Dylan Spoering, an eight-year-old in south Minneapolis, just saved the piano recital from its own creeping death.
That's not an exaggeration. Piano recitals are among the worst forms of entertainment and performance ever concocted this side of tarring and feathering. The amount of humiliation, anguish, and uncomfortable dress shoes tied up in these sad affairs has got to stop right away.
This past weekend, Spoering proved that a piano concert in the rain is a far bigger draw than sitting in your average church assembly room with moldy low-pile maroon carpet while a rogue's gallery of young pianists -- many appearing against their will -- attempt "Chopsticks" and "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring." Imagine that.
Spoering had help for Saturday afternoon's concert, which was held on his family's stoop near Mueller Park. Musician Tommy Rehbein (Farewell Continental, International Karate, Party House) lives in the neighborhood and saw a handmade sign created by the young ivory tickler earlier in the week. A Facebook invite later, hundreds of folks were interested -- including several members of the local media. They made signs to cheer on the young Spoering, and treated the day like a miniature festival outing. It even ended up on UStream.
For the 10-minute show, the audience was excited, supportive, and absolutely gleeful to be in the presence of a musician they knew nothing about. Spoering's songs -- ostensibly cribbed from instructional piano books -- came off like short bursts of oft-atonal noodling, somewhere in the realm of experimenters like Jandek or John Cage. It was a liberating moment that put this young artist at the forefront, instead of some graying piano teacher turning the page and monitoring the performance as if an unattended student would otherwise set fire to his instrument.
As music fans, we love everything a piano recital is not. Jerry Lee Lewis, Quintron, Tori Amos, and Gregg Allman are among the countless rock musicians proving that a keyboard can be a high-wire act. The best from the classical world -- Lang Lang immediately comes to mind -- are doing the same. Cat Power performing at a piano with her back to the audience ramps up the emotional tension of the performance, but the same can't be said for so many slouching, paranoid youngsters in khakis afraid to miss a note of "Butterfly Kisses." Next: My personal experience with piano recitals [page] In case you were wondering, I was once a paranoid youngster sweating in my khakis and plaid shirt. Everything about the seasonal recitals I endured between kindergarten and middle school felt obligatory and rote. It was not the place to hone stage presence, and if anything, the object seemed be to play as quickly as possible to get the damn thing over with. The most talented kids were forced to play alongside the beginners -- or unmotivated hangers-on who never practiced and hadn't advanced. Lower-tier players were faced with kids several years younger than them who were already whooping their asses. Additionally, an after-party in the same room featuring stale vanilla wafers and paper cups of Country Time Lemonade provided zero consolation. (I gained far more presence faux-playing keys to Billy Ocean's "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" in a music video my friends and I filmed at our nearby athletic field.)
As for Dylan Spoering's show, there were cookies, there was an ice cream social, and there was his unbridled Andy Kaufman-like chutzpah. The large crowd, gathered with their umbrellas near his front steps and across the street, were getting to see a youngster dream big in front of them. The curly-haired boy in a white shirt extended far past just strokes of an amplified keyboard. He even yelled, "I am the king!" into the microphone placed at his side. Let every young artist be royalty instead of an indentured recital servant.
When stage parents and instructors and the strictures of piano recitals get too much in the way, this magic is broken. If we are to celebrate a child's creativity, let Spoering's impromptu show be a reminder of what is actually worth turning out for. What music fans love about Spoering, north Minneapolis rap crew Y.N. Rich Kids, and a trio of teens from from Brooklyn called Unlocking the Truth -- who just signed a seven-figure deal with Sony -- isn't that they're already the best. It's that they could be someday.
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