Miss Jamieson had honed Robert’s music to the point of a gleaming polish. He practiced several hours every day. To prepare for the regional and state music competitions, he tested his memory by picturing exactly which keys were to be played by the proper fingers from the first note to the last. If he were uncertain, he played the edge of a desk or table as if it were a keyboard while he concentrated on the key that was not clearly seen in his mind’s eye. If—after treating the desk or table as an imaginary keyboard—he still could not know precisely which key it should be, he took out the score, which he always carried with him, and checked the passage that was in doubt. Eventually, he could play the movement of the Beethoven sonata in his sleep.
At the regional contest, Robert knew the piece so well that he experienced no nervousness. With utter confidence, he performed the movement flawlessly and received a perfect score in return.
Next up was the state competition. Miss Jamieson met him in the hallway of the building on the Butler campus in Indianapolis.
She smiled. “Well, Ro-BAIR, this is it. Remember that you play the piece better than anyone.”
“I will play it,” Robert said, “for Beethoven. He wouldn’t want his music performed badly.”
“Oh, Ro-BAIR! Only you would put it that way!”
The time had come. Robert entered the large room and handed the score to the judge, a thin man in his fifties with a most serious expression on his face despite the bright red slacks he was wearing.
Miss Jamieson had taught Robert to relax, particularly from the waist, through the shoulders, to the elbows. He sat on the bench and deliberately slumped forward, taking all tension away from his upper body. Then he turned to the judge.
“Whenever you’re ready,” the judge said.
“This is your last time to participate in a state piano competition,” Robert thought. “Let it be your best but let it be fun!”
With joy and inner peace, he launched into the Beethoven, silently singing the melodies. When the last note died away, he believed he had played as flawlessly as he had at the regional competition.
Taking a deep breath, he pivoted on the bench and remained sitting while he looked at the judge.
“That,” the judge said, pausing dramatically, “was perfect in every way. I am giving you a perfect score. It is the only perfect score I will give all day because I am confident I will hear no other performance equaling yours. But are you aware that you play with your mouth open?” The judge made a face imitating Robert’s face. “When you do that, you look like a moron! Keep your mouth shut! You may go.”
Robert smiled, knowing full well that he would not take the judge’s advice—and Robert never did, preferring always to play with his mouth open so that he could sing the melodies as Miss Jamieson had taught him.
In the hallway was great celebration! Joe and Ida could hardly believe that a son of theirs was walking away with a perfect score from the state competition.
Miss Jamieson said, “Formidable! My Ro-BAIR is now a virtuoso!”
Still ahead lay the audition for the famed School of Music at Indiana University.
At his weekly lesson prior to the trip to Bloomington, Robert played the three pieces that Miss Jamieson wanted him to present to the judging panel.
“They will accept you on the basis of your Beethoven,” Miss Jamieson predicted. “They will find your Bach excellent. They will consider your Chopin competent, but you are yet too young to play the Romantics with the depth of feeling that comes only from experience.”
She rocked thoughtfully.
“Well, Ro-BAIR, this is near the end of the road for us.”
“I will write and call often,” Robert promised.
“I hope you will,” Miss Jamieson said. “I hope you will. Your music will be under the guidance of someone else, and you will have to take to heart whatever you discern to be the truth in what your professor is teaching you. Do you envision a career as a pianist? Before you answer my question, I want you to know that the music profession is a mug’s game. The competition is infernal. It can change a person. I would not want to see you transformed by it.”
Robert wondered if Miss Jamieson were trying to talk him out of his decision to major in piano performance—if he could pass the audition. He said, “I do also like writing and literature.”
Miss Jamieson guffawed. “Spoken like the writer I have come to know! Don’t think I haven’t noticed your gift for wording your ideas! You remind me of Yeats. I met him, you know. You don’t use the same rhythms, but you have the same clarity. And something in your face tells me that you and he share a certain je ne sais quois—an unusual economy of expression! You could do worse than become a writer. I have a friend in Toronto who has devoted her life to writing, and I must say that, nonetheless, she has been happy. I would like for you to remember this: life is a crapshoot. No matter what career you choose, you will need good fortune on your side before you can be a success. Read philosophy, my Ro-BAIR! Read philosophy! Now, play ‘Happy Birthday.’”
Robert stared at Miss Jamieson. “Do you mean the song?” he asked.
“Yes, the song! Whatever else could I mean? The judges will ask you to play some song by ear. It could be ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’—oh, you had better hope you don’t get that one! It could be ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ Practice them, but, for now, play ‘Happy Birthday.’”
Robert tried, but he played the wrong chord where a singer would sing the name.
“You fell into the trap, my boy! Think minor seven followed by major seven.”
Immediately, Robert had the correct chords.
As he tromped down the flights of stairs from Miss Jamieson’s flat high above the clothing store, Robert began counting how many more times he would have lessons with his formidable teacher. When he realized how small the number was, he felt his throat tighten.
Joe and Ida sat in the hallway of the Music Building at Indiana University while Robert entered the room for his audition.
Three judges—two men and one woman—sat in a curve near a Steinway grand. The man with long silvery hair said, “We are auditioning twenty applicants today. You are near the end of the list. If you would like to wait outside until the last applicants have performed, we can tell you whether or not you have been accepted, thus eliminating the need for you to await a letter in the mail. What do you have for us today?”
Robert listed the Beethoven, the Bach, and the Chopin.
The silver-haired man smiled at his colleagues. “What is your preference?” he asked them.
“Let us hear the Bach,” the woman said.
Robert motioned toward the bench.
“Please!” said the man with the silver hair.
Robert sat, adjusted the seat, and began the Bach. He had performed only the beginning of the piece when the woman said, “That is enough.” For a moment, Robert wondered if he had failed to play to her expectations, but he quickly put that thought from his mind, as he knew he had played well.
The silvery-haired man said, “Shall we hear part of the Beethoven sonata.”
Robert took a breath and began the piece that had earned him the perfect score at the state competition. His mouth was open while he performed. The judges did not interrupt him until he was very near the end.
“Ahem!” said the man with the silver hair. “In the interest of time, we need to move along. Does anyone care to hear the Chopin?” The other judges shook their heads. “Well, then, could we ask you to play ‘Happy Birthday’?”
Robert grinned. He turned and played “Happy Birthday” with the closing arpeggio that he had rehearsed.
The judges smiled. The silver-haired man said, “Done with panache! Please wait in the hall.”
Robert exited. Joe and Ida stood. They were about to ask him how the audition had gone when the door opened and the woman stepped out. She spoke in a quiet voice. “I am Marie Zorn, and I teach piano and harpsichord. You have been accepted into the School of Music, and you will study with me to become a Bach specialist. I must go back inside, if you will excuse me.” She quickly closed the door behind her.
Robert suddenly realized that he had been given an incredible opportunity. That day, the judges accepted two applicants from the field of twenty. Robert realized that he would never have made it, had it not been for Miss Jamieson. Now, would he spend a lifetime pursuing the mug’s game of music? Only time would tell.