Stephanie Coleman has spent a lifetime playing, studying and teaching music in Western Australia. Known as one of Perth’s foremost pianists and lauded as one of the country’s most respected music teachers, Stephanie has spent more than 60 years dedicated to her art.
Stephanie first put her fingers on the ivory keys when she began lessons at the age of five. With encouragement from her mother, she continued to play the piano and throughout her childhood, she undertook music exams, entered competitions and played in Eisteddfods across Perth. She went on to study music at school, and to this day maintains in jest that she “never practiced enough.”
In 1942, Stephanie completed her leaving certificate at Perth College and was offered a scholarship to study at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. She accepted the scholarship and moved from Perth to “big city” Victoria at the age of 16 to complete her Bachelor of Music. The degree took four years to complete and Stephanie often practiced up to eight hours per day.
In 1946, the young pianist finished her degree and moved back to WA to accept a position at Kobeelya Girls School in Katanning as a music teacher. Stephanie spent two years passing on her knowledge to young women in the rural town, before resigning in 1948 and returning to Perth. Rather than launching straight into another teaching job, Stephanie did what so many of her peers were doing at the time; she packed a bag and flew to London.
She rented a flat with a friend and spent two “wonderful” years taking lessons with renowned pianists, teaching classes at a local secondary school, and attending concerts at London’s great music halls.
In 1950, Stephanie returned to Perth and quickly fell into a position at the ABC. The ABC’s studio orchestra was short a harpist, and Stephanie was asked to play the harp parts on piano, a move that delighted the young pianist and – she jokes – exasperated the conductor. She spent seven years as an orchestral pianist and studio musician before a new opportunity came up at the ABC when the main studio accompanist retired. Stephanie did not believe that she had a shot at the position and was surprised when she was asked to take on the job in 1957. She proudly accepted and was “thrilled” to work as the lead accompanist for eight years.
With a preference for playing in the background instead of taking the spotlight as a soloist, Stephanie flourished at the ABC and “loved every minute of it.” She thrived on the challenge of receiving a stack of sheet music two days before going to air and enjoyed the collegiality and social aspect of working with other like-minded musicians from across the State. Through her work with the ABC, she received opportunities to tour the country with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO). It was during her time with WASO that Stephanie met her late husband, George Coleman, who spent many years as the orchestra’s principal viola player.
After 15 years at the ABC, Stephanie faced a serious setback in 1965 when spinal problems lead to issues with her left hand. After a major operation on her spine, Stephanie was forced to stop playing piano full time. She faced the change head-on and in the mid-1960s began to work full time as a piano teacher. She soon became known as one of the leading music teachers in the country and taught both privately and at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Stephanie’s teachings extended to children and adults of any age or skill set and many of Perth’s most respected pianists have studied under her. She worked as a music examiner and is currently a Patron of the West Australian Music Teachers Association. Stephanie holds the belief that studying music is incredibly rewarding and gives you an “insight into another world.”
In 1991, Stephanie was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition of her service to music as a pianist, teacher and examiner. She believes she has led a “very privileged life in music.”
Stephanie taught well into her eighties and is now happily retired and living in Claremont. She still plays the piano.