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.

Dan DeLong/Red Box Pictures/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Music teachers Marcus Tsutakawa (left) and Clarence Acox (right) pose with members of the orchestras and jazz ensembles they lead, respectively, at James A. Garfield High School in Seattle. Their combined 64 years at the school have resulted in numerous awards for student groups.

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.

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.

"I don't count on the school district for anything," Tsutakawa says softly. "Because of my parent group, I have the freedom to buy everything I want – music, instruments, travel. We bought a $3,000 string bass. I spent $700 or $800 on new music. We just got a $10,000 gift from the parent of a former student."

Adds Acox, in his patient New Orleans baritone, "I always say this: that administrators who only focus on math, reading, and science are not thinking big enough – because we need to be about the business of educating and developing the total student.

"I know for a fact that there are kids who would not be in school if there weren't music programs. Kids who are involved in the arts – there's a much better correlation of them succeeding."

Danielle Kuhlmann played French horn for both Tsutakawa and Acox, graduated in 2003, and lives today in New York playing classical gigs, Broadway shows, jazz, and rock. "They're both really humble, and I think that contributes to the program's success," she says of her two mentors. "Both of them are so positive. They care about all of their musicians."

Several of his students say choosing difficult music is part of Tsutakawa's success. "I played every major symphony before I got to college," Ms. Kuhlmann says. "That was amazing. We were always challenged to play difficult pieces."

Seattle has a storied jazz scene and is a robust market for classical music. Two middle schools, Washington and Eckstein, have developed stellar music programs of their own that feed Garfield, as well as Roosevelt High in the north end. Either Garfield or Roosevelt has won Essentially Ellington seven times in 11 years.

Ms. de Koch lists four qualities she sees Acox and Tsutakawa inspire: discipline, perseverance, accountability, and integrity.

"Most of these kids will not go on to be professional musicians," she says. "As a parent, I really value these other qualities they instill."

Acox, who joined the school in 1971, only expected to stay a couple of years.

"I have been very successful in creating an environment where the kids can expand," he says. "I expose them to the music of the masters, let them listen to it, and develop a concept of what swing music should sound and feel like. It far exceeded my wildest expectations."

Tsutakawa never lets his passion wane. "I hate missing a day of class with these kids," he says. "The day after a concert, if they don't bring their instruments, they hear from me – especially the freshmen: 'No, we can't take the day off.'

"But the thing that I work on the most is learning every kid's name," he adds. "I know it sounds really corny. I try to do it as fast as I can."

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