In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Taichi Fukumura spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about his new role as assistant conductor at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.  

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Marcheta Fornoff: Congratulations on your new role. A lot of people are familiar with what a conductor might do when they’re on the stage, but I’m wondering if you can talk about the role of an assistant conductor outside of performances.

Taichi Fukumura: It’s like a movie. You’re used to seeing the final product, but there’s all these cool things that go on behind the scenes. One of the biggest things for an assistant conductor that I really enjoy is that you’re working with basically every part of the organization. So you’re talking about working with the orchestra. You’re talking about working with all the guest artists and the music director, everybody who comes through: Conductors, soloists, singers. But you’re also part of the team of the staff, and you’re working with everybody who’s on the administration (side), who is on operation(s). And I’m a big part of the education department, too. 

Fornoff: Talk a little bit about what you specifically are doing with education and outreach, because I know that’s one of your priorities in this role. 

Fukumura: Assistant conductor as a position varies from orchestra to orchestra. My position is quite a bit involved, both as a conductor and also as an educator. So I’m conducting a lot of shows. (One) week I had seven, and in the next couple of weeks I have four more. So that means, whether it’s run outs or something local, I’m reaching out to the kids, families, people in the community very, very directly and hopefully in an impactful way. 

Fornoff: When you say “run outs,” you’re referring to when either the full symphony or pieces of the symphony go somewhere outside of Bass Hall and do a quick performance at, like, a library or a school or something like that?

Fukumura: Yeah. Actually, they’re more than quick. They’re full-on concerts in their own right. Before having this position, I was lucky to be invited to guest conduct the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in one of these run outs. It was a symphonic concert in Keller, and I was blown away by the amount of energy that was in both the audience and also the orchestra and making this kind of connection. 

Fornoff: What demonstrated to you, like, these are people who are really excited to be here?

Fukumura: Well, first of all, they were going crazy because (of) all the screams and the responses. It’s my goal for people to leave any of our performances feeling like they were part of a shared experience. So, the natural responses to things, whether it’s a little gasp or just a dip in the room noise to absolute quiet, that magical moment that you can only experience in music when everyone is drawn together to focus on that one thing, that’s what I’m always going for.

Fornoff: How do you achieve that? That’s a challenge, right?

Fukumura: It is a challenge. But I think the most important thing is we, the performers ourselves, have to be invested and excited. And everything we do is something that we are actively trying to share. This is the art that we create. And we’re opening the doors and inviting people to be a part of that experience one way or another.

At every opportunity, I try to break the fourth wall. People who come to my concerts know that I often speak and engage with the audience. But one of the things I make a point to do, I don’t just tell people ‘the what’s’: What are you going to hear? What is this piece? Who wrote it? …But (I focus on explaining) ‘the whys’: Why do we choose to do this piece? Why did we feel it was important to share this music? Why do we feel like people will have a special experience with it?

By bringing people into that kind of sneak peek behind the scenes, I think people can feel like they’re really part of the concert experience.

Fornoff: It’s interesting that you’re known today for being charismatic, outgoing and breaking that fourth wall when as a child, you were really, really shy. Can you talk about how music kind of helped you break out of your shell when you were young?

Fukumura: So music was a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But there was a point in my childhood where I became a musician. I was struggling with muteness in school when I entered kindergarten and into first grade. So it was a little over a year of not being able to speak, not being able to make any words. I could speak at home, but for whatever reason, whatever was going on, I could not speak with my peers at school.

I was lucky to have really observant, kind and generous teachers, particularly in the English (as a) second language department, who knew I had something artistic to offer. I would draw pictures, not just a still picture, but I would try to tell stories through those pictures. So my teachers wanted the other kids to realize that I am somebody with thoughts, that I’m a person and somebody who can share things. The kids were quick to accept that, ‘Oh, he doesn’t speak.’ So if an adult would try to ask me a question, somebody else, one of the other kids would speak on my behalf and say, ‘Oh, you can’t ask him.’

My teachers realized that and they said, ‘You know, the kids need to see that creative side.’ And so they organized my first ever musical performance that was on the violin.

I started playing at the age of 3, but when I was 5, I played in front of all the kids in my class. And there’s actually a clip of it. There are some kids even conducting along like they were having so much fun. And that was a moment in all these kids’ minds, ‘Oh, you know, this is this cool thing that that kid does. He is a musician.’ And so I don’t remember that specific moment because I was so young, but I do remember growing up throughout my entire childhood. I was known as the musician, and that was a big part of my identity. And that experience helped me, like you said, to come out of my shell and to connect with people. 

(Courtesy | Taichi Fukumura)

Fornoff: Clearly that experience resonated with you. How did (it) shape your career?

Fukumura: In a big way, music was how I could express myself. In my childhood that’s how it helped me open up. But also through music, you get to experience, you get to share such a vast range of human emotion and experience that I don’t usually do in my day to day. 

I’m generally pretty calm, but when I am engaged in this music, I can really open up and have a lot of fun with these things. Also because of these experiences growing up, and it wasn’t just those couple of teachers, I’ve been so lucky with generous teachers who are all about connecting with people and really seeing you as a person, not as just a student in a classroom among many, but each person. And that’s what I try to bring also in my work as a musician is trying to connect with each person. 

Fornoff: Has that helped you in this role, which is a leadership role in a lot of ways? Does that help you to find common ground with some of the musicians that you’re working with as you’re working through different pieces or trying to troubleshoot any issues that the group might be having? 

Fukumura: Oh, yeah. It’s a constant, ongoing collaborative experience. Right. So a conductor has to bring some kind of vision. Going back to the movie analogy, it’s like a director. You’re not the one in front of the camera. You’re not the one who’s making the sound. You’re not the one who is acting, but you are the one bringing the big picture.

But once you have that big picture, then it’s important to let each person on your team bring their ideas, their personality to the table. What we end up with might be different than what I envisioned when I’m by myself at my desk. But with the vision as a starting point, you always want to collaborate with the people, allowing people’s voices to come through. And then you’re able to create something that is unique, that is only us, whoever is performing together in that given room. 

Fornoff: Especially some of the people who might not be the loudest in the room, but who have ideas. 

Fukumura: They’re always there if you make the space for it.

Fornoff: What made you interested in conducting? I imagine you could have had a career continuing to play violin… and not going this route. So what inspired that?

Fukumura: For me, they’re very interrelated, but different experiences because the violin, you’re very much involved in the mechanics of it. You’re making the music you’re playing, you’re breathing it, which I very much enjoy and I still do play. Conducting is one where you can really see the big picture. All the different voices, all the different instruments of the orchestra are coming together. But you can also really dive into the details. You’re involved in some ways with everything that’s going on, and I really like that. The orchestral repertoire is something I grew up with, I’ve always loved.

Being involved in that way artistically is something that I was drawn to in seventh grade, which is around when I started becoming interested in conducting. Who knew anything about, you know, making a living or making a career? I was just interested. I made my first baton from a chopstick in a wine cork.

Fornoff: (Laughs) Where’d you get that wine cork?

Fukumura: (Laughs) I carved it so it was sort of conical and glued it together. I was waving it by myself with recordings in middle school. I was always interested in it as a musician and as an audience member. 

Fornoff: Mm hmm. 

Fukumura: How I ended up going into it? Well, I started conducting, again before I knew anything about the bigger picture of life, I started conducting when I was 16. I put together my own ensemble at school, just brought together some friends. You know, in a way, every step of the way, conducting has been about working with people and bringing together all the different ideas and making something happen together. 

Fornoff:  And so this was like a quartet or just…?

Fukumura: No, it was a full orchestra.

Fornoff:  A full orchestra? 

Fukumura: It was a student-run, student-conducted orchestra club at my high school. It was a public high school, it’s not like (an) arts (school) or something. But there were a lot of musicians in our community.

Part of the reason I started it, actually the main reason, is because our orchestra director was retiring and so we wanted to give him a surprise performance without him knowing. All my friends knew that I had been interested in conducting for years, so it was sort of a natural, ‘Hey, let’s do this together.’ And that was my junior year.

My goal for our senior year was to continue this group into something that was meaningful enough that it would survive 10 years. And actually, out of pure coincidence, just around 10 years later, I was conducting a different youth orchestra as a guest faculty, and one of the kids in the cello section said, ‘Are you Taichi from Newton? Newton South High School?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, why?’ They were like, ‘You’re the one who started the orchestra that I am now running?’ 

Fornoff: Wow. 

Fukumura: It still existed 10 years later.

Fornoff: Did that blow your mind? 

Fukumura: Yeah! (Laughs).

For a high schooler to start an artistic organization and have it last 10 years… high schoolers are there four years. After high school, 10 years, you’re in a different life. It’s a long time ago, but for that institution to have had enough of an impact that first of all, it exists, (and) second of all, people know about me — that was very strange. 

Fornoff: Your conductor who was retiring, what was his reaction to the surprise concert? 

Fukumura: He was so touched — my gosh. He knew something was going on. He didn’t know exactly what we were doing or when it was happening, but he knew that we were putting something together. He had walked in on us once (laughs). I don’t know to what degree he was sort of playing along with us or how much of it was actually a surprise, but he was very touched for sure. I’m still, once in a while, in touch with him. 

Fornoff: Yeah. And have you told him about this position?

Fukumura: Yes. 

Fornoff: What was his reaction?

Fukumura: You know, I’ve been teaching some also for the past several years, so I know I understand the feeling… but as a teacher, when your student goes off to do something exciting and worthwhile, it’s always such a proud and special moment. I’ve had those kinds of moments with my own students. So I can only imagine how he felt. 

Fornoff: What, what made you excited to accept the position in Fort Worth

Fukumura: The orchestra is, well first of all, they’re fantastic. They sound really, really good. But also what stood out to me is how enthusiastic, friendly and passionate they are. This is an orchestra that already plays so incredibly well, but they’re interested in improving. They’re interested in giving their all to all of their performances. So whether it is a symphonic concert in Bass Hall or it is an education concert at a school or a community concert, they still perform every time with their fullest musical passion; that really stood out to me. And that’s a big reason why I was so excited to come back and get to work with them longer term.

Fornoff: Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to mention or you think is important to know?

Fukumura: You know, the big thing about Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra is they have such a special, full, passionate sound, but they can also adapt to any kind of genre. Whatever you’re interested in — whether it is the family concerts or the symphonic series, pops, or sometimes we do movies, you know, we have “A New Hope” coming up with Star Wars music — there’s something for everybody. I hope people give it a try and come to find out (more about) this big, growing musical institution that is the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. 

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta Fornoff

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...