Tsutsumi started studying violin at the age of six, but two years later when a violin dealer was showing his father a half-sized cello, Tsutsumi fell in love with the sound and asked to be taught the instrument. His father taught him for his first year. From the second year, Tsutsumi started studying with the leading music educator in Japan, Hideo Saito, at Saito's Children's Music School. As Saito always did with sufficiently talented students, he taught Tsutsumi the Bach Cello Suites. In connection with learning these suites, Tsutsumi learned to develop and trust his own artistic judgment, for after a while he began to disagree with his teacher's approach. After they had dissected the suites from all aspects three times, Tsutsumi's own ideas about them came out.
He studied with Saito weekly for ten years, and says that there was not a lesson where he failed to learn something new. He said his teacher was so great with children because of his use of vivid imagery, which could range from cream cakes to the way a submarine's periscope popped out of the water. Tsutsumi also notes that all of Japan's present leading cellists studied with Saito and no two of them play in the same way.
Tsutsumi made his first appearance in public playing the Saint-Saëns concerto with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra under Saito's leadership. He began appearing with the leading Japanese orchestras. In 1961 he received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Indiana University with Janos Starker. He found the change from one strict teacher to another one, but with a different approach, to be very useful. He credits Starker with cleaning up his technique, beginning with the very basics, scale practice. In an institution full of very talented music students, Tsutsumi was one of the standouts, a rather awe-inspiring figure due to his obviously major talent, his unusual dedication, and a very reserved demeanor. Part of this was shyness. Starker encouraged students to speak out in class, and state opinions about each other's playing. Not only was this contrary to Japanese attitudes about politeness, but Tsutsumi was hesitant about his command of English grammar.
Starker, Tsutsumi says, "worked hard to make me more extrovert. He would say it was no use being like an oriental Buddha, so that nobody knows what one is thinking." Starker also linked the interpretations he had in mind with certain paintings or artists. As a result, Tsutsumi represents a successful merging of Eastern and Western culture. Although he retains a dignified stage presence that sometimes still projects something of his natural reserve, when one listens to his playing (or hears it on a recording) one notices the strong projection of an emotional viewpoint.
After two years he became Starker's assistant at Indiana, and after graduation an artist in residence. He maintains a successful concert career with an active teaching life and has taught as Western Ontario University and then back at Indiana in Bloomington.
In 1984, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Saito-san's death, a special Memorial Concert in Tokyo was organized. Tsutsumi was invited to play the solo part in Strauss' Don Quixote. Seiji Ozawa conducted, and the violin soloist was Toru Tasunkaga, concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Both soloists, the conductor, and the entire orchestra were all students of Saito's.
Tsutsumi plays all the standard repertoire pieces, but is a firm advocate of modern music. He finds it particularly fascinating the way Japanese composers, even working in the most avant-garde Western styles, still find something that is Japanese in its esthetic.