Ron and Don (a twin brother) Coleman were born in Singapore. They started playing clarinet at age six, inspired by an older brother, Richard, who was an accomplished performer on the instrument. Their father, Paul, was a music teacher who provided the twins and two other brothers with good teachers, insisted on regular practice, joined with them in music-making, and sacrificed to give all four quality instruments.
Their father's career led to a return to the United States in 1953 and teaching positions in the Northwest, at Auburn Academy, Portland Union Academy, and then, after more overseas service in Indonesia, a position at Laurelwood Academy in 1965. When the family moved to Laurelwood, the twins as well as a younger brother, Lewis, then in 7th and 5th grades respectively, had become exceptionally capable players.
Their father talked to the academy band about their playing in the group. Following auditions and an understanding that the three boys would not be holding first chairs until they were academy age, an agreement was reached with the band to allow them to play with the older students.
While at Laurelwood the three younger boys, who had previously been taught by their father, took lessons from Owen Sanders in Portland and with Al Friedman at Pacific University in Forest Grove. During this time the boys became well known in the Northwest for their solo and ensemble work.
When the family moved to College Place, Washington, in 1970, the twins played in the Walla Walla Symphony for the next three years, a new experience in ensemble playing that both enjoyed immensely.
In 1973 Ron entered La Sierra College, now La Sierra University, but left at the end of the year to attend Northrop Aviation and Maintenance School. This was the beginning of an association with aviation that has continued to the present. He has been a flight instructor and charter pilot as well as an aviation mechanic. He and his brother Don are senior pilots for Continental Airlines, Ron having been with CAL for over 20 years. He has flown DC9, B727, B747, and B777 aircraft and flies long-haul international routes.
Beginning in 1976, at the invitation of a family friend, Ron resumed playing clarinet. Along the way, he and Don played together in the Guam Symphony, often trading chairs. In 1994 the twins and their families returned to Walla Walla, partly because of the opportunity to play again in the WWSO. Ron also plays in the Walla Walla University Wind Symphony clarinet section and has soloed with the group. He is a frequent player in chamber ensembles and serves as an adjunct faculty member in clarinet at WWU.
Sources: Interviews with Ronald Coleman, 2007; Personal Knowledge. See biographies for Paul Coleman, Donald Coleman, and Lois Coleman Hall for more information about the Coleman family.
My Life in Music
I started playing the clarinet at age six6, naturally picking it up from my brother Dick who was ten years older and already quite accomplished. I do not recall the first instruments we played on, but I do remember Dad going all out and buying "new" used Selmers for all of us (Don, Lewis, and myself) in Singapore on our way to Java in 1962. He wanted us to have good instruments.
In addition to each of us getting a new Bb soprano, Dad also bought a new Selmer bass clarinet. This must have cost him a considerable sum considering his income level at the time. Don became our regular bass player. The instrument was taller than he was. I remember him standing on a small box to play it.
We played a lot in the next three and a half years. The rule was "practice two hours and then you can go swimming for two hours!" Dad made it fun by sitting down and playing quartet arrangements with us - most being music he had arranged. I still have some of those scores. Dick took a year off from college and joined us in Indonesia. During that year he too played in the quartet/quintet.
I think it was during that year that we joined with the Holm family and put on an entire evening concert or two at the Adventist college near Bandung, Java. I also remember playing outside under a canopy of trees for branch Sabbath school classes for kids. We would usually just play out of the hymnal. This is where we learned to transpose as we were usually playing along with an accordion and violins. (I still remember Dad saying "up one step, add two sharps, subtract two flats..."). That's where we also learned to play the bass clef.
Dick had studied clarinet with Ronald Philips, Seattle Symphony principal, in the 1950s, but the first formal lessons for Lew, Don, and myself were when we moved back to Laurelwood Academy in the 1960s. We studied with Owen Sanders in Portland and with Al Friedman at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
Owen Sanders taught me to blow - he kept a broken baton on the music stand and every now and then he would grab it and shout (at least it seemed like a shout!) "See this baton - the other end is still in a student's throat who wouldn't blow hard enough!" Owen was also good at stressing fingerings. Al Friedman taught me more about listening to the music - to make music instead of just playing.
When we had moved to Laurelwood in 1965 (my seventh grade year), Dad, after apparently discussing it at some length with the academy band members, brought us in for auditions - the end result being that we all joined the academy band that year. Lewis was only a fifth grader. I believe Dad had told the band members that none of us could occupy a first chair until we were in Academy. I remember feeling somewhat self-conscious, but also appreciated how friendly the "big" kids were to us. They were always gracious.
It was during these years that I learned to play French horn and saxophone a bit. I also sang in a choir for the first time under Norman Schwisow.
Around 1970 Friedman asked Don and me to submit a recording for audition. We played Adagio and Tarantella by Ernesto Cavalini in unison. We took first place in the region and were selected to play at Pacific University. We later played the same number at a band clinic at Walla Walla College, now University, where Friedman came to guest conduct the piece.
When we moved to Walla Walla in 1970, we entered Walla Walla Valley Academy as seniors and played in the band under Gordon Finch. I remember being rather self-conscious about coming into a school where I knew nobody and taking over first chair - but again, everyone was very friendly and gracious. I also sang in the choir under Finch, an experience I enjoyed immensely, though I do not consider myself much of a singer.
I played in the Walla Walla Symphony that first year. It was my first experience in an orchestra and I remember thinking, "This is the way to listen to a symphony!" Sitting in the middle of that symphony was like hearing in color for the first time after having always heard in black and white. I played for three years, until I left WWC to pursue more schooling in southern California.
I attended La Sierra College, now University, (mulling over Medicine or Dentistry as a career) but transferred out to go to Northrop Aviation Maintenance and Engineering School the next year. It was during this time that I decided to take a break from playing clarinet. I put it in the closet and didn't tell anyone that I played. I was still a rather shy person by nature and it was a relief not to be up in front of people so much.
Around 1976 I ran into Ramon Gonzales at LLU. He had played with my brother Dick in Academy. It was Ramon who encouraged me to pull the clarinet out of the closet, saying they needed a player in their orchestra. That aroused my interest and I never stopped playing again. I credit him for getting me back to playing.
When Don and I were stationed in Guam as pilots with Continental Airlines from 1989 to 1994, we played in the Guam Symphony - often playing together and swapping chairs. We had opportunity to perform in other smaller venues too.
Our choice to move back to Walla Walla in 1994 was partly driven by the presence of the Walla Walla Symphony. I wanted to live in a town where music was accessible, and especially a symphony. I was fortunate to be able to step in and start playing with the symphony that year. Since then I have had opportunities to solo with the WWC Wind Ensemble, the WWC string quartet, and other small groups in the Northwest.
During that time, Carlyle Manous, WWC band director, collaborated with Washington State University to perform a wind octet by Dvorak. I was asked to play clarinet and when we walked into the first rehearsal at WSU, I met Jim Schoephlin. I did not know who he was, but he instantly recognized me (he actually called me Dick!). He and Dick had played together at Auburn. We had a great time.
Flying pretty much became my career after 1975. Since then I have worked as a flight instructor, charter pilot, mechanic, and for the last 20 plus years as a pilot for Continental Airlines, having flown the DC9, B727, B747, and now the B777 on long haul international routes.
Music, however, has been and remains a very meaningful part of my life - both for the music itself and for the many friends I have made as a result. I still get together with Melvin Johnson and his family on a regular basis just to make music. Since Melvin and my Dad [Paul Coleman] played together in their college years, this experience is pretty special.