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News > Alumni Career Profiles > Michael Spencer (Class of 1971)

Michael Spencer (Class of 1971)

Violinist with London Symphony Orchestra, Head of Education at the Royal Opera House and Arts and Music Consultant

Formerly a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Spencer moved from being a full time performer to becoming Head of Education at the Royal Opera House. Subsequently he founded Sound Strategies, a consultancy working with music and the Arts in educational settings and business cultures.

Little did I imagine that the violin thrust into my hands during my first year at BGS by the head of music, John Edwards, would become a passport to a world of opportunities that has taken me across the globe.  As a member of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) I shared both stage and recording studios with musical icons such as Leonard Bernstein, Paul McCartney, John Williams, and Deep Purple.  I had the opportunity to ‘jam’ a little with Dudley Moore, performed at Elton John’s private parties, and even joined the Empress Michiko, a fine pianist, in private chamber music soirees at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. 

My musical life has been extremely rich and varied, and it came about in no small part because of John’s encouragement and support. I particularly remember participating in his ambitious productions of the Beggars Opera and Carmina Burana, and the enthusiasm he brought to any musical pursuit in which his students found an interest, irrespective of the genre it fell within.

It was at John’s prompting that I enrolled at Surrey University rather than a conventional music conservatoire. It was one of the new ‘technological’ universities to emerge at the end of the 60s. Being based in Guildford meant I was within striking distance of London for instrumental tuition, yet still in the heart of the Surrey countryside. The music department was the only arts department on campus and came about purely because of the need for trainee engineers on the Tonmeister recording course to have access to live musicians. Student life was spent mixing with biologists, mathematicians, and scientists of all persuasions. I think it was this exposure to so many different disciplines which led me, eventually, to leave the world of performance and pursue my interests in a broader educational context.

Although I enjoyed my time as a performer and was fortunate to work with just about all of the UKs leading orchestras, I felt a need to spread my wings a little further.  An opportunity came with the introduction of a new paradigm in arts education, about 30 years ago, which framed the arts within a much broader social context.  The LSO was extremely active in this area of public engagement, and I found myself becoming increasingly involved in devising and delivering programmes for them. 

Subsequently, I left the LSO to join the education team at the Royal Opera House (ROH), subsequently becoming Head of Education.  The ROH was an Aladdin’s cave of the arts; there were so many different disciplines housed under one roof. It also acted as a springboard to many new opportunities further afield.  I have vivid recollections of helping to set up a large-scale community programme in the townships around Johannesburg in association with the South African National School for the Arts.

At this time, I also developed something of a parallel existence. As a member of the LSO I had visited Japan frequently and developed a passion for all it had to offer.  Also, shortly before making the move to the ROH I had been invited to Tokyo to make a series of presentations about new arts education methodologies we were developing in the UK. The consequence was that at the same time I started at the ROH, a separate career was opening up on the other side of the world. This led to some very tricky balancing of timetables and timezones, and in the end it was Tokyo that won out. 

Now, although I still live in London, I consider Japan to be very much my spiritual anchor. It has been a rich and glorious adventure, in which I am still fully involved. I have devised learning initiatives for many of Japan’s leading arts organisations and hold positions at a number of academic institutions. I also frequently contribute to leadership development programmes and hold a fellowship at one of the business schools in Japan. But Japan is not just about work!  It has one of the most vibrant, intriguing, and welcoming cultures I have ever experienced, and I treasure the long-lasting friendships I have made over the years.

Looking back over my career, it has been a long and eventful journey since I was first given a violin and told to sit on the back desk of the second violins in the school orchestra. I’ve been fortunate in the opportunities that presented themselves, although I cannot pretend that there was any rhyme or reason to why they appeared in the order they did. So, I’m not necessarily best placed to offer advice to students who are preparing to embark on their own journey.  But for those of you who do stand on the brink of this big adventure, I urge you to stay curious about the world, and grab each opportunity firmly with both hands. It can be an exciting ride.

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