Hitting a high note by helping high school musicians in Seattle shed limitations
Orchestra leader Marcus Tsutakawa and jazz band conductor Clarence Acox inspire music students at Seattle's Garfield High School.
You know the scene: a shabby stage crowded with eager high school musicians. A young director steps onto the podium, raises his baton, waves that first dramatic downbeat – and for the next couple of hours the audience of parents, reluctant siblings, and loyal friends endures "music" punctuated by tempos that drag, clarinets that squeak, and violin solos only a parent could love.Skip to next paragraph
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High school music is what it is – usually tolerable, now and then pretty good. Except in Seattle, and especially at James A. Garfield High, where it is exceptional, featuring arguably the best program in the nation among public high schools.
Ask people here why the school is so successful, and they'll give you two reasons: African-American drummer Clarence Acox, who leads the jazz ensembles, and Japanese-American bassist Marcus Tsutakawa, who conducts the orchestras.
"They set this expectation for excellence, and they know the kids can achieve it," says parent Laurie de Koch, whose son Willem plays trombone in both orchestra and jazz ensemble. "What if every educator had an expectation for the achievement of excellence in every student? It would change the world."
It certainly has changed things at Garfield. The jazz ensemble has won the prestigious Essentially Ellington competition sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center four times since 1999 and has toured Europe nine times.
The orchestra has been named Downbeat magazine's top high school orchestra of the year three times since 2001 and has toured Europe and Japan (four times). Last year it played at New York's famed Carnegie Hall.
The orchestra also produced a recording nominated for a Grammy.
The programs don't cater to just an elite few. "My mission is to teach all the kids about classical music – not just the kids who have had private lessons since age 5," says Mr. Tsutakawa, who this year, his 26th at Garfield, has about 200 students spread among three orchestras.
"Kids from disadvantaged homes, first-generation Asians – I'm really proud of the fact that these kids have this experience. If they didn't play in orchestra, they wouldn't be exposed to all of this great art."
Tsutakawa and Mr. Acox credit their support networks, including past and present principals, music-faculty colleagues, and especially the orchestra and jazz parent groups, which raise tens of thousands of dollars each year for the programs.