West Lafayette and Lafayette, Indiana, offered my parents many opportunities. We attended concerts and plays at Purdue University, and we frequently ate at the Union Building on the Purdue campus. In Lafayette, I took lessons on piano and clarinet. (I wound up passing my audition for the Indiana University School of Music as a piano major, although I later switched majors to English, and I played clarinet in the IU band program for nine years.) When I was very young, I performed in plays at Columbian Park. As we were often in Lafayette or West Lafayette, Smitty’s was a frequent destination. It was an independent grocery store that was big for its day. Following my parents up and down the aisles felt like being in a spacious state-of-the-art facility with every food on earth conveniently displayed.
My Photograph of Miss Ella Beegle
My First Piano Teacher
In Front of Her Home in Lafayette, Indiana
One of my childhood memories is having seen Purdue freshmen wearing beanies (a tradition at the time). In the throngs of people that crossed State Street were numerous international students, often in clothing from their countries. I was conscious of the fact that the world had come visiting a campus so near to my home. I knew I was destined to attend college. My mother insisted on my doing so. But I never dreamed I would earn three degrees, including the PhD in literature and would teach in a university for thirty-four years!
At Top Left, One of Miss Ruth Jamieson’s Windows
Above the Bank Designed by Louis Sullivan (1914)
When Ruth’s Father, George Andrew Jamieson, Was Cashier
As Well As County Auditor
And on the Board of Trustees of Purdue University’s School of Pharmacy
My first piano teacher, Miss Ella Beegle, had a studio at the top of a building that housed Allen’s Dance Studio across from the Journal & Courier newspaper headquarters. She was considerably older than my parents and was a kind, gracious woman who could hardly bring herself to correct a student. Eventually, she offered lessons from her home in half of a large, white house opposite the public library. While my brother took his lessons, I read books by Gene Stratton–Porter while seated in a deep window at the back of the library stacks. When Miss Beegle retired, I still had two years of high school ahead of me. (My brother was already attending college.) She recommended that I continue my training with Miss Ruth Jamieson.
Miss Ruth Jamieson’s Photograph of Me
Playing the Piano in Her Apartment in 1972
What a huge change! Miss Jamieson had a small apartment above a men’s clothing store near Purdue. I trudged up several flights of stairs that snapped as if they would break. In the gloom at the top, a dim light bulb, yellowed with grime, hung with no shade at the end of a dirty cord. I knocked, and Miss Jamieson swung open the door with her characteristic impulsiveness. Her piano was a reddish upright, nothing like the twin grand pianos that Miss Beegle owned. Miss Jamieson’s reading material lay wherever it fell on the sofa or on the carpet. Strings of beads separated her tiny living room from her kitchen, and, every now and then, she unexpectedly leapt up from her rocking chair, dove through the beads (which tinkled against one another), and returned with a heavily scented hand cream that she rubbed vigorously between her palms. For the first year of lessons, she negatively criticized every facet of my playing. Quite often, as I stood on a windy street corner waiting for my parents to pick me up after a lesson, I thought about quitting. At the beginning of my training under Miss Jamieson’s sharp tutelage, I could hardly have predicted that she would occupy the same place in my affections as a dearly loved aunt or that she would build me back up after tearing me down, transforming my playing until I was one of two students out of twenty accepted into the prestigious School of Music at IU on the day that I auditioned.
Photo of Me on Stage in Recital Hall
At Indiana University
Photograph by Randy Prange
In the beginning of my studies with Miss Jamieson, I often stumbled. At my first recital in Duncan Hall, I became lost in the movement of the Beethoven Sonata that I had memorized. My fingers flailed around, striking wrong notes in all directions. Instead of feeling horror or shame, I smiled. Why? Because, in my mind’s eye, I could just see the dramatic Miss Jamieson backstage, groaning, swooning, and falling to the floor.
Miss Jamieson designed separate exercises for each of my fingers, and she coined fascinating expressions to help me overcome difficult passages in the music. For a rapid run in a Beethoven Sonata, she said, “It’s like small monkeys scurrying up trees in the jungle.” Somehow, that description made it possible for me to play the run accurately every time. When she was young, she had studied in France for a lengthy period, and she affected a French manner, calling me “Ro-BAIR,” instead of Robert. As I look back, I think, “What a character!” She has been gone for many years, and I wonder how the earth can get along without such a powerful personality!