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Never Quit, An Interview with Randall Coleman

Rebecca Cichy | February 2019

    At the University of Alabama, Randall Coleman conducts the Alabama Symphonic Band, is the Associate Conductor of the Alabama Wind Ensemble and the Million Dollar Band, and teaches graduate and undergraduate conducting and wind band literature classes. He is also Conductor and Artistic Director of the Alabama Winds, a Birmingham-based adult community band that performed at the Midwest Clinic in 2017. Coleman calls that performance the pinnacle of his career so far, but reflects that what he learned on the way was far more important.

    “I pursued a performance opportunity at Midwest for my band when I was teaching at Milton High School in Georgia, but it just never happened for us. After about the third or fourth rejection letter, my wife, Anne, an English teacher with a gift for working with struggling students, sat me down and said, ‘Look, this thing at Midwest is much more important to you than it is to your kids. They’re in the band because they want to be around you. They want to be a part of the band, and they want to make music. They really don’t know what this is, and this is really more for you when it comes down to it.’ That didn’t make me stop wanting to apply for Midwest, but it put it in a different perspective. What is important is what you offer your students. Being able to watch my students succeed in or out of music is one of the most rewarding things for me. I am so proud of them and it feels good knowing that I played a small part in that.”

How did you get started in music?
    I have been around music most of my life. I started with dance lessons – tap and ballet – when I was two and a half years old, and I studied dance until I was 14. We didn’t have elementary music, but there was a piano teacher who came and taught piano lessons to anybody who was interested. I went to football games to see the band and knew that band was something I wanted to try. As soon as I could start band in seventh grade, I joined as a percussionist. Nobody in my family before me was involved in music. My parents enjoyed going to concerts and clapping – and they still do – but      I was the first in my family to be involved in music.
    During junior year of high school, I was the drum major of the marching band, but I didn’t make it as drum major my senior year. That was a pivotal moment for me because like many other students, I thought about quitting, but instead I used that opportunity to be the best percussionist I could be. With the help of my choir teacher, I found a private percussion teacher and made All-State my senior year, making me the first person from my high school to make the All-State Band. I also taught myself trumpet in high school, playing in the pep band and jazz band.
    When I got to college at Jacksonville State University, I was in the drumline in the marching band and hated it. I realized that I couldn’t play percussion for four years in college, so I went to the trumpet professor and begged him to let me in his studio. In my second semester of college, I switched my major instrument from percussion to trumpet. 

What is the most important lesson you learned from a mentor?
    When I think of my mentors, the first person who comes to mind is my high school chorus teacher. I had a wonderful band director and still stay in touch with him to this day, but I had a real connection with my high school chorus teacher. I could barely carry a tune in a bucket, but she let me join the choir anyway. I developed my initial passion for teaching from her. She taught me that you have to be invested in the students as people – that the person and how you treat the person is important.
    In college it was also my choral director from whom I learned a lot. I was in the choir and studied conducting with the director of the choir. He was a demanding teacher with high expectations, and it took a while for me appreciate all he did. My college mentor was such a wonderful musician and often said that making good music is the most important thing that we do. Everything grows from there.
    It is a common mistake of new teachers to move away from music being the most important thing about what you do. There are so many boxes to check, especially as a high school director trying to improve a program’s numbers and quality, but you still have to perform good music. Hopefully the concert band would be at the center of the program, but in marching band, jazz ensemble, or chamber groups, music should still be the most important thing you do. If you choose high-quality music that your students can benefit from having played and aim to perform it as well as possible, then the other things will fall into place.

What lessons did you learn in your first few years of teaching?
    Never quit. I was one of those teachers who would go to a program and get it on the right track,  be offered another position, and do the same thing there. I have few regrets, but I think sometimes it would have been nice to have stayed at one place for twenty years to watch it grow. The longest I ever stayed at a high school was nine years.
    Early on you have to stay grounded and remember that teaching is not a sprint and that it takes time to get the results that you want. The difficult thing is to avoid becoming disappointed to the point where you stop trying, especially when things do not go exactly the way you want them to go. You have to trust that you are doing the right thing and that good things will eventually happen. I had to keep telling myself that if something good did not happen today, I need to keep chipping away at it. It will get there.
    Students are basically the same as they were when I started 37 years ago, but their experiences are different. That has to mold us as educators. I still think this is the best job in the world, but it is also the job you will have to work the hardest at. A lot of times, you will not feel like you are making a difference instantly, but you are in it for the long haul. I don’t think it is a career that you can fall back on, but rather a career that requires passion. If your passion is somewhere else, it’s not really going to work out for you, because it’s such a demanding and taxing job.
    Remember that music might be the only thing that some students look forward to coming to school for every day. That said, they don’t necessarily look forward to coming to school to play at some conference or earn superior ratings. If that happens, that’s great and if they enjoy that, that’s great, too, but they come to school because music does something positive for them and it happens in the classroom. We don’t know everything about our students, nor what kind of sacrifices they are making in order to sit in our classroom every day. Music can do so many things, and it is an important aspect of our lives. I think we lose sight of that sometimes.
    As corny as it sounds, my students are a huge influence on what I do, from the Symphonic Band students I see sometimes two times a week to the graduate students who I spend a lot of time with every day. When you stop being inspired and motivated by your students, it is probably time that you do something else. I look back at some of the students I had while I was teaching high school who have become successful in music and in areas not related at all to music. I have former students who are now architects, administrators, high school band directors, college band directors, middle school band directors, composers, collegiate applied studio professors, and a CIA agent. It is inspiring to watch them take their careers forward.

What is a personality characteristic you feel is undesirable in teachers?
    The one trait I have seen that has probably caused more problems is if the teacher is selfish in any way. Selfishness is really hard to fit in with being a teacher because teaching is a family commitment. If the teacher is in it for self and not for the students, there are more bad outcomes than good.

What resources do you use to help you develop as an educator?
    The main resource would be to attend conferences and clinics for the purpose of learning. Often the social aspect of such events, while important,  can overshadow the professional side. In my 37 years of teaching, I have missed only two or three Midwest Clinics. It is a chance to recharge, and it is a springboard to make it through the rest of the year.
    I encourage younger teachers to attend their district’s performance evaluations and listen. That is where I learned so much about programming, music, and how to make a band sound good. Any time that I could go listen to those kinds of performances, I went. This is easier to do today than it was when I started teaching, thanks to live streaming. Some teachers, including Kevin Seda­tole and Jerry Junkin, are even live streaming their rehearsals. I think you have to take advantage of every opportunity you have to be a lifelong learner.
    I have always felt strongly about joining professional organizations as a chance not only stay current, but also give back. When I taught in Georgia, I was very heavily involved with the state music educators association. I have also been in the National Band Association since I started teaching and now that I have taken a larger role within the organization, I have expanded opportunities to give back. Professional organizations provide many opportunities, plus they are a great way to network. 
    I think you also stay current by listening and using technology to your advantage. You can look at what schools and universities are programming in their concerts at the click of a button on the College Band Directors National Association website. You can see some of the new music that’s been published on the Midwest website. You can look at programs of the wonderful bands that have performed at the American Bandmasters Association concerts. Most of the composers working today have websites where you can go and look at their scores and listen to recordings of their music. You have to seek these opportunities.

Apart from choosing high-quality wind literature, what is your focus on selecting repertoire?
    Our literature is the curriculum. Other teachers in public schools have a prescribed curriculum, but music classes don’t have that, so the literature we choose is the tool we use to teach. Therefore, students should gain something from playing the music we pick. You should also choose literature that you can learn from as a teacher. Then, we need to consider the audience. It is important that we educate them and make them a more intelligent consumer while at the same time ensure they enjoy listening to the concert enough that they want them to come back to the next one.

How do you practice or study scores?
    One of the goals I have for every rehearsal is to take as much time as I have for rehearsal to study scores outside of rehearsal. If you have a 90-minute rehearsal, then you find 90 minutes to study scores outside of rehearsal.
    Score study sometimes starts as much as a year in advance. I use the summer to learn a lot of new music, and I listen to recordings as a way to get ideas. With pieces that are new to me, I wait until a little later in the process to use recordings. 
    I used to think I needed to mark a lot in my scores, but then I paid more attention to the markings on the score rather than the music in the score. I still mark scores now, but with a less-is-more approach. I mark what I know I’ll need to see in rehearsal.

How did the Alabama Winds begin?
    When I moved to Alabama, there wasn’t an adult community band nearby, and it had been something I was interested in starting. I worried that no one would come to the first rehearsal, as well as whether anyone would come hear us play. I also knew it was a huge time commitment to do it well. 
    My wife passed away suddenly in the spring of 2013, and the summer after that, while trying to fill the empty space, I met with a few influential people in our area who were interested in the idea. We targeted a few people in each section to form the nucleus of the group. The ensemble has grown to almost 90 people with a waitlist of 40-50 people. To experience the success that we have had as fast as we did, is really mind-blowing. They’re wonderful people and it’s the highlight of my month to get together with them to rehearse.

What skills and personal attributes are most important to teaching at the college level?
    Ultimately, you are a teacher, and your subject is music. You do that in your role as a professor and your role as a conductor. It’s your job to give your students knowledge, but then you have to show them how to use it. Students don’t gain anything if you can’t have that exchange of ideas with them, or if you don’t encourage your students to use the knowledge that they have. We need practice in delivering that knowledge to our students instead of keeping it to ourselves. I aim to give my students as much real-time experience as possible. It is great to have all of the knowledge that students gain in college, but you have to have ways to use that knowledge, which is often the part that is missing. Your students study, write papers, and take tests, but then you have to figure out how to put that knowledge into practice.
    When people ask me what one of the differences is between teaching public school and teaching college, I think in public school, if you work hard, you do your job, and you don’t do anything wrong, then you are okay. At the university level, that’s not quite enough. That all has to happen, but I have found that there are more times when you have to please external constituents, and the constituency is different at the university level than at the public school level.

What advice do you have for someone who is interested in teaching at the collegiate level?
    It used to be that you became a college band director because you were a successful as a middle school or high school band director for a number of years and then you moved up, but with the advent of the doctorate in wind conducting, that’s changed the landscape tremendously. Now, more people are teaching college who have little, if any, public school teaching experience. I think it is critically important, if you are teaching students to be music educators in the public school, that you have significant experience doing that at a high level yourself before you teach at the collegiate level. 
    Similarly, when you’ve taught at the collegiate level for a number of years, you are not as current about public school teaching. If I were responsible for teaching future band directors, I would spend a lot of time in the public school classroom so that I still knew what was going on in the classroom. Once you’re at a college, you’re often asked not only to just conduct the band, but also to teach music education classes. There is also the athletic band side of being a college band director, which is completely different than the concert band side of things. You also have to be willing to work to improve at the craft. If you think that just because you have a college job you don’t have to study anymore, that couldn’t be further than the truth. I think the higher up the ladder you go, the harder you have to work to stay up there.

What are your concerns for the future of music education?
    The only thing to worry about is music losing its humanity because of advances in technology. It can be easy to let machines do things that might be better done by people, and I think that’s only going to become more of a concern. However, there are so many good, young teachers that I think music education is going to be just fine. I just want to encourage all of those young teachers to make sure that they realize that the human part of music has to be there in addition to everything else.

Why did you become a music educator?
    When it boils down to it, I just don’t know if there’s anything else that I can do. I don’t have a hobby, and I don’t do anything but this. It’s so much a part of who I am. When you know what you’re supposed to do, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. I think that’s the highest compliment anybody can pay if they say my name or my name comes up and very quickly after that they say “music educator, music teacher, band conductor.” That is the best honor that I could have because that has been my life for so long.    

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    Randall Coleman is currently the Associate Director of Bands and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Alabama. Before coming to Alabama, Coleman enjoyed a successful 25-year career as a high school band director and supervisor in metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia. In addition, Coleman is the Coordinator of the Crimson Music Camps and the Alabama Honor Band Festivals and is Conductor and Artistic Director of the Alabama Winds, an adult community band based in Birmingham, Alabama. He received his Bachelor of Science Degree in Music Education at Jacksonville State University and a Masters of Music Education degree from Georgia State University. Coleman is a member of the American Bandmasters Association and is currently Second Vice President of the National Band Association. He is also Alabama State Chairman of the College Band Directors’ National Association.