Bumper Crop

Coleman's Long Apprenticeship on Classical Guitar Leads to Carnegie Hall
By Jim Warkulwiz

 Elizabeth J. Coleman  
Classical guitar is only one of the talents of Elizabeth Coleman L'74, who is also a poet and watercolorist.
Old habits must die hard for Elizabeth J. Coleman L'74. After giving birth to her second child and looking for a new way to express herself, Coleman, ever the multifaceted artist and professional, decided to try her hand at guitar. However, no sooner had she wanted to rebel against years of classical training, she began to wander down the familiar road of reading music and playing the works of bygone composers – a path that most guitarists never travel.

Coleman candidly believes she would not have it any other way, calling classical guitar one of the most beautiful media to create music.

"I thought this would be kind of like my 'bad-girl' instrument," Coleman said, "but I fell into classical guitar."

Coleman used her previous training in piano and cello as a child to become proficient in guitar. Unlike the interpretation of guitar in modern music, which values skill in memorization and improvisation, classical guitar challenged Coleman to study how chords and melody could be played simultaneously. As one of the most difficult forms of guitar, it took Coleman nearly 20 years before she felt confident to perform publicly.

She began giving regular weekly performances for cancer patients and their families at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City after 2003. She soon expanded to playing in houses of worship, nursing homes and other hospitals. All this led up to one of the highlights of her career: playing in Carnegie Hall as part of a classical guitar ensemble.

In March 2008, Coleman was one of 16 musicians playing Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. "Playing at Carnegie Hall was a complete peak experience," she said. After leaving the arts in favor of a career in law, she said the New York Bar gave her a venue for one of the most artistic experiences she has ever had.

After her success at Carnegie Hall, Coleman became a featured performer at the New York Bar Association's "Friday Evening Chamber Music at the Association" event in April 2008.

She said this was one of the first times the spotlight would be completely on her and her musical interpretations.

Coleman, despite entering the world of law, always has had her hand in multiple styles of the arts besides music. As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College in the late 1960s, she majored in French literature. As an adult, she is a published poet, translator and watercolorist. With such artistic talent, it seemed odd Coleman would become interested in the worlds of law and business.

It was the turbulence of the 1960s that compelled Coleman to take up a career in law. After teaching for two years and graduating from Swarthmore, she saw the need to work for civil rights.

"I wanted to work for social change within the system, so I wanted to help people within the confines of the law," Coleman said. "I wanted to change the world."

As an attorney, Coleman concentrated her expertise in civil and poverty law. She practiced in New York, Georgia and Washington, D.C. She later moved on to founding and managing her two organizations: the social and environmental justice organization the Beatrice R. and Joseph A. Coleman Foundation and the consulting firm Professional Stress Management Solutions.

She has been awarded the New York Women's Agenda Star and the NOW New York's Woman of Power and Influence for her work in the legal profession.

Although an artist at heart, Coleman contends the skills she learned from these outside the artistic realm influenced her ability to perform. Her background in law taught her how to face fear and overcome it.

"I represented people in some very important cases, and you have to be brave with a very difficult case," she said. "Law taught me that I love to perform – I probably would have never known that."