Melva Lorraine Baldwin Wright-Cummings

1928 - 2018

Melva Cummings, a pianist, organist, and marimba player, enjoyed a successful music teaching career at all levels, from grade school through college in Seventh-day Adventist schools in California, Hawaii, and Arizona for over 25 years. Additionally, she taught in a school for Native American children and has also maintained a private studio for over sixty years.

Melva was born and raised in Napa, California, the youngest of three children and the only daughter of Orville C. and Gladys Hartwick Baldwin. At an early age she began playing by ear. Her father, who managed the farm and taught agriculture at Pacific Union College and later taught at other schools, and her mother, who worked as an accountant, encouraged her interest in music.

She started piano lessons before age four, studying with an aunt, Vesta Baldwin, and with a cousin by marriage, Ruth Baldwin, before studying with Lucille Lucas.  By the time she had finished two years of college as a piano major, she had studied with several piano teachers at the college, including Gilmour McDonald; Glenice Fuller, who introduced her to the marimba; James W. Osborn; Harold Miller; Lois Stauffer; and Dorothy Johnson Muir.

Beginning in her academy years at PUC Preparatory school, she began assisting as an accompanist for PUC music students and the orchestra under Noah Paulin. She also served as a pianist for Friday evening vesper song services conducted by John J. Hafner, band and orchestra director, an inspiring experience for her and the students, who participated with great enthusiasm.

In 1948 she was invited just before the beginning of her junior year as a music major at PUC to teach piano lessons at Lodi Academy, where her father was now teaching in the elementary school. Although hesitant at first, concerned about her ability to teach academy age students, she decided to go, and taught there for a year.

While at PUC she had met and dated Earl Wright, and when he finished college in 1949, they married the weekend after he graduated.  They immediately began working for The Quiet Hour, he singing in a male quartet and serving as an announcer and she playing the organ. 

This experience led to an involvement in evangelism and the pastoring of a small church where his abilities and success led to an appointment in 1954 as Educational Superintendent and Missionary Volunteer (MV) Secretary for the Hawaiian Mission. She taught music at the academy in the mission, giving piano and marimba lessons.  She formed a group called the Marimba Music Makers, an ensemble of eighteen that in 1961, their last year there, was featured on the local television station, KGMB. During their seven years there, she completed a degree in music at the University of Hawaii.

The Wrights accepted teaching positions in Bible and music at Thunderbird Academy, where they taught until 1963, when they moved to Monterey Bay Academy. In the next six years, he completed a doctorate and she completed an M.Mus. in piano performance at the University of the Pacific at Stockton. Her scholastic achievements were recognized at UP when she was elected to membership in the national music honor society, Phi Kappa Phi.

In 1970, within a year of their beginning to work at PUC, she as a piano teacher and he to recruit students, Earl was killed in a plane accident while departing for a recruiting appointment on behalf of the college. It was a devastating tragedy for Melva and their two children, and they became a closely knit family as they dealt with their loss and the challenges following his death.

Wright had been hired by the PUC music department as a full-time piano teacher and would teach in the department for eight years, eventually achieving the rank of associate professor.  During those years she served as director for several summer workshops, having a special interest in childrenÂ’s music from other cultures and in the use of music in recreational leadership. She actively worked with the student association and served on several committees on campus and as a member of the presidentÂ’s council.

In July 1977 she married Thomas J. Cummings, a physician who was serving as the medical administrator at Monument Valley Hospital in Utah. She began teaching at a public school program for Native Americans run by the U.S. Government in 1977.  She recently talked about that experience:

Prior to marrying Tom and moving there, I checked out the public school situation. When I talked to the     principal and superintendent of schools, they told me they needed someone like me. They had a school there that was designed for the Native Americans and backed by the government, so they had almost unlimited funding.

They then contacted me after talking with their teachers, who were enthusiastic about my coming       because of my background and experience. They wanted me to be in charge of classroom music and gave me the choice of working with different age groups. I chose the preschool and first grade levels since it was a perfect opportunity to apply skills I had learned in elementary school workshops that I had taken that very summer at Holy Names College in Oakland from specialists in Kodaly and other approaches.

In that culture at that time the children didn\'t sing melodically but expressed themselves with a highly rhythmic and accented chant. Singing a melody as we know it was unknown to them. In the nearly three years I was there I found that not only did those very young Navajo children have wonderful visual gifts, they were also musically gifted.

At one of my meetings with the board when I was requesting funds for new equipment, I took in a small group of children to demonstrate how we were working with them and what they were accomplishing. Some of our approaches included musical games. In one of these I would sing a question and then one of the children would answer in melody, right on pitch. The board was very impressed with what we were doing and gave us everything we asked for.

As the Cummingses planned for their retirement, they decided that they wanted to move to another area where he could practice medicine until he retired and they would not then have to go through the trauma of moving and establishing a new circle of friends. Accordingly, in 1979 they moved to Paradise, California, before they retired. They were living there when he died in 2017, and she died on, February 23, 2018.


Source: Interview with Melva Cummings, January 2018, obituary, Chico Enterprise-Rcord, February 25, 2018.