Sharis Coleman-Derr plays an original composition on her piano at home.
LARGO – Pianist Sharis Coleman-Derr has been visually impaired since birth. Her struggle to see has been challenging, but isn’t the worst fate for the lifetime musician.
“Music is my thing. Being blind is annoying, but being deaf would be tragic, because then I would have a hard time hearing the music,” she said. “I can’t imagine life without music.”
To be fair, she’s not completely blind. Her retinas were damaged in the womb, an unfortunate side effect to a medicine for morning sickness her mother took when she was pregnant.
But her parents didn’t realize the damage until Coleman-Derr was about 6 months old. Foreshadowing a life of music, they gave her the middle name Gita, which is Hindi for song, inspired by her grandparents who were missionaries in India.
For most of her life, Coleman-Derr could see pretty well out of one eye, she said, enough to ride a bike and read textbooks from a closed circuit television.
An emergency surgery at age 28 caused further complications. For about six years, Coleman-Derr dealt with a cataract slowly thickening in her good eye, making her vision worse. Last January, doctors took the cataract out. But her eye had been dilating more and more over the years to compensate for the cataract.
“When they removed the cataract, my eye was dilated all the time in the daylight. So, it was taking in too much light, which means I don’t have enough contrast to see the lines painted on the crosswalks, which makes it very difficult for me to get around now,” she said. “So I’m actually dealing with a new sight change within the last year that makes things even more difficult.”
A more experimental surgery could either replace her retinas or insert a microchip and neurotransmitter, letting her see via a pair of glasses with cameras that would send the messages directly to her brain. But both approaches are still a long way off in research before they are approved.
So for now, Coleman-Derr, 36, deals with the sight she still has. She’s been living on her own since she was 20 and dating an old schoolmate from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind for longer than that. She enjoys playing at local assisted living facilities and retirement homes.
It’s a service she picked up when she was visiting her grandparents in an assisted living facility back in Pennsylvania and began playing on the piano. Since then, she’s volunteered at the Senior Friendship Center when she lived in Sarasota and locally, at the Grand Villa and, until recently, the Palms of Largo’s Regal and Cypress Palms.
She takes requests, but plays whatever comes to mind, mostly pop songs, romantic melodies and Broadway numbers. She’s particularly fond of the Beatles and artists like Enya. She focuses on positive music, she said, not wanting to waste time on songs with a negative or a woe-is-me message.
It was on her grandparents’ piano – the one she still plays today – that she had her first piano lesson. She was about 2 or 3 when she sat down at the piano and began banging on the keys. Her grandfather disciplined her with the “only spanking I ever received” and then explained how she should respect the instrument, she said.
“From that point on, I thought of the piano as sort of a friend, not just a thing that you bang on,” she said. “Generally, it’s sort of a metaphysical belief that when I’m playing on the piano, it feels good. The piano feels good; it’s happy to be of use. I just get that vibration.”
For a short time when she was 8, Coleman-Derr had a piano teacher who taught her how to play songs by ear. But is mostly self-taught, assembling first the melody of a new song she wants to learn and then accompanying the chords.
Aside from the School for the Deaf and Blind, Coleman-Derr attended Manatee College, where she earned an associates degree in psychology. She was a massage therapist for a while, certified in 2003 through the Sarasota School of Massage Therapy.
She plays, and also sings, for her church, a local Unitarian Universalist congregation, where she’s attended for the last 10 years.
In 2006, she decided to put together a CD to help benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Her debut album, which she titled “Gita,” is made up of her original piano compositions, including her first song “Escape,” written at a women’s retreat; “Sunset,” written for her brother and “Coming home,” written for her mother.
Coleman-Derr doesn’t write songs down physically, so the concept of composing an original song is a bit abstract. She knows that some can get very mathematical with their compositions.
“I don’t do it that way,” she said. “For me, it’s all about hearing the notes.”
For one of her original songs, she heard the song in her head first. It found its way into a solid melody as she began to “plink it out on the piano” when she came home.
“When I write a song, I sit down and figure out the configuration physically on the piano, and then I try to maintain it in memory,” she said. “If it sticks, then it’s a song. If it sticks.”
Coleman-Derr admits that “Gita” has not sold as well as she would have liked. She’s not the best saleswoman, she said, though those who have bought it, have said the music is very calming.
“I haven’t really written anything new in a long time,” she said. “I like to compose, but I think I have more fun playing songs that I know for an audience.”
She’s contemplated recording more of her work in another album.
“But I probably need to sing on that one,” she said.