Monday, November 27, 2006

New Times' "An Uncertain Overture"

I've been thinking a lot about music journalism lately, having just told my own story at great length to New York Times reporter Daniel Wakin. This evening I came across the kind of story which I hope Wakin won't write: it's called An Uncertain Overture by Rob Jordan, and it appears in last week's Miami New Times.

Rob Jordan writes about an 18-year-old classical pianist named Xavier Spencer, clearly an incredibly talented kid who is struggling through a transition in his education and life. Jordan does a great job showing the frustratingly long odds a poor young musician faces, and the impressive achievements Spencer has already made. It seems to me that a profile like this also walks a difficult line: the reporter must get into the subject's head, to voice his thoughts and emotions. At the same time, he needs to be an objective critic of his playing and abilities. This is especially problematic with a young musician like Spencer - he hasn't had enough time yet to develop as a musician (he began at age 13); and he also seems to express himself much more eloquently in his playing than in his words.

So Rob Jordan relies for quotes and commentary on Spencer's mom, his main teacher Felix Spengler, and other teachers who have heard and encouraged him. We get a very warm view of his playing, as when Jordan writes "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."'" (Sorry for the triple-quotes!) At the same time, Jordan keeps a kind of ominous drumbeat going in the background: "he wasn't sure he'd ever perform again", "in the months since Spencer's high school graduation, little had gone right..." The gloomy vibe fully emerges at the end of Jordan's story, when Spencer and his prospects seem literally to fade away: "'Maybe it's the thought that this might not actually work,' he said, his voice trailing off, little more than a whisper."

Spencer's story deserves to be told and read, but this strikes me as too much melodrama. Teacher Spengler has already given his verdict on Spencer's doubts, saying "He's just being a teenager." Jordan clearly sees it as much more than that, and makes sure we follow his tragic conclusions. Maybe Spengler is right though - maybe Spencer is just being a teenager, trying to put words to a lot of conflicted emotions. Not many 18-year-olds are 100% sure of their direction, and being a talented pianist doesn't exempt a kid from feelings of confusion and doubt. I'd argue that it's healthy to be dealing with those insecurities at Spencer's age. Success in the arts is rarely quick or easy, no matter how great the talent, and all the struggling and questioning can give us a better perspective on what we're trying to accomplish.

Reading the article definitely left me pulling for Spencer, and I hope he keeps working and developing as a musician. Really though, there's reason to be hopeful for this kid whether or not he succeeds in music - he's already accomplished so much, seen so many places, and created a great sense of pride in his family and in the people in his community. Maybe it's easier to see that hope in another person's life than in one's own. In any case, I'm much more inclined to Spengler's optimism than Jordan's pessimism.

By tracing the arc of Spencer's story, an article like this can provide further inspiration to an even wider community; I think it can also serve a function for Spencer himself, seeing his life formed into a narrative shape. But by ending the story with a pessimistic shrug, I think the writer hits a sour note himself. Hopefully others who read this article, and Spencer himself, will recognize that note as false, and will see that his success story is by no means finished.

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