UpClose: Marcus Tsutakawa

Mike Lawson • Features • January 21, 2014

Share This:

Great Works and Fun Gigs: Marcus Tsutakawa & The Garfield Orchestra

Marcus Tsutakawa, director of orchestras at Garfield High School, Seattle, Washington. Photo by Tom Wolken.

As far as public school music programs go, Garfield High School has something pretty special going on. Building on a legacy that stretches from notable alumni like Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix (who was expelled his junior year) to current hip-hop artist Macklemore, this Seattle school music department has garnered more than its fair share of acclaim. In particular, its orchestra and jazz programs stand out, both of which are consistently among the best in their respective genres at top national festivals and competitions.  Marcus Tsutakawa (known as “Mr. Tsut” to his students) has been directing the Garfield Orchestras since 1985. While many might point to the numerous trophies, awards, and accolades that ensembles have garnered under his watch, when asked about his most significant achievements, Tsutakawa is quick to mention the array of fantastic literature he’s been able to share with his students. What it boils down to, for him, is pretty simple: “My goal is to perform often, learn as much new repertoire as possible, and play fun gigs.”

In spite of his insistence that there is no “magic elixir” to bring a school music program success, Tsutakawa was happy to speak with SBO about the process and approach that have led to sustained musical achievement by his students and ensembles.


School Band & Orchestra: Let’s dive right in – how is your orchestra program set up?

Marcus Tsutakawa: I have three orchestra classes. My top group, Symphony Orchestra, is by audition. I also have a freshmen string class and the Concert Orchestra. After freshmen string class, students are assigned to symphony or concert orchestra based on skill level, work ethic, and seniority. I have woodwinds, brass, and percussion every day in my two orchestras. The program works because the students develop a strong desire to move up from the younger orchestras. Symphony has a tradition of excellence, so members have a lot of pride and sense of accomplishment, which drives them to excel.

Between my three groups, there are about 185 students, and our school has approximately 1,700.


SBO: Considering the demands that are placed on so many administrators and schedule makers about standardized testing and common core curricula, how have you managed to maintain so much class time for the sections of your orchestras?

MT: Thankfully, a lot of students stick with my program throughout their four years at Garfield. So our large ensembles are a plus for the school as a whole. And, our school sees the music department as an asset to the school and community.


SBO: What kind of opportunities do you try to present your students?

The Garfield Orchestra’s Messiah Singalong, December 2013. Photo by Tom Wolken

MT: My goal is to perform often, learn as much new repertoire as possible, and play fun gigs. We play five regular concerts, two waltz events, a pops concert, a “Messiah singalong,” and do school visits. We tour a lot, including 15 years of international trips, with the last one to Japan in 2008. That was our fifth tour of Japan, and we also went to Europe in 1997. However, the international tour became too expensive, especially to Japan. Fortunately, our national tours have been great. Since 2007, we’ve won the Heritage Festival of Gold in Boston in ’07 and Chicago in ’09. In ‘11 and ‘12 we won the Orchestra Cup by Forte Festivals at Lincoln Center, plus played in Carnegie Hall in 2010. Last spring, we won top honors in our division at the ASTA National Orchestra Festival in Providence.


SBO: What role do these types of events play in your curriculum?

MT: I’m not big on competition, but these festivals tend to attract more outstanding ensembles. It is great to hear top groups from around the country, and play for them. When my kids hear a really good group, they think, “Oh wow, those guys are way better than us,” and get motivated to work harder.


SBO: How do you approach the competition aspect of music festivals?

MT: Competing is a motivator, unfortunately. I do want our students to experience coming home with the top prize – although for me, it’s okay if we don’t. I always tell them, “You can’t play defense in these festivals; you can only prepare as best as you can.” For the seniors, they are most motivated to do their best and put in the time for extra sectionals and more individual practice. It’s too bad that art can become like a sport at times.


SBO: Do you use festivals as a recruitment tool?

MT: Yes and no. The kids in middle school certainly hear that Garfield won this or that festival. So in that sense, it is a recruiting tool, even though I try not to play that up. I like to say that we offer a top-notch comprehensive music program. I tell prospective students they will learn a lot at Garfield, and tell them what a unique orchestra experience we have.


SBO: What’s your strategy for getting kids excited about classical music?

MT: Every good program gets kids excited about music. I was recently in Texas where they have excellent music programs; the middle school kids there were so excited about the music we played. They tried hard, played well, and you could tell that it was fun for them. As music educators, we have to get the kids excited about music by keeping it fun and challenging.


SBO: Can you give me any examples of particular things you do to help build that enthusiasm?

MT: One event that is special is our annual waltz event, where we play Strauss waltzes and polkas in a very elegant venue. We attract dancers from the community looking to dance to a full orchestra, which I understand is uncommon.


SBO: What does that experience do for your students?

Garfield Orchestras hosting a waltz event. Photo by Tom Wolken.

MT: They think, “Wow, the waltz is really cool!” It’s like the jazz band playing a big band dance, with classical music. We play, people dance, and there is this wonderful connection between the audience and us. And our students not only perform, but also learn to waltz from a dance instructor who comes to our school. Then they can get out on the dance floor, experience music and dance, and learn about European and American culture through these art forms.


SBO: That certainly could help bring this music to life!

MT: Yes. And when we travel to New York, we attend concerts at Carnegie Hall or the NY Philharmonic, and see an opera at the Met. These first-hand experiences in N.Y. are priceless and memorable.

We’ve also been doing side-by-side concerts with the Seattle Symphony for many years, where our students perform with their musicians under their conductor. Last fall, we performed the complete Sibelius Symphony No. 2 with the Symphony; the year before we combined in playing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 with them. Most important is that they learn from the Symphony members first-hand. The students talked about it for weeks.


SBO: That must be an incredible experience for a young high school musician.

MT: Oh yeah. The musicians at the Seattle Symphony are amazing and so warm and supportive; my students get to experience what making great music is like.


SBO: How did that opportunity come together?

MT: The first was over 15 years ago. A few Symphony musicians had children who played in my program, and they pushed for the joint venture, planting the idea that doing a joint concert would be a great thing. I think we played Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and since then other incredible works. We are understandably very fortunate to have this connection; Symphony members still are sending their kids to Garfield and they stop by on occasion to lead sectionals. I feel so grateful for their support.


SBO: Obviously you have special situation going on with your connection to this one professional group – but do you think this is a relationship that might be easier to foster than people think?

MT: I would like to think it is possible. I believe professional ensembles and their musicians have a strong desire to work with and inspire young people. For many students, it can be very inspirational to work closely with great musicians. And two of the musicians currently with the Seattle Symphony are Garfield Orchestra alums. How cool is that? The Seattle Symphony luckily has been doing more and more outreach recently with other schools, so it certainly seems possible.


SBO: Do you have any advice for someone that might be looking to build a similar connection?

MT: The first thing of course is to ask. It’s usually about money – at least for the professional orchestras. Fortunately, though, the Seattle Symphony has funds specifically for outreach and education. When they do reach out to schools, it makes the students feel they have something valid, musically, going on there at the school.


SBO: When you say “something valid,” what do you think the keys are to making that happen?

 MT: That our group can play great repertoire amazes me. That the Seattle Symphony comes to perform with us is even more amazing and makes us feel a deep sense of accomplishment and validity.

But, there is another side of our program which is equally important to me. Our mission is to provide quality instruments and private lessons for students who can’t afford those things through the help of our boosters and donors. We raise funds for this and provide every student with a good instrument, plus lessons for the underserved. This, to me, validates our program even more.


SBO: Speaking of fundraising, what are some of your primary fundraising efforts?

MT: We go for a lot of grants. Lessons for underserved and new instruments seem to be high on grantors’ lists. The orchestra parents work hard on fundraising. We especially seek funds to provide lessons for those low income students.


SBO: How much of the legwork do you do yourself?

MT: Oh, I would say the parents do almost all the research and writing of the grants. They are much better at it than I am. I arrange lessons and select instruments.


SBO: Is it a hard sell to get them involved?

MT: Hardly. Our parents deeply appreciate what our program is about, what their kids are learning, and what they hear at concerts, so they are glad to support the orchestra program. I’m so grateful and fortunate that our school has a strong boosters program. I have seen in other parts of the country that there are schools that seem to have more public money for music. We don’t, so we have been lucky to receive grants and gifts from private sources.


SBO: For all of the talk of doom and gloom about budgets, there are certainly some places where arts are thriving in public schools.

MT: In some places, yes. In other places, it’s absolutely dismal. Cuts in arts are program killers, as we all know. I am grateful for what we have here.


SBO: You’ve been at Garfield for close to three decades now. How has your teaching evolved in that time?

MT: It’s mostly the same, although nobody walks into a job knowing everything. My years at Garfield have taught me how to be a better teacher and I’ve had a lot of time and experiences to improve my performance. One good thing is I’ve been able to perform tons of repertoire. But, I also realized long ago when I first started teaching that what works for me might not work for another teacher.


SBO: How would you describe this method that works for you?

MT: I work as quickly as I can, and try not to waste time. I try to be demanding, but try to realize what to let slide. I also try to be warm and make sure that the kids know that I care for them. I really try to learn everybody’s name right away; the sooner I can address them by name, the sooner they realize that I care.


SBO: That’s no easy task when you have a revolving cast of 185 students.

MT: Yeah, plus my youth orchestra, the Seattle Junior Symphony, which meets once a week. That’s a challenge.


SBO: Do you do name tags?

MT: No, but I ask everyone in Junior Symphony to send a pic to my secretary who puts together a notebook, along with their name and instrument. This helps a lot.


SBO: So you have flash cards, essentially.

MT: Yeah, kind of. I can’t imagine music programs that have 300-400 plus kids – that’d be tough. And, to top it off, I am getting worse at remembering names…


SBO: How has the job of music educator changed over the course of your career?

MT: The students and the music are the same. But more is being asked of teachers – accountability, testing, as well as observations by administration and filling out forms, and writing goals and strategies. I didn’t learn these things in my ed programs. Fortunately, our administration is supportive and patient. In the old days, observations meant an administrator attending a concert. Now with all of the paperwork being asked of educators, it demands more of our time away from the podium. I think all of my colleagues across the country are feeling this. We want to put on great concerts. That is our validation.

One new thing I am doing now is documenting how my kids have improved from the beginning to the end of the year through individual assessments, and, in particular, focusing on improving intonation. It is helpful.


SBO: For people that want a program like yours, what would you tell them?

MT: Actually, I think every director knows what it takes to succeed. Our program is built on great feeder programs, strong boosters, supportive school administration, exciting activities, high expectations, and good programming. Plus lots of performances and travel – those are key to me. My good fortune has allowed me to build and maintain a successful program. I wish I could tell exactly what magic we have, but it’s been a great situation at Garfield High School with many factors contributing to our success.


SBO: After four years in your program, what do you hope students walk away with?

MT:  I am a serious classical music fan, so I want my students to love classical music by going to the symphony, playing in chamber groups, and keep enjoying classical music when they leave Garfield. There’s nothing like great symphonic works, and the kids learn this: they learn to appreciate hearing a great orchestra play a masterpiece. And when my alums tell me how they’ll never forget playing a certain piece, I love that.


SBO: Looking back at your career, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

MT: I think keeping students involved, interested in music, and working cooperatively, are some of the things that I am pleased with. I still enjoy teaching at Garfield; I am proud that I have lasted so long. I am honored that the program, which started small, has grown to what it is now. And I feel very happy that my students have a chance to play great music, day after day.


Garfield Orchestras at a Glance

Location: 400 23rd Ave, Seattle, Wash.

On the web: www.garfieldorchestra.org

Director: Marcus Tsutakawa

Students in School: 1,700

Students in Orchestra: 185

·       Staff: Lynn Barlett Johnson, violin coach

·       Sue Jane Bryant, viola coach

·       Walter Cole, brass coach


·       Symphony: 75

·       Freshmen Strings: 40

·       Concert Orchestra: 70


Recent Notable Accomplishments

2013: ASTA’s High School Full Orchestra Division Winner

2013: Down Beat magazine’s Student Music Award Outstanding Classical Ensemble

2011, 2012: Forte Festival “Orchestra Cup” Winner

2010: Carnegie Hall Performance

2007, 2009: Heritage “Festival of Gold” Top Honors



The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!