By Nicola Karesh

Derek Sandlin will bring his musical talents to the Mary C. Jenkins Community Center. (Courtesy photo)

I had a wonderful conversation recently with Derek Sandlin. If I posted the whole interview it would probably read like a book, so I’ll share snippets with you so that you can get a sense of who this gentleman is. If you don’t know him, he will soon be offering music lessons at the Mary C. Jenkins Community Center, so please put that on your radar.

Lessons
“I am definitely excited about the Community Center and whatever I can do to be part of it. I was born in Philadelphia. When my parents divorced, my mom moved us back to Brevard… her home. I have been here all my life, since 1977,” Sandlin said.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make a Rosenwald connection, so I checked. Derek’s mother (Edna Mae Williams) did attend Brevard Rosenwald School and then went to Allen School for her high school years. The latter was a private school in Asheville for African American students and an option especially during segregation times. For his education, Derek attended Straus Elementary and then Brevard Middle and High. Following that he studied music at Brevard College.

“I got a B.A in music education and a minor in business, the hardest thing I ever did in my whole life,” he said. “It’s not what people think. It was a lot of work and not what I thought it’d be. There’s a whole process and a lot of responsibility.
Six or seven music classes, studying with a private instructor (professor), learning the music to do a concert, deadlines, plus travel and music at other schools.
I also had to keep up with my core classes, science and business. A lot of people drop out because it’s awful.
I didn’t think I was going to make it. I had a difficult time learning. I had to have tutoring throughout school.
I learn best by hands-on.
It was so much more overwhelming in college. I did make it through, though. I did. I am proud of myself.”

His family was a dynamic influence.

“I had a work ethic growing up,” he said. “My grandmother taught me. When I was 6, she’d give me a little change. I had a paper route. I washed dishes. I always had a job. Through middle and high school, I had summer jobs. I was a hard worker and knew the value. Nothing comes easy. You got to earn everything.”

Inspiration
What inspired his interest in music?

“It started with my mother,” he said. “She would always play music around the house. Old records. Always around me. Something grew on me through her. She had taken courses and learned the piano. I was always beating on stuff around the house. She didn’t want to, but my grandmother talked her into getting me a drum set when I was 8. I was so happy playing the drums. On the second day, I busted all the drums!”

Music wasn’t finished with Sandlin though.

“Later on, at age 10, she tried me out for piano,” he said. “That’s where it really started. Around 11 and 12, I took piano lessons. I hated it. Kept fighting it. I was into sports. I was a boy’s boy. Piano, I thought, was for girls. I look back now and don’t regret it. I didn’t like practicing. They kept pushing me. They saw a musical ability in me.”

His home church was Bethel Baptist in Brevard.

“I played at age 13 in the church,” he said. “Not a lot, just now and then as they had two piano players. I didn’t want to do that either.

I’d learn a hymn and fill in. I played at Christmas and Easter times. Church stayed on me too.”

Outside of church, “From there I ended up trying out for Brevard Middle School band,” he said. “You could pick your instrument. It definitely wasn’t piano. I tried out for drums. I had rhythm. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew how to read music from piano. I tried out and made it. I finally got to play the drums. I spent more time learning how to play them. I was on a percussion path, which included the xylophone and bells. I didn’t like them either because they were similar to the piano. Everything related to piano. I still had to do lessons every now and then. It put all the pieces of the puzzle together. The piano was the foundation.”

In high school, Sandlin got experience playing in concert, marching and the jazz band.

“It was a happy moment, playing the drum set,” he said. “Then they needed a piano player, and I thought, ‘No, not again.’ I couldn’t get away from it, so I did some drums and some piano. I also played football. In 12th grade, the percussion instructor at Brevard College needed a fill-in for percussion ensemble and my high school band director recommended me. That was fun. Mrs. Diane Cash at the college further instilled that strong work ethic in me.

I learned pretty much everything from her. She was a professional. I applied and auditioned to get into Brevard College. I struggled and got through it.”

After college, Derek shared that he ended up working and getting experi ence doing other things besides but including music.

There were opportunities like factory/plant work, hotel work, odd jobs. Music provided connections to play and meet people. Rock and roll, rhythm and blues, different genres, time in Georgia when he was accepted into the Atlanta Institute of Music. Derek experienced a difficult period when in Georgia, reporting this to be a low moment and a depressing slump in his life.

“I was happy that I made it in,” he said. “I took a chance to go there, though, as they didn’t have housing.

You were kind of on your own. I gave it a try, but it was horrible. I had a hard time. I had to find work, odd jobs, and go to school.

I tried to make it. It didn’t pan out as I was more looking for work. I stayed a year before returning to North Carolina.”

Positive Change
Positive change came next through a music store in Hendersonville. Over a period of time, he went into Tempo Music several times.

The owner approached him each time as they were looking for someone to teach bass guitar to students. Der- ek’s response was first, “No, I don’t teach. I play.” Then, “No, I don’t do that. I’m not really a people person and there’s a lot I don’t know.”

Finally, he reported that he got upset: “No. You can find someone else.” The owner insisted, stating that he felt Derek was it, asking him to give it a try and that if he didn’t like it he could stop, but to just try. Persistence paid off as Derek agreed to try.

“I wasn’t motivated or excited. Honestly, it felt like piano. I hated it already,” he said.

Something about this felt amusing to me and I shared this with Sandlin. I had a picture of this reluctant student who had obvious promise and talent. Outside forces were coaxing and corralling, tirelessly wearing down his resistance and at some point, the tides changed and what felt negative to Derek eventually turned into a huge positive. But first, he had to get through his initial unpleasant teaching experience.

“The music store owner got people for me,” he said.

“The first lesson was a hor –

rible experience with com municating and showing them. I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt I couldn’t do this and people weren’t happy with me. The owner coached and talked me back into trying again. He said, “Prepare what you want. Show them what you know. Teach them what they want. Meet them where they’re at. You know more than a beginner. Keep it real easy.”

Derek did try again and it went better. He started to think about the students and what they liked.

“I showed them a little technique and how to play the notes,” he said. I gained more understanding. I began to research on the computer how to teach. I still wasn’t really excited until I showed a student a song they wanted to learn. It clicked and I was like, wow! I got the grasp of teaching surely but slowly and began to enjoy it. Going from follower to leader was also a whole different side of things. All this schooling and instruction that I had, I needed to learn, but the teaching was different.

I grew up learning classical music. My students want to play a song they really like.

I had to now learn how to play by ear rather than by reading music. It became more about listening and hearing the music. It was like putting the puzzle pieces together. With teaching, it was more about listening to pick up what they’re doing in the song. Show the student, teach, explain. It’s a whole ‘nother ball game besides reading music. A lot of people who read music, don’t play by ear and vice versa. Some do both. I got the best of both. Funny how God works like that.”

Opening Up
Many more avenues, doors and opportunities opened up for Derek. Union Grove Church, Glade Creek Church, St. John’s Church, Tempo Music… giving lessons for piano, drums, bass guitar along with his regular “main” job doing hotel work.

“God’s been good to me with the last thing that I thought I’d be doing,” he said. “COVID came along and changed everything.

I couldn’t get people for lessons. I sat, reflected and slowed down. I felt I was starting over. Vic Foster encouraged me and informed me about the Mary C. Jenkins Community Center. He invited me to be a part of it, to do my music. I prayed on it and felt that this is what I want to do full time. It’s another door opening for me.

I believe that it will bring a lot of people in.”

In the past in school, Sandlin shared that it was difficult for him to keep up. “Teachers went so fast it was discouraging when I couldn’t understand things like math,” he said. “I needed tutoring so I could get it and pass. I understand what it’s like when people have a different way of learning, or they can’t pick up fast. Everyone’s different in their learning styles. I’ve taught pastors, physicians, professionals… they are all different. I have a way of lightening people up. Music is something fun. You want to make it fun. Life’s hard enough as it is. Music brings joy to people’s lives. It really does. Relating to people, when they get it, either by ear or by reading, there’s nothing like that feeling.

They come back with a smile, ‘cos they’re doing it! It becomes about that individual finding their happiness. They all turn into a kid when they can play that song and do it. I’m always learning through them.”

Community Center
At the Community Center: “I will focus on individual lessons versus group,” he said. “I’d love to do recitals. It makes students feel good about their accomplishments and people can enjoy listening. Let’s bring people out and put the center on the map. There are a lot of amazing people in the community who will have a place to show people things. The beauty of the Community Center will be having a place to learn different things, especially kids. Give them role models and something for them to get into besides the phone and computer… a person to interact with them on a personal level.”

Sandlin reflected how the churches were involved with the old Community Center. “Churches came together so that we were spiritually rooted,” he said.

“We enjoyed trips, had something to do, kept out of trouble, learned old school values and to respect everybody. Now, it is so important that our new center becomes an outlet for people to interact with each other, to learn things, to show things, to have purpose, for churches to come together, for us to come together, to bring it there…being spiritually rooted.”

Celebration
In closing, the community is invited to come and celebrate with us on Sunday, June 19 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at the Silversteen Memorial Playground for our Juneteenth Freedom Day. You can enjoy music, history, food and fun. It is sponsored by the city of Brevard, Mary C. Jenkins Community and the NAACP. Earlier in the morning, the community can sign up for a Tannery/ Black History walking tour. For more information, reach out to me by email or phone (see below.) Also that day, a basketball tournament will immediately follow the celebration. Stay tuned for more information about that. Newsworthy items for submission for Rosenwald Community News are welcomed from community members, churches, clubs and groups. If you have an idea for a story or interview for me to capture, please let me know at nicolakaresh@gmail.com or call (828) 421-8615.