One of the best things about being an at-home dad is that I can juggle things around to make it possible to celebrate the man who taught me so much about music. Yesterday I parked my son with neighbors and daughter at preschool while I returned to my hometown in Virginia to help celebrate the life of James C. Roberson.
If I had to go to the office each day, this wouldn’t have been possible.
I took piano lessons throughout most of the 1980s with Mr. Roberson, who by then had retired from teaching in schools. In the 70s and early 80s, he was the band director at King George High School. Then he moved a quarter mile away to teach band at the middle school, where my older sister was in his class. For years, any kid who did music in King George County was in Mr. Roberson’s class.
He died last week at age 86.
I wouldn’t exactly say I aspired to be a concert pianist. But when you’re a kid, you think you could be anything when you grow up. Mr. Roberson broke it to me gently that I probably could play jazz standards in a bar with a brandy snifter on the piano for tips. What I had was not pure talent, I learned, but acquired skill after years of practice. What he gave me was a lifelong knowledge of and appreciation for music – I can play a C minor 7th chord, but make it diminished or move it quickly up to D, and it gets messy. He gave me an understanding of people who are truly musically talented.
Thank you, Mr. Roberson.
He gave me the courage to face my stage fright and play piano (and sing) in the high school talent show. When I volunteered to play accompaniment during the county’s Fall Festival beauty pageant, however, I wish he would have stopped me. As teen girls sashayed about in fancy dresses, I played “Brian’s Song,” an anemic-sounding tune about a football player who died of cancer. Not exactly uplifting. Then I think I played some ragtime by Scott Joplin. Why didn’t he say something?!?!
Driving back to my hometown for the funeral yesterday took me back 25 years to a place where everybody knows everybody. The undertaker, whose daughter was in my high school class, seated me between my 9th grade English teacher (and 1st grade Sunday school teacher) and the high school singing star who knew my big sister. The singing star told me Mr. Roberson let him know that he was a terrible drummer, and he should consider the choir. (He was right: in 2003, Anthony Campbell won the Today Show’s Superstar contest.)
My preschool teacher and my middle school band teacher were there, too, and the eulogy came from the former high school gym teacher, now a fast-talking auctioneer. Band directors and basketball coaches are natural enemies, he said, but he and Mr. Roberson somehow became lifelong friends.
Thank you, Mr. Roberson.