CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — Grammy-nominated flutist and musician Valerie Coleman is on Coastal Carolina University’s campus serving as an artist in residence for the school of music.
Coleman is a trailblazing artist and performer, who recently made history with her work by becoming the first living black woman composer ever commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
She arrived on campus on Wednesday and has been spending the past few days working with students on technique, performance, artistry and everything in between.
“My favorite part of working with young students is to hear them express their artistry, to hear them do something that is uniquely them,” Coleman said. “That just really makes my heart sing.”
Some students have looked up to Coleman their whole lives.
“I found Valerie Coleman when I was in sixth grade,” senior music student Diamond Gaston said. “I just went on Google … and I was getting frustrated because everyone on the screen didn’t look like me, and I just got fed up. I looked up ‘black girl playing the flute’ and the first thing that popped up was Valerie Coleman.”
To be able to not only meet her but to work with her is the chance of a lifetime.
“It’s a little unreal,” Gaston said. “Honestly, I didn’t think that it would ever happen, but thanks to my teachers, Dr. Eric Schultz and Miss Jessica Peltier, they turned my little dream from 2011 to reality.”
Dr. Eric Schultz is an assistant professor of music at CCU. He credits Gaston for the idea of bringing Coleman to campus.
“We were just listening to her music and we thought, ‘my gosh, this is a, this is a true masterpiece, an incredible piece of music,’ Schultz said. “Diamond said something kind of off the cuff like ‘gosh, I would just faint if I ever saw her in person,’ and my head went ‘ding.’”
To make that dream a reality is a big deal for the faculty and the students.
“I didn’t think this would ever happen,” Schultz said, “It’s just an incredible, incredible privilege for us to have Valerie Coleman here.”
It’s more than just a musical experience for Gaston. She said it was an incredible feeling to know there was someone else that looked just like her in the industry.
“I can’t put it into words, but it was an immediate comfort,” Gaston said. “I went to a predominantly Black school, so I’m used to people who look like me, but not at a professional level. All the levels I see above me are just men, so it was very comforting to see someone who looked exactly like me.”
Coleman knows what it is like to be in that position. She hopes she can leave the students with the tools they need to be successful and believe in themselves.
“We can take a chance. We can take the risk to find our own artistry as we’re playing through music,” Coleman said. “That discovery, I think, is so golden to the process of growth.”
CCU and Coleman have a special relationship. The university is home to the largest collection of her scores in the world.
“When you’re playing music by living people, it’s copyrighted, right? You can’t go to an online music library and print it. It’s not in the public domain,” Schultz said. “The piece we’re playing tonight might be a $30, $40 piece, but to a student, that’s a significant investment.”
Schultz thanks the university for its commitment to music education, but he credits his students for making it all happen.
“We all have the power to do these things and make this change,” Schultz said. “When you have a great idea like this, go find your allies, and go sing from the mountain tops. Start somewhere. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing, is just getting started.”
He said having Coleman on campus is not only a once-in-a-lifetime experience for students, but it is an important lesson in diversifying music education.
“Music has been a country club for far too long, and the entire musical and creative and artistic ecosystem will benefit if we just allow more people into the space,” Schultz said. “There’s no limit in terms of how many people can be musicians, how many people can create amazing artwork. So, yeah, it’s time.”