EX CATHEDRA | Sally Spencer - soprano

From our ‘Rachmaninoff Vespers’ programme, May 2015

Sally was born in Leicester and moved to Devon with her family at the age of 7. At the age of 16 she won a music scholarship to Kings College, Taunton and it was there that her love of choral singing began. She went on to do a music degree at Birmingham University but then chose to follow her childhood dream of becoming a nurse.

Having completed her Registered General Nurse training at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, Sally continued to work there until embarking on a voluntary project for 6 months in Tanzania. On her return she took up a post on the oncology unit at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. From there, Sally undertook a paediatric nursing conversion course, followed by a postgraduate diploma, and for the last 10 years she has worked as an Advanced Nurse Practitioner in oncology outpatients, working with children who have Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL).

Sally has continued to sing regularly throughout her nursing career, with the Tallis Chamber choir while in London and now with Ex Cathedra in Birmingham. After becoming involved with Ex Cathedra’s education team, shortly after joining the choir, Sally has been able to combine her love of singing and nursing, developing the award-winning project ‘Singing Medicine’. This project aims to enable children in hospital to benefit from play through singing and has run every Friday for almost 11 years at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. Sally has worked on the project as a vocal tutor and is also the Nursing Advisor, responsible for training, updating and supporting the Vocal Tutors so that they can work safely and happily within the hospital environment. The project has also been delivered at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, Great Ormond Street, Warwick, and Heartlands hospitals.

Sally is also a lead vocal tutor on ‘Singing Medicine’s’ sister project ‘Singing Pathways’. This takes place on the stroke unit at Solihull Hospital and enables adults who have had a stroke to benefit from singing.

1. How long have you been a member of Ex Cathedra and why did you join?

I joined Ex Cathedra in 2000. I had moved from London to Birmingham for work and wanted to carry on singing. Having studied music at Birmingham University some years before I asked a lecturer from the University for suggestions of suitable choirs for me to join in Birmingham. He recommended Ex Cathedra and put me in contact with Jeffrey. There followed a really rather scary audition and a Mozart Requiem in Lichfield Cathedral. I assume both must have been ok – 15 years on I am still here!

2. What does a typical day look like for you?

I get up (very early) to walk my lovely dog Maddie before going to work. Work is usually a day of reviewing/assessing and treating children who are either due chemotherapy or may have come into clinic unwell, cannulating children so that they can have their chemotherapy and organising changes of oral chemotherapy doses according to recent blood test results. Although my job has lots of routine elements to it, I love the fact that I can never be quite sure how a day is going to pan out. I also love the fact that because the treatment for ALL lasts for 2-3 years, I have the opportunity to develop close relationships with the children and their families, supporting them through an extremely difficult time.

After work I have to dash home to walk the dog again before collecting the children. I then do the usual working mother thing of rushing around like a headless chicken for a few hours getting everyone and everything ready for the following day, taxiing children to and from Brownies/ Streetdance/ Swimming or whatever it happens to be that day before collapsing in a heap after they have gone to bed! I love Ex Cathedra rehearsal days because I go straight from work to the rehearsal and miss out all of those mothering jobs!!

3. If you could choose to perform again any piece you have performed before with Ex Cathedra, what would it be, and & why?

This is a really tough question! Often the most recent concert is my current favourite! It also depends a lot on how good my food experience is between the rehearsal and concert (we have learned over the years that noodles or pizza are very good preparation for a concert!)

I always love a Passion in Symphony Hall at Easter and the Candlelights at Christmas. Recently Carmina Burana with Birmingham Royal Ballet at the London Coliseum is also up there (although that may be as much to do with having a couple of nights away with no responsibility other than to turn up and sing as the singing itself!) However, one that has stood out for me for some time is a Mozart Vespers concert in St. James the Greater church in Leicester. The venue was lovely and the choir relatively small. What really made it for me though, was that the previous concert had been Beethoven Missa Solemnis in which I felt like I spent the whole concert screaming top B’s! This meant that the mere top G’s in the Mozart felt easy and floated (seemingly) effortlessly in the lovely acoustic. Jeffrey was also very smiley throughout the concert – that always helps!

4. What’s your musical “guilty secret”?

My musical ‘guilty secret’ is that I am a big fan of Take That, and more specifically of Gary Barlow. However that is not the end of it… I frequently day dream that Gary comes to visit ‘Singing Medicine’ at the hospital and likes it so much that he writes a song for it with him on lead vocals and the vocal tutors as backing singers! Obviously the song goes to number one and we tour with Gary around Britain and the rest of the world! So – if you’re reading this Gary…