Students honor Sam Tsugawa with tribute concert

Sam Tsugawa, Springville High School’s legendary orchestra teacher, has retired from Nebo School District after 27 years of teaching. But his students weren’t about to let him leave without saying goodbye.

“I heard through the grapevine that someone might be planning to do a little something,” he said. “But I wasn’t expecting anything like this.”

“This” was a full auditorium, gathered for a tribute concert presented by 200+ of Sam’s former orchestra students, on Saturday, August 6, 2016.

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It started with an idea

Sometime in June, former student Kjersti Jones-Christensen had an idea: “We should do a ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ for Sam.” Word spread quickly. Soon over 200 of Sam’s former students were gathering regularly to rehearse.

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They practiced under the direction of three conductors, all alumni of Sam’s program: Paul Wells, Gavin Fulwider, and Dustin Grady.

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Through all the hard work, they kept their eyes on the goal: to present a beautiful evening of music as a tribute to a man whose influence they readily acknowledge: “Sam is an incredible teacher who has touched countless lives,” said Rachel Loveless. Tairsa Matthews agreed: “Sam’s influence on my life has been so great. I’m grateful every day that I was blessed with the opportunity to work with him.”

“Sam has been a great influence through the years,” said Susan Bradford, who had multiple children participate in orchestra. “His love of music has always been evident. He exacted excellence, and the kids appreciated that. At the same time, there was fun. There were concerts and road trips. The excellence and the fun made everyone want to work hard.”

One of the most-anticipated road trips was the annual trip to Disneyland. Sam’s wife, Trish, always accompanied the groups on these trips. “One of the best things was getting to know Sam’s students better,” she said. The feeling was mutual: one student admitted, “I fell in love with Trish.”

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An evening of music and memories

Saturday evening’s concert – emceed by “Doc” Bryan Tobler and Patrice Bolen – was full of memories, laughter, and even a few tears.

“How many conductors does it take to change a light bulb?” Doc asked. “We don’t know,” he answered. “No one’s watching!” The joke brought forth roars of laughter: one of Sam’s most-remembered sayings was “Watch the conductor!”

There was reminiscing, too. Back in 1988, Sam was hired at Springville High as a long-term substitute. He was a newly-minted BYU graduate, a drum major who played the trombone. When the principal announced that he was thinking about hiring Sam as a full-time orchestra conductor, not everyone was sure how it would turn out. “The kids like him, anyway,” was the general consensus.

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But things “turned out” well, indeed: Sam started with an orchestra program of perhaps 15 students. Over the years, he built it into a program that hundreds of students participated in each year, creating an orchestra program recognized as “one of the strongest west of the Mississippi, and arguably in the country.”

“It started out as just a job,” Sam said. “But then it became a wonderful life. I have been honored to work across multiple generations of students.”

Many of those students continued to pursue music after high school: About half of the alumni on stage received music scholarships. A number of music teachers are counted in their ranks.

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Saturday night, those students laughed at the inside jokes; enjoyed a slide presentation showing highlights of Sam’s career; and presented an outstanding concert. There were Disney songs, classics, and familiar pieces that many of the students played under Sam’s direction in Junior High. The capstone of the evening was “The Lord of the Dance,” with Sam stepping up on the stage to conduct one last time.

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The teaching continues

Sam has retired from Springville High. But his career is continuing, with a new turn.

He’s already influenced music teachers, like Mike Hylton: “I owe so much of what I’ve become to Sam’s influence. I have become a band teacher in Cache County School district because of the positive musical experiences I had in High School;” and Jayme Dunn: “Sam’s influence in my life has been profound. The opportunities that he gave me in high school helped set me on the path to becoming an orchestra teacher.”

Now, as an Associate Professor of Music Education at BYU, this fall Sam will be teaching and mentoring scores of potential music teachers.  Some of them may be lucky enough to have a career like his.

When words fail, music speaks

There’s a saying, “When words fail, music speaks.” The music spoke loud and clear on Saturday night: Thank you, Sam Tsugawa.

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