An Uncertain Overture

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

She hated it. Her classmates teased her, said she was a snob, wouldn't let her sit at their lunch tables. "I had to go back to my regular class and not know where I belong." As time passed, Williams said, she learned to "drown it out." Her interest in music was growing. Despite her friends' comments about classical music — black people "play in the band" — she stayed with it.

Poised and well spoken, Williams comes across several years older than she is — a multicolor charm bracelet the only hint of her age. These days she plays viola in Jubilate's orchestra, sings in its chorus, and composes music. In the summer of 2005, she volunteered with the group to teach the basics of string instruments to children at a Key West housing project. A few times a month she helps Jubilate instructor Arthur Scavella to organize his middle school band classes.

Williams isn't sure she wants to become a professional musician, but she wants to see where it takes her, what she can learn. She sees music as a challenge, a chance to defy the odds. "People don't expect you to amount to different things," she said.

Janita Williams didn't want to stand out as one of the only black students in her school playing classical music
Janita Williams didn't want to stand out as one of the only black students in her school playing classical music
Jubilate chorus members meet Quincy Jones after a recent concert at Miami's new performing arts center
Jubilate chorus members meet Quincy Jones after a recent concert at Miami's new performing arts center
Jubilate jazz students warm up
Jubilate jazz students warm up

When Felix Spengler began working with Spencer two years ago, he was shocked by what he found.

Spengler, still recovering from a severe case of food poisoning that crippled his kidneys this past summer, recently answered the door at his Sunny Isles apartment with a wan smile. Dialysis tubes inserted into his right shoulder dangled over a loose bandage. Unshaven and barefoot, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and baggy linen pants, Spengler bore little resemblance to the tuxedoed pianist in the concert posters around his living room.

The 46-year-old Spengler had lived a charmed childhood in Cuba, his father an executive with IBM and then a respected national chorus director. Spengler learned to play the family's baby grand not long after he had mastered riding a tricycle. Years later, after hardships set in, he left with the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.

Sitting on a leather stool in front of his upright piano, Spengler recalled listening to Spencer play — a Chopin waltz — for the first time at Jubilate's summer academy. "He played it with such feeling, such an understanding of the music." Between Spencer's playing and his understanding of the music, however, was a yawning gap. He had virtually no understanding of music theory and less discipline. He didn't seem to take anything seriously. He skipped lessons at the academy. "He was a mess," Spengler said. "He didn't understand what it took."

Sensing a talent about to slip away, Spengler did something he had never done before: He offered lessons free of charge after the summer academy ended.

It was a struggle at first. Spencer had to overcome self-esteem issues. He had to learn to focus. "There was a lot of work to do with him — more than piano," Spengler said. "I'm a little bit like his dad." Spengler paused for a moment. "He's my jewel."

Although he expressed regret that Spencer was in limbo, Spengler said he was confident things would work out. He said he was sure Spencer would hold on, not give in to his old habits. "Xavier is not the Xavier I met," he said. "I changed him." As soon as Spengler could teach again, Spencer would regain his focus, buckle down. They would fine-tune a few pieces for an audition at the New World School of the Arts in downtown Miami. Spencer would study there in the spring, Spengler said. Before long, the young man would study in Spain — Spengler knew it. As for Spencer's uncertainty: "He's just being a teenager."

Unbeknownst to Spengler, his prize student had drifted.

As dusk approached on a recent afternoon, Spencer sat in a small park near his house, Dolphin Stadium looming nearby. He had just returned from an interview for a telemarketing job, his silken black shirt still buttoned to the collar. He admitted that, even before his instructor became sick this past summer, he had been practicing only lightly. There were distractions at home. There was confusion about what to do next. Was becoming a concert pianist realistic? "A couple of times, I even thought, Why am I playing the piano? It isn't getting me anywhere."

A few blocks away, women in maid uniforms and school kids on bikes were heading home past the auto body shops on 22nd Avenue. It was getting dark.

When it came to the future, Spencer had sat back, trusting Spengler would arrange things. Otherwise, the teenager didn't know what to do. No guidance counselor had ever questioned him — "They're more concerned with you passing high school" than going to college. He didn't have any particular career interests, although he had toyed with the idea of becoming a psychologist or a pilot or maybe even a Marine, like several other young men he knew. "The only thing I regret is not trying my hardest," he said of the 2.9 grade point average he had earned for "doing almost nothing."

Maybe he could go to Spain next year. He shrugged and looked into the distance. Even if he did get the chance to go, what would it all add up to, he wondered aloud.

"Maybe it's the thought that this might not actually work," he said, his voice trailing off, little more than a whisper.

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