There has not been anyone like Melvin G. Derr.
I know because I met him in 1975 at Atherton’s Music Company on my first day of piano lessons; that began a quarter century of a great friendship. I was a novice to music, but Mr. Derr – as the caring teacher he was – took me under his wing. I had weekly lessons of only 30 minutes each, but those three years were incredible.
Some readers will recognize the man and his mannerisms as I reminisce about my time with ‘the two pianos’ of his studio on the second floor of the former Sherman Opera House in downtown. ‘Mr. Derr,’ or Mel as I called him later in life, was the consummate musical artist. He taught piano and voice long before I came along and long after I left. He was a mainstay in Sherman and the area for some 35 years.
He worked with Sherman High School and its music program every year; he worked with churches’ music departments and he worked with community groups and musical entities. Basically, he gave of himself in every capacity in his short time in our lives. Mel Derr died in 2000 of a blood disorder. He was the music director at Key Memorial United Methodist Church at that time.
Going back to the mid-1970s, I was allowed to pursue my musical interests by my parents because my siblings all were in band. I chose not to participate as I had other interests, but my mother told me I could learn to play the piano. She was a strong believer in the power of music and musical expression.
Actually, I missed my first lesson due to a sudden commitment. After that, I spent the next 150 or so Saturdays with ‘Mr. Derr’ and his musical prowess. I rarely dreaded or even felt unmotivated to go because he not only knew his stuff, Mel Derr made music fun. He made the time together fun regardless of what we were studying or practicing. His classroom only had one attitude: joyous laughter.
I remember his casual jokes or play on words or simply mispronouncing my name (on purpose). I don’t remember any of how to play the sheet music, but I remember how he made me feel. And man, could he play piano and sing!
There was a card file on his piano; you know, like an old recipe box your mother or grandmother had. In it were hundreds of index cards with song name and author—that’s all…no music...no meter…no key…no words…and Mel Derr knew every one of those songs/music pieces by heart. Take a card out and show it to him and you’d get a perfectly played musical number. Every time; all day, every day!
And that was just his talent. He had an infectious personality that lit up a room. You knew that when Mel Derr came into a room that the party had arrived. But he took his work and relationships seriously. He worked patiently and tirelessly with people of all ages on the piano and with voice lessons. His love was music, but his vocation was teaching. And Mr. Derr put both of them together in a career of giving.
We laughed the entire time we weren’t playing those Saturday afternoons. We’d have discussions of musical topics, too; I remember one about that year’s Academy Award for Best Song. He told me that Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does it Better” was the best song; most musically complex, but that Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” would win…and of course, it did…Every time I hear ‘The Spy who Loved Me’ on the radio, even today, I think of Mel Derr because of his insight.
I didn’t know much about his private life. Over the years, I found out he grew up in Collinsville and went to North Texas State University, where he was part of the musical group, “The Minstrels” and majored in music. After Atherton’s closed, he gave lessons out of his house on Crocket Street. He directed the choir at Key Memorial where he was beloved in the short period of time before his death. I remember going to his funeral; and just crying and crying.
There is no substitute for the relationships you get to have as you grow up. They shape you and they give you context for the life you go on to have. I have been so blessed to have so many great ones in my life. People who cared and people who did what was right because it was right. They lived their truth; and made a shining beacon for me and many others as we traversed the pathways of Life.
And one of the brightest beacons for me was Melvin G. Derr…
Dwayne Wilder is a Sherman native who currently lives in Denison. Wilder’s Whole World is his commentary about life in Texoma and the world. Wilder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.