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Central Washington University

Retired CWU Jazz Studies Director Plans to Stay Involved in Music Education

Friday, August 27, 2021

While Chris Bruya may have retired as Central Washington University’s Director of Jazz Studies in June, his work continues as a sought-after clinician and instructor within the world of jazz music.

With over 36 years of teaching experience and developing several novel curriculums under his belt, Bruya continues to educate whenever he can, as evidenced by his recent jazz improvisation clinic at Woodland High School.

“My focus in the early teaching of improvisation is developing a sense of phrasing,” said Bruya, who spent more than 19 years at CWU. “The logic lies in realizing that, when you’re improvising a solo, you’re allowed to repeat yourself. A solo without repetition devolves into musical rambling.”

Bruya’s approach to improvisation jazz is built upon this idea of putting fundamentals first. In teaching a high school class of relative newcomers to the art of making up a solo on the fly, he often starts by asking students to create the rhythm before the melody, to give the composition structure before introducing the melody. Once that’s ingrained, he says, it becomes easier to add more complex elements.

“The thing that I tell kids is that you can pick just a couple of notes and play a really great solo with them,” Bruya said. “You can even play a great solo with one note, as long as you use the structure as the organizing principle in your improvisation.”

Over the course of his career, Bruya has been invited to teach at music conferences across the country, such as the Western International Band Conference, the Washington Music Educators Association conference, and the National Association for Music Educators conference. In 2015, his band performed at the Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey, California, where they won first place.

His wealth of teaching and performing expertise was put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic, since music instruction presents some unique challenges in a remote-learning environment. But when he moved his classes online, Bruya made an interesting discovery.

“Teaching this way online, students actually progressed further than when we were meeting in person twice a week,” he said. “I asked a few students why that was, and they felt it was because they could repeat concepts and videos as many times as they liked, as opposed to having to pick it all up in one go in the classroom.

“Because they had to record their assignments and turn them in, the practice became built into the performance, and students got a better chance to listen to themselves play before submitting it for a grade.”

Bruya said even though he has left day-to-day music instruction behind, he will adjudicate band festivals and host clinics like the one at Woodland High School, which he was invited to do after Woodland Public Schools music teacher Bryana Steck sat in on Bruya’s session at the Western International Band Conference. Steck noted how well Bruya was able to teach a subject as complicated as jazz improvisation.

“There tends to be a focus on the complex theory behind jazz in that subject rather than focusing on some of the more fun and melodic elements that make the craft so interesting to play and listen to,” Steck said. “Professor Bruya provided a great way to break everything down – this is exactly how improvisation should be taught all the time.”

Media contact: Rune Torgersen, Department of Public Affairs, rune.torgersen@cwu.edu.

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