum do you work with?

Tsutakawa: I don’t have a written curriculum. We work on fundamentals every day, especially the younger group. I stress the things that I want, to get the correct sound out. They start to pick up those things by repetition, when we play a similar style piece. When we play Haydn or Mozart, they’ll remember the bow style, and they’ll incorporate that into the next time we play Haydn or Mozart. But I don’t have a set curriculum. We don’t use any textbooks.

SBO: How do you retain students in the orchestra program?

Tsutakawa: I encourage them to stay on. If they make Symphony, almost all of the students stay in the Symphony program. It’s quite a high-level orchestra and exciting, and we do quite challenging repertoire. For example, we started this year off with the complete Sibelius Symphony #2. Last spring, we did Firebird Suite by Stravinsky, an incredibly difficult piece, and they sounded great. So we always do great literature. It’s a lot of work and extra rehearsals.

SBO: What recruitment methods do you use?

Tsutakawa: I think the kids know about our music program here. There are other orchestra programs in Seattle. In fact, there’s another school that has a very strong orchestra program and they attract a lot of good players as well. But students know that if they come to Garfield they’ll get a good orchestra experience.

There’s a certain amount of choice in the Seattle Schools: kids can choose which school they go to. We have students at Garfield from all parts of the city. I have kids in my orchestra from way in the North End, way in the South End, the West Side. Students come to Garfield for the music and the academic programs. They also have a very good basketball team.

SBO: What characteristics make a good orchestra ensemble participant?

Tsutakawa: Patience, willingness to practice, love for classical music and understanding how to work together as a team. That’s true for any ensemble. I really stress teamwork. When we perform, everybody not only plays the same notes, but they think together: the winds breathe together, the violinists all move together. It’s a team effort. They could perform well without me conducting. That’s a sign of a good orchestra.

SBO: How do you grade student participation in the orchestra program?

Tsutakawa: Participation. There’s no way I can grade the first chair player compared to the last chair player. That’s not fair to compare the two. If everybody comes to class every day, makes a good effort, participates in the concerts, they all get a good grade. If they mess around in class, then I’ll let them know and their report card will let them know.

SBO: What do you hope the students will gain from international touring experiences?

Tsutakawa: It creates madness because it’s a lot of work, but the rewards are incredible. The students who went on the last two tours say, “Wow. That was the best experience and the most outstanding opportunity for us.” We did a number of joint concerts where a Japanese group performed and then we performed. In 2000, we did a joint concert with a choir and we did opera choruses. The orchestra played and their choir sang together. And we’re going to be doing that again this year. Last March, the choir from Japan came to Seattle and we did a big joint concert here – similar repertoire. It was very exciting for them and for us. Next month, in December, one of the bands that we visited two years ago is coming to Seattle to do a joint concert with us. And we’re going to be going back to visit their school also, in June. It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s a great opportunity for international cultural relations and just reaching out and doing something not just here with ourselves, and meeting Japanese kids and hanging out. We’re doing some homestays for them, and we’ve received homestays in Japan. It’s just a tremendous experience.

The choir came and sang at our high school in the gymnasium for a joint concert with us, which I had a little hesitation about. Our school, besides our strong academic program and music program, is very diverse. And so I was wondering if they would be a good audience. But the choir just charmed them like crazy. At the end of the year, we received “Best School Assembly” for that performance. When the band from Japan comes in December, we’re also going to do a joint concert in the gymnasium. It’s a tough audience – these kids. They won’t “boo,” but they’ll get restless if it’s not something that really entertains them. It was quite amazing that the audience was totally into it and gave the choir such a warm welcome and applause. It was great.

SBO: What is the plan for the upcoming trip to Japan?

Tsutakawa: I’ll be taking 74 students (Symphony Orchestra) to Japan and China this time. Last time, I took 76. We’ll spend eight days in Japan and five days in Beijing, China. We’re leaving on the last day of school. I try not to miss too much class. It’s a very academic program here at Garfield.

We’ll be doing three concerts in Japan and two performances in China. Also, there’s going to be a clinic with faculty from Central Conservatory in Beijing. The China part is set up by a commercial tour company, so there are other orchestras that are going to China besides us. I’d rather meet Chinese students, rather than hang out with American students while we’re in China. We can hang out with American kids anytime. There will be Chinese student orchestras there, I believe. And we’ll be doing major sight-seeing in Japan and China. For instance, we’ll be visiting Hiroshima and the Peace Park/Atomic Bomb Museum. It’s very striking to go to those places and to see what actually happened. It’s very stirring. We visit the ancient capital, Kyoto. It’s a tremendous, great place for sight-seeing. We go to those temples and these famous places and the kids just go, “Wow.” There’s a huge statue of the Buddha that’s 20 or 30 feet tall. Last time, they went in there and were just staring at that, totally in awe. It is a great trip.

SBO: How often does the orchestra take trips?

Tsutakawa: About every three years. Before 1997, when we went to Europe, we went to Japan in 1993. So that was four years between. I may go again in two years.

SBO: What is the most challenging aspect of directing the orchestra program?

Tsutakawa: Finding literature that the students enjoy playing, and keeping the younger students motivated. The concert orchestra students tend to feel like they are not as good, so picking literature that allows them to sound good and still be within their playing ability. Most directors, I think, have this challenge: if you have a second orchestra, finding literature that is challenging for them that keeps them interested. I want to keep these kids playing. After a couple of years, if they don’t make the top orchestra, some of the string players will quit.

SBO: What is the most exciting aspect of directing the orchestra program?

Tsutakawa: Having a good day. Having a good rehearsal. Even more than playing a great concert is having a good rehearsal and feeling like the kids learned something. When the kids feel like, “Wow. This is sounding better,” that’s really important.

SBO: What are your goals for the orchestra program?

Tsutakawa: My personal goal is to keep enjoying what I’m doing. I’ve seen colleagues of mine get burned out.

As far as the program is concerned, to continue playing a high level of literature and to enjoy orchestra. For the kids to want to keep coming back. In the bigger picture, a goal is – throughout the whole city of Seattle – to get more kids playing music. I’d like to see my colleagues have a good experience and the middle school kids have a good experience. If all of the middle school programs are strong then the high schools will enjoy more success.

SBO: Is there anything you would like to add?

Tsutakawa: I feel strongly about music education. There’s an issue coming up that they’re thinking of cutting the elementary (K-5) instrumental music program in Seattle, because of budget cuts. The kids who will get hurt the most from that are the kids who can’t afford music lessons. Some of the schools that have good support will find a way to bring in extra teachers – they’ll raise money through the PTA, that type of thing. The schools that are lower-income communities, their efforts will go toward math and writing. To me, music will make the kids much more successful. For example, when they get to high school, if they’re participating in band or orchestra, they’ll have a much better high school experience than if they don’t have something like that to look forward to when they get to high school. Maybe these kids will never have private lessons but if they could play in the orchestra, that’s a great experience and they’ll get exposed to classical music and learn to play in an ensemble.

The middle school (grades six through eight) program is part of the middle school curriculum but the elementary music program is a district-wide, district-funded program. If they ask the elementary school to pay for that themselves, a lot of them will opt out and bring in extra reading or math specialists instead of bringing in the instrumental teachers.

It almost happened this year, and we got a one-year reprieve from some federal money, but the Seattle schools are suffering a big shortfall. There’s going to have to be some cuts in the next year. A lot of music educators are trying to get together to lobby to maintain the music program. It’s got to start in the elementary schools. It can start in the middle schools, but if you have a good elementary program, it will just continue all the way through high school.

I think it’s quite important that music educators all over – not just in Seattle, but across the country – look at what’s happening to music education.

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