Perfect Harmony: CWU Music Is Proud of Its Rich Tradition

Perfect Harmony: CWU Music Is Proud of Its Rich Tradition

Bruce Walker applied to Central Washington University for one reason: John Michel.

It was the spring of 2004 and Walker was getting ready to graduate from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville the following spring. He wanted to pursue a conducting/cello performance path, but he didn’t know where his dream would take him until he met Michel that summer.“Musically, I was like a fire hydrant: Super creative, but not very technical,” Walker recalls.

That desire to hone his skills led him to apply to the Marrowstone Music Festival, a three-week, intensive summer experience in Seattle, where he would get to work with “Master Michel,” a renowned cellist who has taught at Central for more than three decades.

“He’s one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met, especially when it comes to teaching. Getting to meet him was everything,” said Walker (’07), who now teaches music at ColumbiaBasin College (CBC) in Pasco. “He fixed my bow hand during those three weeks. I said to myself, ‘If he can do this in three weeks, what can he do if I get a graduate degree?’”

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Faculty Excellence

Almost all alumni from Central’s music program have a similar story about what initially drew them to study at a small state college in a rural community: They came for the expert faculty.

Over more than 100 years, the Department of Music has curated a talented group of professors and instructors devoted to the student experience. Maintaining that excellence over decades requires intentionality.

“We owe a lot to the people who came before us and their vision,” said Department Chair Mark Goodenberger.

Key to that vision was Wayne Hertz, who served as department chair in the 1930s. Hertz was instrumental in building the music department into the signature program it is today.

His legacy lived on in Hertz Hall, the former concert hall on the Ellensburg campus where the Health Sciences building now stands.

But it isn’t just about talent; the department is careful to hire musicians who want to be part of the Wildcat family.

“You can’t be a jerk and work here,” Goodenberger said. “We hire people that are great at what they do, but also are good team members.”

When he joined the faculty 22 years ago, Goodenberger was a career percussionist looking for stability.

“I was looking for a job in music, and what I found was that I was as passionate about teaching as I was about performing,” he said. “You feel you belong to something right away.”

That inclusive feeling carries across the classroom, in one-on-one lessons and the department’s two dozen ensembles, not to mention the high school and middle school students who visit campus for state competitions in the McIntyre Music Building. Even those auditioning find a robust community.

“Recently we had a pianist from Iran who really wanted to audition, but he couldn’t pay for the audition fee. Our piano faculty was working to find them resources,” Goodenberger said. “People really look to problem-solve and help students when they have a need.”

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Paying It Forward

Walker often encourages his students graduating from CBC to look to Central to finish their degrees. One student lost his luggage on his way to audition, and the cello students got together to find him what he needed to get through his audition.

“That kind of community is something that’s special. You can’t put a price on that,” said Walker, who has gone on to a successful music career, both as an educator and performer.

Early in his career while working as an orchestra director in Sunnyside, he joined what he called the “Freeway Philharmonic,” driving all over the Northwest to share his passion with others.

Walker joined the Walla Walla Symphony, the Mid-Columbia Symphony, and the Oregon East Symphony, spending all of his free time playing and teaching music. He also served as an assistant conductor to the Oregon East Symphony in Pendleton, cover conductor for the Yakima Symphony, and music director for the Yakima Youth Symphony.

“If an orchestra had a spot, I wanted to be in it,” Walker said.

That love for music has continued for him as an educator, and he can trace his love for teaching back to his days in the CWU music department.

“I’ve always been a very student-centered professor, and I want to know what my students are thinking about when I ask a question,” said Walker who teaches music appreciation and music theory, and conducts the orchestra.

Much like his professors at Central, he says, “I’m very focused on taking a real-life approach to teaching.”

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Foundation in Education

Scott Peterson (’76) was the first student to receive a graduate degree in choral conducting from Central. After more than 30 years directing choral activities at Yakima Valley Community College (now Yakima Valley College), Peterson returned to CWU as a non-tenure track faculty member.

The department offers master’s and bachelor’s degrees along two main tracks: education and performance. Students can choose from four-year degrees in performance, composition, music education in choral or instrumental music, or general
music. Graduate students choose from composition, piano, conducting, performance, pedagogy, and music education.

No matter which direction students choose, they’ll find education becomes a part of their experience.

Mc Intyre Music Bldg

“Central has always had a good idea of what it takes to be a good music teacher,” Peterson said. “At one point, most of the music teachers in the Northwest came from Central. It’s not just about being able to get up in front of a bunch of students and have them perform; it’s also teaching them about music, about history, about how to be a better musician. We teach students how to think critically to explore what they can learn about the music.”

That approach has continued to prove successful in the five decades since Peterson graduated. The new generation of music educators all look back fondly on the guidance and mentorship they received during their time in Ellensburg.

Brittany Stevens (’16) always knew she wanted to become a music teacher, dating back to her freshman year in high school.

“My courses at CWU really helped me understand my voice, and I grew in leaps and bounds in my understanding of the anatomy of singing. I use that knowledge daily,” said Stevens, who currently teaches music at Eastmont High School in East Wenatchee.

“Most of my students don’t take private voice lessons, but because of the high caliber of education I had, I’m able to teach them and see huge improvements in their voice just from being in my class.”

She credits her Central professors with giving her a well-rounded knowledge base that she can now impart to her own students.

“The amount of ensemble knowledge I collected from being in Chamber Choir, Vocal Jazz, and University Chorale—I have such a big arsenal of tools,” Stevens said. “I feel like I can run a rehearsal at any time for any choir and any piece of music.”


Re-Building Momentum

The department’s foundation in music education remains solid as it looks to what the future holds for its students.

Like many others disciplines across campus, CWU Music experienced higher-than-usual turnover during the pandemic. Now, the department is trying to rediscover its groove with new faculty and a return to more traveling performance opportunities, Peterson said.

That includes showcasing student talents at various regional conferences, where music educators and alumni will see the continued caliber of the program.

“It’s exciting to be back to promoting the school and putting ourselves out there. I’m sincerely proud of what we’re doing,” Goodenberger said. “When you bring all these different students together, and you put them into a group, and you create this performance out of these people who are from all different walks of life—and you find the balance in that—it’s such a great analogy for how the world should be.”


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Legacy of Firsts

  • Music instruction has been part of Central’s history since classes began in 1891.
  • Founded in 1906, the orchestra is the third oldest in Washington state.
  • The Central marching band, founded in 1939, was one of the first in the nation to perform while maneuvering at football games.
  • The jazz program is one of the first in the U.S. to feature tenured music faculty instruction, beginning in 1947.

    Source: “Music at Central Washington University with Emphasis on the Years 1891-2000” by Norman D. Wallen

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