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A sense of moderation

By Marilyn GardnerLiving page editor of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 1982

When Joan Dutcher, a first-year performance major at the New England Conservatory of Music, was in the fourth grade in Rochester, N.Y., she wanted to play the trumpet. Her mother had doubts - she ''didn't think it was very ladylike.'' Somehow the alto saxophone passed the ''ladylike'' test.

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''As soon as I got my instrument,'' Joan, 18, recalls nine years later, ''I started working on it. My mother never had to tell me when to practice.''

A slender, intense young woman, not without a sense of humor, Joan sees herself, and her parents, with a cool measured clarity that almost seems the hallmark of the achievers of her generation.

''I've always taken music very seriously,'' she says, ''but then I've always taken my academic courses very seriously too. It was a big thing in elementary school when I brought home straight A's.

''My sisters and I were brought up with books - and doing little tasks around the house. There were these inanimate objects that you concentrated on. You'd read half a book, then do a chore. Literature was important - and doing things on your own was very important.

''From junior high to my junior year in high school, I hadn't sat down and thought things out. I'd gone by my emotions and by what my parents said. In my junior year I had an English teacher who supported me. I can remember reading Emerson - his thoughts on self-reliance, on life. I started thinking about my own life. I went through a big change when I started thinking through where my life was going, instead of just riding along.

''During the last two years of high school,'' Joan continues, ''I felt I was cutting myself off by practicing - staying home on Friday nights. My little social group wondered about me sometimes. But I've always been over here while the rest of the crowd is over there. I've never really put that much emphasis on what other people have thought of me.

''Any time my mother says, 'I'm the parent and you're the child,' or a teacher says, 'I'm the teacher and you're the student, and this is what you're supposed to think,' they're closing me off. I can't deal with that. Any time I can't sit down and logically reason things out, it's hard.

''I want to do something unique with my music, but at this point the future's a little vague. Sometimes it's hard to keep going because progress is slow.

''But I'm definitely an optimist. I see so many advancements around me. A lot of students here are individuals, and they know where they're going. That's where advancement comes from - a lot of individuals building toward it. People sitting down as part of their job and figuring out what the world needs.

''I feel like I'm an adult in a lot of ways,'' she says.

By the standards psychologists and sociologists have educated us to accept, it is easy to dismiss a well-adjusted teen-ager like Joan Dutcher as an exception to the not-too-happy norm.

The year Joan was born, Kenneth Keniston was finishing his classic study of adolescence, ''The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society.'' In it he summed up the flaws in American society of 1964 thus: ''We lack conviction.''

Keniston spelled out the attitudes of ''alienated youth'': distrust, pessimism, resentment, anxiety, egocentricity, ''rejection of happiness as a goal.'' He believed that ''alienated youth'' were disappointed idealists - but how to turn all that alienation into idealism?

Keniston's vision of the adolescent was not wholly original. From Goethe's ''The Sorrows of Young Werther'' to J. D. Salinger's ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' at least two centuries of American and European fiction had been presenting the young as sensitive, brooding, idealistic, and too good for the corrupt world in which they found themselves. So bleak was the collective portrait that the British novelist Doris Lessing observed, ''In a hundred years' time people will read the novels of this century and conclude that everyone (no less) suffered adolescence like a disease.'' Adolescence has been perceived as a time of exceptional turmoil and stress - a lapse from health cured only by turning 20.