Esperanza at 17

Esperanza Spalding when she was at Berklee

Esperanza Spalding when she was at Berklee. Photo by Liz Linder.

It was the moment that broke a million 16-year-old hearts: Esperanza Spalding, not J***** B1383R, was called up for the Best New Artist Grammy. But Spalding herself was 16 (okay, 17) not long ago, and starting her studies* at Berklee.

I spoke with two professors who taught her that very first semester. The conversations have been edited for length.

Were you in class with Esperanza before she got famous? Post your impressions in the comments.

* Psst. Justin. Call us. And by “us” I mean the Berklee Admissions Department. We can totally work something out. Don’t give up hope.

Ron Mahdi, associate professor, Ensemble Dept.
Class: private bass lesson

When did you meet Esperanza?

I was her private teacher when she first came to Berklee. She was 17 years old. At one of the lessons she just asked me Ron, guess what day it is? It’s my 18th birthday. She was young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, trying to realize her dreams.

She could already sing and play. She was already doing that back home. I think Berklee offered her an opportunity to expand that and make it reality.

What material did you work on?

Basic stuff—proficiency I stuff for bass. Proper fingering, working on getting a good sound. She was basically self-taught. She hung out with some older musicians [in Portland] so they took her under their wing and helped her out.

Could you have predicted the Grammy win?

No… maybe because I’m on the outside looking in. When I was coming up it wasn’t a thing. Getting a gig with one of my heroes—that was the Grammy for us. Peer acceptance rather than record sales.

How long did you have her as a student?

Just that first semester [but] she would always check in with me. I was sort of informally mentoring her. She had some worldliness about her but I saw she was young. We would talk about her upbringing, her family back in Portland, her as a woman musician—I treated her like she was one of my daughters because I have daughters her age. Hopefully something I said would stick. She had opinions about a lot of things because she had done a lot. But she still was searching.

She sort of had a handle on what she wanted to do. She was young but she wanted to play bass and sing. She knew what she wanted. It was just a matter of getting the necessary tools.

Kris Adams, professor, Harmony Dept.
Class: Music of Chet Baker ensemble

What was Esperanza like at the time?

She came across as pretty self-confident but she was quiet. She was a good student—really nice. She didn’t stand out in any particular way except that she was serious. And she seemed pretty self-possessed. She picked out the chord changes right away so I was really impressed with her ears. She just seemed to love playing her instrument.

Could you have predicted the Grammy win?

No, no. I couldn’t have. She was kind of low-key. It’s not like she was the son or daughter of someone famous. It’s harder when you don’t have those connections. [But] I remember [ensemble chair] Ron Savage came in to listen so there must have been some buzz about her.

Now she’s composing, she’s singing—back then she was just playing her instrument. It’s great, because she’s really a great role model for young women singers and musicians.

One thought on “Esperanza at 17

  1. Jean-Jacques

    The first time i saw her was on a TV show and since then i’ve never forgotten her good music! Keep it up all the way!

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