By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
There is a certain kind of magic when conductor Marcus Tsutakawa lifts his baton to lead Garfield High School’s orchestras.
The 54-year-old has helped Seattle’s Garfield High School win regional and national acclaim. More importantly, he has helped many teenagers discover and nurture their musical talents.
“I think the coolest thing is to see young people enjoy playing music and get excited about it,” said Tsutakawa.
A graduate of Franklin High School, the Seattle-born Japanese American earned a degree in music composition from the University of Washington in 1979. Although his true passion was arranging music, his concerns about job security led him to enter the field of education.
“I didn’t want to be a starving composer,” he said, laughing. Tsutakawa began teaching music for the Seattle School District in 1979. He decided to get his master’s degree in music education from the University of Washington. He joined the Garfield High School faculty in 1985.
With only 10 students, the school’s music department was meager when Tsutakawa took charge. Over the last 24 years, he has transformed it into an award-winning program with nearly 200 members.
“He’s a great and inspirational conductor,” said Garfield graduate and former concertmaster Emily Choi. “He’s very modest and kind, but at the same time, he’s very serious about the music that we work on.”
Tsutakawa currently teaches the school’s three orchestras: the Symphony Orchestra for advanced students, the Concert Orchestra, and the Freshman String Orchestra.
His students have toured worldwide, performing and recording famous compositions, from Mozart to Tchaikovsky. Many of his students continued to pursue music in college.
“At Garfield, there’s no stigma with carrying around a violin around the school,” Tsutakawa said. “[Instead], it’s like, ‘Oh, he must be in orchestra.’”
The outgoing teacher, affectionately nicknamed “Tsut” by students, has become somewhat of a celebrity on campus. His students have created several Facebook pages about him and his bands. They even wear his name across their chests.
“This year, we got t-shirts with Tsut’s face on it with the inscription TSUT, just like the Obama HOPE shirts,” said Choi.
Tsutakawa admits that leading a room full of unpredictable high school students posed a challenge at first, but it quickly became his love and passion.
“Working with students is certainly more rewarding than composing. With composing, you don’t get any rewards unless you sell something or have a piece performed,” he said. “Teaching music on a daily basis, you get to work with the kids, see their progress, and see how excited they get about playing music.”
Tsutakawa works closely with students to hone their craft. However, he believes the most important lesson they learn is how to work with one another.
“There’s all of the give and take in an ensemble and working together as a team. They have to use their ears to make music,” he said.
“All the parts of making music are under their control — so it’s not like I push a button like a video game.”
Tsutakawa comes from a family of artists. His father, George Tsutakawa, was a well-known painter and sculptor whose bronze fountain sculptures are displayed across the United States, Canada, and Japan. His mother was trained in classical Japanese dance and the koto, also known as a Japanese harp.
His brother, Gerard, is the sculptor of the baseball mitt sculpture at Seattle’s Safeco Field. His other brother, Deems, is a jazz recording artist. Their sister is a former journalist and local arts administrator.
Despite the fact that all four children ultimately assumed careers in the arts, Tsutakawa said there was never pressure to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Rather, the parents helped Tsutakawa and his siblings to foster a genuine appreciation for the field.
“There was a lot of music at our house when I was growing up,” said Tsutakawa.
“A lot of families, they want their kids to go into medicine or business or law. My parents gave all of us music lessons. When I went to college and wanted to be a music major, my parents were glad and didn’t say, ‘Oh, you should do this instead.’ ”
In addition to leading Garfield High School’s three orchestras, Tsutakawa conducts Seattle’s Junior Symphony Orchestra. He recently finished teaching a one-week camp at Seattle Pacific University’s Japan-Seattle Suzuki International Institute.
Tsutakawa’s goal is to inspire younger generations to appreciate the beauty and power of music.
“I’d like to see more Asian Americans and more of everybody in music,” he said.
And although he is normally seen swinging his baton from his conductor’s podium, Tsutakawa said he will always share in the wonder and curiosity of his students.
“Even though I’m 54 years old, I feel like I’m still a student of music,” he said. “I never stop learning. It’s a lot of fun.” ♦
Meet Tsutakawa at NWAWF’s Pioneer in Music Awards Gala and Banquet on Oct. 16. For more information, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
Evangeline Café can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.