Michael Spener in Action

Party, Art, and Communication – Violinist Michael Spencer about a slightly different Meaning of Music

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Michael Spencer played for 14 years with the London Symphony Orchestra, before he decided to give up his career as a professional musician and become an education director at the Royal Opera House. In this job, he started to look at how he could give children a better understanding of arts, or the artistic processes. Nowadays, as a coach and consultant, he is basically doing the same thing. The difference being that he shares his experience primarily with adults in organizations and he has created a close connection to Japan and the people living there.

From Party to Crisis

The first seven years as a musician at the London Symphony Orchestra “were great, like a big party. A fantastic experience”, says Michael Spencer while adding simultaneously: “Life in the orchestra was all embracing and it took you away from real life in many ways. But after a while, as one year started to replicate the next, I started to question if this really was the life I wanted. It was always going to be the same with little chance of things changing,” he decided. He realized, that his job made him increasingly dissatisfied.

What goes on offstage is not very nice – the knife in the back thing etc. There was a piece of research produced by the Federation of Entertainment Unions a few years ago, ‘Creating without Conflict’, which involved about 4000 people in the creative industries, and it showed that almost 75% of musicians surveyed reported being bullied at work. Quite a sad comment on what is considered to be a creative organization.” But what could the escape look like, for a musician in one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world?

From Crisis to Art

Just in that moment Spencer was offered the opportunity to work as a music educator. He started first with some independent projects and became an education director at the Royal Opera House. “We started looking at how we could better engage with children and this really meant how to stimulate their curiosity. In brief, we did this by creating a methodology whereby we enabled them to make their own music. But we gave this additional focus by basing it on the musical building blocks which make up a particular piece of music.  In this way, the children had to deal with the same challenges faced by the composer.” Another project shows the challenges that the artists were faced with by working with children: “We set up a project for children with Asperger’s syndrome. Every summer we selected twelve children and worked really intensively with them in a multimedia-based social context. But before we started the project we invited specialists to run a training program for the performers taking part, exploring the realities of autism and how they might adapt their personal practice to this new environment. It was about how to merge together artistic skill with sound educational methodology and good facilitation practice. It’s an incredibly dynamic situation and you have to know how to deal with its parameters.”

From Art to Communication

“For me, the idea of taking the arts into business has suffered from being overly naive.  For example, ‘Oh, let’s bring musicians in. They know about listening and working together!’ There is a ‘Yes’ to this, but there is also a huge ‘No’. It’s an over simplistic approach which somehow trivializes the experience, and wraps it in a cloak of mystery, which is bewildering for people who often have different tastes and levels of knowledge. There is a whole world of difference in what we mean by listening, and how it plays into the bigger picture of communication.

For me, music is really a form of social technology, which helps to promote and sustain interrelationships. When I first started to grapple with this it was on a creativity program for potential leaders. I was working with a range of different business people and I invited them to talk about a piece of music of their choice. It was fascinating to hear how they all talked about their selected piece in the same way: They talked about it emotionally. It’s wonderful to do so, but if you only talk about music from an emotional standpoint it’s difficult for others to empathize in the same way because it stems from your own intimate and personal experiences. Other people will have different feelings.

When you look at music from the perspective of process it adds a new dimension: How do the parts work together? What are the fundamental elements? What is the structure? How do the players maintain an unspoken negotiation? It’s a totally different way of assessing the experience.

Whenever I work with groups we bring out the essence of this by ‘building something’. But in order to do this you have to have a sense of what the materials are with which you are working, and how you can use them to make something compelling.”

On his many stays in Japan, Michael Spencer recognized that arts have the unique property of acting like a lens showing cultural differences. “Why does music exist in the first place? What purpose does it serve in different social groupings? What are the differences and what are the similarities? The history of music is fundamentally that of generating and supporting the identity of independent social and cultural groups.” Therefore, Spencer wants to use music as a catalyst in order to engender curiosity, choices, commitments and social relationships. “And generally speaking, I think there is now, huge potential for the arts where, in the middle of massive technological advance, we can reintroduce the value of creating authentic human to human exchange and genuine connections. Everyone talks about communication technology and how it’s linking us together better. I would dispute that – it’s not. It’s confusing the hell out of people. It has actually been manipulated into a divisive tool which stimulates discord.” That’s why the cultivation and maintenance of good judgement processes lies in the core of Spencer’s work.

Similar to the work as a musician in an orchestra, Spencer’s workshops always end in a performance. But to perform, the people first have to understand the processes which underpin it. “We provide the components and they take the decisions.  Performance is part of the outcome, but of equal importance is the process of creation and rehearsal. This involves many things including risk taking, which brings into play trust and permission. These sit alongside curiosity, making choices, and relationships.

People rarely see the orchestral rehearsal process and that’s where a lot of things happen at many different levels. In performance, once the orchestra starts rolling, the conductor more often than not has to go with them.” (laughing)

Read the full interview here.


Interview: Marija Skobe-Pilley and Dirk Dobiéy,
Transcription:Benjamin Stromberg
Blog: Lucas Heinke
Editing: Stephanie Barnes


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