Faculty spotlight: Dee Spencer

 

Associate Professor and Chair of Music and Dance Dee Spencer, a jazz pianist, talks about growing up in a family of musicians, the importance of practice and her golf game. 

 

Can you provide a summary of your areas of expertise and what you do here at SF State?

I'm beginning my second three-year term as chair of the School of Music and Dance. I've been here since 1990, and I started the jazz program back then. My areas include jazz piano, I coach jazz voice, I've taught music ed courses as well. I've taught in many, many areas. Jazz history, theory. I created a new theory class as an alternative for students who are looking for something more contemporary. I'm across the curriculum in a number of ways.

 

Dee Spencer plays piano in Knuth Hall

What about music initially interested you?

I grew up around music. I don't think I had any choice. Music kind of chooses you. My parents were musicians but not professionally, so everybody was active in performing music in my family. I'm the only one who decided, "Oh, I think I'll do this for a profession." I grew up around jazz too. At that time, I was classically trained, but I always loved jazz. My parents were very open but they insisted I maintain my classical training. And to this day I tell my musicians, my jazz players, "Look, you've got to learn your fundamentals. Classical is a way to get your discipline, your fundamentals down. Then you can play anything, but you've got to get your technique."

 


What is your favorite thing about teaching at SF State?

I love the students here. The students are amazing. It's the most diverse and interesting and fascinating and inspirational body I've ever met, and from every walk of life. I just never tire of our students. 


What do you enjoy about living in the Bay Area?

What's not to enjoy? First, the climate. This is the most beautiful place on the planet to live. Anything you want is here. The best food, the best wine, the best culture, the best of everything. Music, dance. This is where things are created. We're the creative juice for the rest of the country. This is where people aren't afraid of being creative. They go out and try new things and eventually things catch on and become trends. I love being here. It's just a very, very important place for creativity.


What do you think makes SF State unique?

This campus has such an important history, and it's such an important place for social justice. We have that social justice component that not many universities on the planet have. And we're closely tied with our urban mission. We have to serve the city. We're the city's university, and that's an important role. I used to do the high school all-star band years ago. I do the San Francisco Symphony's "Adventures in Music" program, where I go to elementary schools. To go into every elementary school in the city is just an amazing experience in and of itself. I love that program.


Do you have any good study tips for students in your field?

You have to love the process of things. Our society tends to put a lot of emphasis on the end results of things, but you have to love practicing. You have to love learning, and you have to love the process of learning and improving your life. And you have to realize you are your best investment. I tell my students this all the time. Don't worry, you're going to get some ROI on yourself. You will. That's what college should be about. Learning, investing, growing.


What is something about being a musician that would surprise people?

I think people are surprised by the amount of practice it takes to get a performance together, and how many hours it takes. People tend to think that people perform well because they're talented. I think talent's overrated. People say, "Oh, you're so talented, Dee!" If they only knew how many hours I had to spend where I sounded absolutely horrible and pathetic just to get to the point where this actually started coming together and sounding good.


What kinds of people tend to excel in music?

You can't be too sensitive, but at the same time, you want to be a sensitive artist. You've got to be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again because things aren't always going to go well and you've got to be able to have a real strong sense of self. Most artists who are successful know who they are, trust in themselves and really have a sense of self confidence. It's so easy to get discouraged, but the best artists are the ones that just keep on rolling.


Tell me about your most treasured possession inside your office at SF State.

I like having my pianos, because any time I feel like I want to play something, I just go over and play piano. I just played this morning. I give lessons in here, so I had a student and we both played together, and my whole day after that was great. I've played the piano every day I've been here. It's like five steps away. Get up. Go back. It's nice to have that. I'm very, very blessed.


What is something that people might be surprised to know about you?

I'm an avid potential golfer. I love to play golf. I recently started taking lessons. I've been a hack for maybe four years, and I was like, "You know what? I have to get a teacher." So I've been studying for the last year, and I'm getting better, thank goodness. There are so many parallels between golf and music. I have to practice. There's a drill involved, like a warm-up for music. You have to concentrate when you're out there. You have to have the rhythm of your swing. A lot of musicians are golfers, I've found.


How would you describe our students in three words?

Simply the best. Those aren't original words. Those are Tina Turner's words.


Faculty Spotlight focuses on some of the many faculty who make learning happen at SF State. For more on how SF State Makes Things Happen, visit http://www.sfsu.edu/~puboff/overview.html

 

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Twitter -- http://DEESPENCER09 Instagram -- https://www.instagram.com/deejazz1/ Facebook -- http://Dee Spencer CD Baby -- http://www.deespencer.com

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