Humans of Harker: Mind bender, music maker

Spencer Cha thrives in music creation and composition


Irene Yuan

“It’s the mind bending things that I’m really passionate about, the things where you’re like, ‘I have no idea why this happens, but I want to figure that out.’ It’s a genuine, ‘I don’t get it, but I want to.’ Or perhaps it’s [that] I don’t want to never understand it. I don’t want to have a topic that I don’t understand and never understand it,” Spencer Cha (’22) said.

Hit any key on a piano, and a single note will sound, plain and simple. But listen a little harder, and one may hear that same pitch an octave higher. Listen just a little bit closer, and the pitch a fifth up, then a fourth up, then a third, and so on, may appear. Have you ever wondered why this happens? Well, Spencer Cha (‘22) has. And, with an abundance of music jargon and a gleam in his eye, he can explain in great detail the concept of the overtone. Whether it be musical phenomena or obscure physics theories or eccentric optical illusions, Spencer revels in what he likes to call “mind benders.”

“It’s the mind bending things that I’m really passionate about, the things where you’re like, ‘I have no idea why this happens, but I want to figure that out,’” Spencer said. “It’s a genuine, ‘I don’t get it, but I want to.’ Or perhaps it’s that I don’t want to have a topic that I don’t understand and never understand it.”

This deep curiosity toward the world, coupled with his unwavering determination to find answers to his questions, makes Spencer a force to reckon with.

“I know a lot of people who are really hardworking and passionate, but [Spencer’s] a different sort of hardworking and passionate in that he really cares about what he’s doing,” close friend Cassie May (12) said. “For example, [for] composing or doing music things, he really does have fun with it and enjoys what he’s doing and thinks about it more than just, ‘I’m doing this right now.’ He can think about it outside of that and apply other things in life to what he’s doing.”

Close friend Irene Yuan (‘22) notices a similar dedication Spencer has toward fostering friendships and community as well.

“In general, he puts a lot of effort into what he does,” Irene said. “He cares a lot and he sees more than he lets on. One thing I admire is how much he pays attention and remembers things. He is unusually observant. For my birthday, he got me a Starbucks mug because I once mentioned that my parents always [used] my mug because it was bigger, and he also knows that I like going to Starbucks. He is very observant and knows how to use those observations.”

Perhaps the one thing Spencer dedicates himself to the most is music. Coming from a family background of musicians, Spencer picked up the piano before he turned three. Throughout the years, he has picked up the oboe, the English horn and, most recently, the synthesizer. He has performed countless times, whether it be in solo piano competitions, in an orchestra or in a chamber group.

“Spencer is one of the most musical students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching,” upper school instrumental music teacher and orchestra director Dr. David Hart said. “He oozes true love of music since day one that I met him, and he loves to share that love of music with others.”

Yet, before Spencer grew into the experienced musician he is now, he had to first battle the universal fear of all performers: stage fright.

“Inevitably, there’s a turning point in which the nerves are [present when] you get up onto the stage and bow, but then once you sit down then you’re back in your comfort zone,” Spencer said. “It’s more comfortable to sit at the piano. The piano provides comfort because you feel more comfortable in playing than perhaps your being on stage. Just speaking does not give me the same comfort that being at the piano does, and I speak through the piano.”

Though time and repetition brought Spencer the ease he now feels when performing, these two aspects of piano may also cause burnout.

“If you didn’t have a phase where you wanted to quit piano, you’re inhuman,” Spencer said. “I feel like that’s something that everybody has, especially here, because you get pushed so much. There has to be a period at which you’re like, ‘I can’t take it.’”

Having experienced and healed from burnout himself, Spencer emphasizes the importance of self-reflection — and, ironically, more time — in recovering.

“The main diagnosis of burnout is you lose love, you lose passion in something that you do, and the most effective method to combat it is to relearn why you do it,” Spencer said. “Once you can find that, you’re no longer burnt out. It’s not even a, ‘Go find this and then go figure out your burnout.’ It’s like, once you find it, you are no longer burnt out, you’ve solved it. At that point, it should click right there. Once you find that, your motivation is renewed.”

Despite the tribulations, one quality of Spencer’s remains constant: his creativity. Through lows in one hobby, Spencer would turn to other outlets, from exploring different genres of music to composing his own music.

“Even just reading his English papers or looking over his music, he’s definitely the creative type and he takes a thinking approach that most people don’t really consider,” close friend Cady Chen (’22) said. “The very fact that he composes music, that in itself, he talks about the creative process and it flows freely to him, and that’s something that I definitely don’t see within myself. It’s a struggle for me to create, but it comes naturally to him, and I think that’s super cool.”

Though not as illustrious as his career as a performer, Spencer’s composing streak began when he was nine while visiting his grandma, who was a concert pianist. Bored and with access to the internet, Spencer did what any nine-year-old would do: print out blank sheet music from, and draw. The result? A self-titled “sonatina” that did not, in fact, follow the structure of a sonatina.

Graduating from what he now describes as “confused music,” Spencer has not only composed several pieces for the upper school orchestra, but also helped start the orchestra’s new tradition of honoring its senior members with a student-composed piece. Spencer finds inspiration from the multitude of music genres he listens to, from classical piano to Asian pop.

“My [composing] style changes depending on what influences I’m listening to and what I’m thinking about,” Spencer said. “I’ve written very jazzy stuff and I’ve also written cinematic stuff, so it’s hodgepodge all over the place, but typically it’s classical jazz.”

Through his compositions, Spencer seeks to understand and appreciate all genres of music, and spread his love for music with others.

“A lot of people say that they hate types of music and I was very confused,” Spencer said. “You should never dislike music without being able to explain why you don’t like it. A lot of people are like, ‘I don’t get the vibe, so I don’t like it.’ I’m not trying to like every type of music. Some of them I may not like, but I’m trying to understand why people do like them.”