An Uncertain Overture

Xavier Spencer is one of Miamiís best young musicians, but you might never hear him play

He was set to travel again this fall, to the Royal Conservatory of Madrid, for a four-year piano degree program. His instructor, Felix Spengler, was going to pull some strings to get him a full scholarship. Spencer would study with a colleague of Spengler's, someone who would be patient with the young man's lack of musical sophistication.

But in the months since Spencer's high school graduation, little had gone right. Spengler had been hospitalized with a severe illness and was unable to arrange his prize student's studies abroad. Spencer didn't have any backups. A job as an assistant piano teacher at a Montessori school had fallen through. He was still living at home with his mother and their two tenants, practicing on the worn upright piano his great-aunt had imparted to him. "If I think about it, I'll just blame myself," Spencer said.

Jacqueline Carini
Xavier Spencer (center) shares a laugh with friends outside his Opa-locka home
Jacqueline Carini
Xavier Spencer (center) shares a laugh with friends outside his Opa-locka home

Every public school in Miami-Dade County receives an equal number of dollars per student to spend on arts and music education. Because such spending is at each principal's discretion, however, music and arts offerings can vary wildly. When budgets tighten, music and art classes are often the first on the chopping block, especially at failing zoned schools where more attention has been shifted to electives such as tutorials and reading classes.

While more affluent students can choose among private school offerings or opt for private lessons, other aspiring young musicians can only hope for a place with a group like Jubilate or one of two scholarships awarded every year by the Dade County Music Educators Association. The scholarships, to pay for private lessons, are worth $250 each — enough to pay for three hour-long lessons with Felix Spengler, the pianist who teaches Spencer free of charge.

Despite the long odds against young musicians like Spencer, there are glimmers of hope. The new Carnival Center might be a prime example. The center carries with it not only the expectation of an elevated cultural standing for Miami but also uplift for groups, like Jubilate, struggling to bring arts education to the inner city's far corners.

The chance to perform at the Carnival Center can't be underestimated as a means of inspiration, said Jubilate instructor and middle school music teacher Arthur Scavella. Watching Jubilate's choir rehearse for the opening gala on the concert hall's polished wood stage recently, Scavella sounded hopeful. "In a sense, maybe we'll get that $450 million back."

At age thirteen, Spencer divided his time between middle school in Opa-locka and a football league in Hallandale. Kearse had to drag him to practice. He played defensive end and "something on offense," he recalled, but didn't bother to go to the season-ending party despite being named most valuable player. It wasn't his thing.

At school, he was given two options in music class: Join the chorus or play keyboard. Too shy to sing, Spencer opted to mess with the electronic keyboards. Something clicked. At home, he began searching online for tunes he heard at school. He would print out the sheet music and teach himself on the used Casio keyboard his mother bought him. It calmed him. He liked the melodies. Chopin and Liszt were "like rock stars," their compositions simple yet complex.

Two months after touching a keyboard for the first time, Spencer played Beethoven's "Für Elise" for the school Christmas concert. He played Bach's Minuet in G for the spring festival.

At age fourteen, Spencer began taking summer lessons through Jubilate. Two years ago, he started studying full-time with Spengler, a concert pianist he met through the group.

"He played with true emotional sensibility," recalled Sandra Harwood, Spencer's keyboard instructor at Hialeah/Miami Lakes Senior High School, where about 60 percent of students make it to graduation day and about one in four graduates make it to a four-year college.

It wasn't easy to notice the one kid "always playing ahead" of the 30 others in the cramped music lab at Hialeah/Miami Lakes, Harwood said. While playing the keyboard during the "advanced" class — the only option for students with more than one year of training — Spencer kept his headphones plugged in and the external volume off.

"I don't know if he's holding his tongue or what," said Dimitri Eustache, a fellow Hialeah/Miami Lakes student and Spengler pupil. Eustache recalled riding the train with Spencer to lessons at Spengler's Coral Gables office. Spencer might talk about different composers or rap during the ride, but mostly he was silent, Eustache said. "You never know what's going on in his head and stuff."

Harwood ranks Spencer in the top five percent of students she has taught in her 35 years as a music instructor in both Latin America and the United States. "He was a very quiet kid, never let on that he had such a wonderful talent," Harwood said. "[Opa-locka] is a really tough neighborhood. They kind of learn to get by in the community that you don't want to be noticed for anything special."

At first, Janita Williams didn't want to be noticed, either. Her musical talent felt like a curse when she took up violin at her Liberty City elementary school. Now fifteen years old and a member of Jubilate, like Spencer, Williams had been ten years old when she was given one of the school's handful of string instruments. It was hers to borrow because she had scored well on a music test.

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