I Am Her: Cheryl Ann Spencer On Pursuing A Career In Music As An Adult

Discipline, curiosity and passion

Our “I Am Her” series features the female movers and shakers of the industry to learn how femininity and power coincide beautifully and seamlessly together.

With a vibrant personality and keen ear for music, Cheryl Ann Spencer has the makings of a successful jazz musician from an early age. But it wasn't until she was in her 40s that she, now the leader of Singapore jazz band Evolution Quartet, decided to pursue a career in music. After working in the banking industry for years and pursuing a two-year apprenticeship in leather crafts making in London, Cheryl took a leap of faith, thanks to the encouragement of her late father, and made her way to music school where she worked tirelessly to hone her craft.

Evolution Quartet's latest album "Reflections".

The road to becoming a fully-fledged jazz pianist wasn't an easy one, it was filled with hectic schedules, stressful mornings and body aches. Even with all these challenges, Cheryl was undeterred and powered through to fulfil her childhood potential. Truly, it's never too late to be what you could have been. Read on and be inspired by her journey as Cheryl talked about what it's like to pursue a music career later in life without formal education and how she stays inspired to do what she does best.

Cheryl Ann Spencer

Cheryl Ann Spencer with her keyboard.

Fill in the blank: I'm a jazz pianist, avid shoe collector and __________.

I have multiple roles: I'm a wife, mom, jazz pianist, interior decorator, handbag designer, and sports lover.

Many people are dedicated to one career path. How did you manage to walk the road less travelled and pursue many endeavours such as being a banker, a leather crafts maker and full-time mother? 

I always follow my heart. Life is short, we must live it to the fullest. Don’t let the fear of the unknown stop you. We are not perfect and we make mistakes, but we keep trying.

Why did you choose jazz as your genre? What influenced you to pursue a career in music?

I grew up in Singapore in a music-centred family. My late father was a professional pianist and loved sharing his passion for music with us. We listened to music at home and in the car all the time. I fondly remember our holidays to Europe together, where my father would bring us to classical concerts and operas. Before he passed away, he persuaded me to pursue jazz.

While he loved listening to jazz and attending jazz performances, he could never really get into playing the genre. However, he thought my keen ear for music and a lively personality would make me a good jazz musician. Personally, jazz music and harmony make me happy and excited! I particularly love modal jazz and quartal voicings. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I was born in the jazz era.

What was it like to pursue a career in music later in life without formal music education? What are the advantages you enjoyed and disadvantages you had to overcome?

It was very exciting and daunting at the same time. Whilst I enjoyed studying the jazz music genre at a deeper level, my journey in pursuing music professionally posed several challenges. I experienced physical and mental fatigue six months into my course of study as the demands of school and parenthood took a toll on my body. The learning curve was steep because I was learning a lot of new things from the technical aspect of music.

Cheryl Ann Spencer's Steinway

Cheryl Ann Spencer's Steinway.

I also had to perform on stage with no scores every week. It was a stressful experience because lecturers and peers would give their feedback after each performance. There is no hiding if you did not practice. The advantage I enjoyed was my maturity and stability; I am more self-aware and confident now in my 40s than when I did my banking degree in my 20s. I took on this jazz degree on my own terms, no one asked me to. Also, my faith and support from my husband and children made this possible.

As for the disadvantages, my body gets tired more easily due to my age! My classmates are young too, so we don’t have really common topics at times. I even remember a young classmate coming up to me asking how old I was on orientation day. I also had to overcome other challenges like learning new technology for sound engineering and performance set up.

You’ve always been musically inclined since childhood, why is it that being a musician was not the first career that you pursued? 

Music requires a lot of discipline, and perhaps I was not ready back then. I remember being fascinated with the banking and finance industry; my curiosity in banking made me pursue it as a career.

Tell us about a typical day in the life of a jazz musician. 

During my full-time studies, my day started at 6:30 AM. I send my kids, Charles and Christina, to school every day. After dropping them off, I exercise, buy groceries, practice piano, do my school homework and go to school for lessons. I also taught piano on certain days and had weekly rehearsals with my band. At the end of the day, I’ll come home, review my kids’ school work and my own work, and cook dinner for the family.

As for the pandemic, life still goes on. This pandemic makes us realise what matters to us the most. Whilst I love being a jazz pianist, I place my family first. I have no rituals but I am a Christian and I always pray and thank God for his blessings. I also like to start off my concerts with a hymn to honour God.

How do you stay inspired?

I stay inspired by practising new tunes with Evolution Quartet members; we motivate and inspire each other. When it's possible, I travel to see things and explore and I get inspiration from the places and people I meet. When I could, I attend jazz festivals and concerts around the world and speak to jazz masters because learning from dedicated lecturers motivate me. 

Evolution Quartet members

Meet the Evolution Quartet members: Fabian Lee, Cheryl Ann Spencer, Rit Xu, Tamagoh.

I also exercise outdoors around nature to clear the mind. I pray for God’s guidance. Last but not the least, I draw strength and support from family and friends who believe in me. When I learn to love myself first, then I can be of help to others. This will show in the music I play.

Name your five Clozette essentials. 

A nice leather bag, a pair of pink heels, my Stella McCartney sneakers, my classic Chanel jacket, and a classic long pearl necklace by Chanel.

Inspired? Check out stories of other exceptional women here.

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