An Uncertain Overture

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

He leaned against a wall backstage, shifting from one foot to the other, listening.

It was early October, opening night at Miami's $450 million Carnival Center for the Performing Arts. More than 2000 tuxedo- and evening-gown-wearing patrons, including the mayor and governor, had paid $500 apiece to be there. A sold-out crowd of 2400 packed the somewhat larger, sparkling new opera house across Biscayne Boulevard, where a $20 ticket bought the chance to watch the concert on a giant monitor.

Cachao, the 88-year-old Cuban mambo legend, had played an animated set. Jazz trumpet great Arturo Sandoval had blown off the roof, and a pantheon of pop stars including Gloria Estefan, Carlos Vives, and Alejandro Sanz had kept the place bouncing. Quincy Jones was handling MC duties, and tenor José Carreras was about to take the stage.

Jacqueline Carini
Jacqueline Carini
Jacqueline Carini
Jacqueline Carini
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
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

Xavier Spencer listened from a backstage hallway. He thought about the applause that had rained down on him here just a few days earlier. An eighteen-year-old aspiring classical pianist from a rundown neighborhood in Opa-locka, Spencer had played Rachmaninoff's Opus 33, No. 4, at a pre-grand-opening concert.

Despite Spencer's inexperience as a musician — he had begun playing at age thirteen, while most of his peers first tickled the keys as toddlers — he was one of the most talented young pianists in Miami, his music teachers said. He played with an unusual awareness, a delicate sensitivity, they said. He learned new compositions with almost frightening speed. He had "all the ingredients" to become a professional, according to one of his instructors. "When you hear him play, you say, 'Oh my God, he's a musician.'"

Spencer was at the gala to hang out with friends from the Jubilate Vocal Ensemble, set to perform during the concert's grand finale. Members of the chorus, a mix of mostly high school and college students, were biding their time, cracking jokes, begging for photographs with passing performers, and listening to iPods.

Slight and unassuming with wispy sideburns and a soft smile, Spencer faded into the surroundings. He wouldn't perform this night. In fact, with everything that had — and hadn't — happened recently, he wasn't sure he'd ever perform again.

José Carreras had just left the stage: the cue to get ready. With the orchestra tuning up, the choir director made a sudden hand motion, and the sopranos, tenors, altos, and basses began streaming out. Spencer stayed behind. He listened to the audience's cheers fade as the stage door closed in front of him.


There's a block on 22nd Avenue in Opa-locka that doubles as a theater of sorts. A small, decrepit housing complex is the site of almost daily drama, with policemen usually playing supporting roles. The reality-television series Cops filmed part of an episode there. On a recent afternoon, traffic came to a stop in front of the complex. There had been an exchange of words between a large woman on the sidewalk and someone in an SUV. The woman, her braided hair extensions flying, ran up to the vehicle's side and began punching the driver through the open window. It was just another day in Opa-locka, a city the FBI has for years ranked among the nation's most violent, a community where more than half the population earns less than $25,000 a year.

A few blocks north, on a stretch of 152nd Street near the train tracks, most windows are barred and couches molder on lawns. A few mailboxes down from an overgrown lot populated only by a discarded TV set is a one-story, mustard yellow house. Its porch railing is rusted, and the front door's plywood overhang pulls away from the nails that once held it up. If you're walking by on any given evening, you might hear tinklings of Bach or Beethoven, more likely Chopin.

Outside is the brown Chevy Malibu Spencer's mother, Renee Kearse, drives to and from her secretarial job at the county police department. Inside is a narrow living room/dining room with just enough space for a table, a cloth-covered couch, a recliner, a computer desk, a big-screen TV set, and an upright piano. A framed yellowing "I love Jesus" crochet hangs from the wall, and Our Daily Bread prayer booklets lie scattered on the dinner table.

The television buzzed low on a recent weeknight as Kearse, a preternaturally warm woman with a broad smile and red highlights in her hair, gushed about her son. "Oh, the heavens opened up," she recalled a woman saying of Spencer's playing at a Fisher Island home a year ago. It was the first and only time Spencer set foot on the exclusive isle — the wealthiest zip code in the United States — where he and other young Jubilate musicians performed for wine-sipping guests at a dinner for the Dade Community Foundation. He was amazed by the size of the pool. After cocktails and hors d'oeuvres on the home's verandah overlooking Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline, the 60 or so guests dined in the cavernous living room while listening to Spencer play Liszt's "Liebestraum."

As Kearse spoke, Spencer, dressed in baggy jeans, a billowing striped button-down shirt, and Adidas sandals, tapped his feet on the floor and swayed slightly on the edge of the couch. He occasionally chimed in to complete his mother's sentences but otherwise stayed quiet or answered questions with a simple yes or no.

At Kearse's urging, Spencer slinked to the piano and played Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." His head down, he played gently, flawlessly. Then he hit a sour note and stopped abruptly. He didn't know the piece by heart, he apologized.

In Spencer's low-ceiling bedroom, among the plastic Parkay margarine bucket filled with Oreo cookies, the map puzzles, and the giant stuffed Scooby-Doo, is a typed birthday note taped to the mirror. It's signed "Your #1 fan and mother." On the voicemail greeting at their home number, Kearse speaks as Spencer plays a Chopin etude in the background: "Greetings. Xavier and Renee are not available at this time."

Kearse, age 47, had Spencer when she was 29. "My friends were having grandkids," she said, laughing. She raised him by herself, the boy's father little more than an apparition since his birth. In part because Spencer was an only child, Kearse had tried to make theirs an inviting home, she said, a hangout of sorts for neighborhood kids. "I just brought them home from church, love on 'em, you know." Two members of this extended family live with Kearse and Spencer: Luis, age 20, a stock boy at BJ's Wholesale Club; and Tavor, age 21, a construction laborer. Luis is Kearse's godson, and Tavor is a friend from church. They had stayed behind when their parents followed jobs out of the city.

Beyond the regular stream of visitors, distractions have been easy to come by for Spencer. There was the family of six, friends of Kearse's, who came last year when they had nowhere else to go. They stayed for five months. Spencer couldn't practice when the baby was sleeping. There was Spencer's health scare: He went on a doctor-prescribed exercise and medication regimen to lower his cholesterol. And there was the lingering uncertainty. Spencer, a self-described "daydreamer," had little guidance at school and little faith in piano as a realistic path out of Opa-locka. "Once the music is over, I know I go back home and everything is the same," he said recently.


Jubilate (pronounced yoo-bee-LAH-tay) — a predominantly inner-city collection of professional and educational music groupings including a chorus, an orchestra (one of only three in the States managed and staffed by African-Americans), and a jazz band — has trained more than 550 predominantly minority students in its ten years of existence. The group has staged performances with musicians such as Josh Groban, Bobby McFerrin, Nestor Torres, and Sandi Patty around the state and, recently, in Europe.

All of Jubilate's students have graduated from high school, according to director Ira Everett, a burly former WMBM-AM (1490) talk-show host and outspoken black activist fond of riding his bicycle through the Everglades on moonlit nights. More than 90 percent of Jubilate alumni have gone on to earn college scholarships, and the ranks of the group's successful musicians have swelled.

While groups such as the Miami Children's Chorus and the South Florida Youth Symphony aim to nurture young musicians, Jubilate is rare in its inner-city focus. Sunday Afternoons of Music for Children, a Miami mainstay for 21 years, doesn't teach music but music appreciation, occasionally busing kids from neighborhoods such as Liberty City to the symphony.

Jubilate took Angel Refuse from a childhood in Little Haiti to the Boston Conservatory, where he is studying to become an opera singer. Raised by his grandparents in a "struggling" household, Refuse, now nineteen years old, had few outlets for his singing. In school he was teased, he said. "It took awhile for people to accept the idea, a black male singing classical music."

Kevin Marcus, a product of Fort Lauderdale, met fellow violinist Wil-B through Jubilate, experimented with various sounds, and went on to found an unorthodox hip-hop-meets-strings duo called Black Violin. The two 21-year-olds have performed with Aerosmith, Alicia Keys, the Eagles, Stevie Nicks, Linkin Park, 50 Cent, and Nas.

Even if they don't pursue music later in life, Jubilate's students, many of them from unsteady backgrounds, find "respite" and encouragement in the group, said Julie Silvera-Jensen, head of Jubilate's summer academy. "The reality of it," Silvera-Jensen said, "is if there were not music, for some of these kids there would be nothing."


This past summer, Jubilate gave Spencer a glimpse of another world.

He traveled to Spain, his first foray out of the country, except for a visit with relatives in the Bahamas. At a one-week piano workshop in Segovia, Spencer met young musicians from around the world. Kearse had raised part of the $800 airfare through a letter to friends and relatives in which she recounted her son's rapid growth as a pianist. "All that I ask," Kearse wrote, "is that you take some time out from your busy schedule to consider a way that you may be of assistance to a passionate young artist.... He has a hunger to create great melodies and the most creative measures of music since Rachmaninov."

Although Spencer had struggled with language barriers and the instructors' unfamiliar methods, he returned from the trip inspired by the talent that had surrounded him.

A few months later, Jubilate took Spencer to Argentina. A grainy home video recorded Spencer's performance of Tchaikovsky's "Dumka" — a piece Spencer had learned during the previous month — at the opening ceremonies for a university's cultural festival. Despite his ill-fitting donated tuxedo and stiff stage manners (his bow little more than a nod), Spencer played with a kind of ethereal grace. His fingers — short by pianists' standards — seemed to trace some mental outline each time they raised off the keys, hitting their notes with a clarity and sharpness when they fell. Rocking gently on the bench, Spencer looked at once delicate in front of the Steinway grand yet completely in control of the elegant instrument.

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.


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.

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.


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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