One-Armed Musician Is “Just a Do-It Guy”

Contributed By Valerie Johnson, Church News staff writer

  • 6 July 2015

Michael Spencer plays the piano, one of several musical instruments he is studying.  Photo courtesy Rita Spencer.

Article Highlights

  • Michael was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, which amputated his left arm.
  • He plays the cello, piano, and many other instruments.
  • He also participates in sports.
  • Michael makes Halloween costumes for handicapped children.

“He is such a do-it guy. Just do it. He doesn’t count handicaps.” —Rita Spencer, mother of Michael Spencer

PROVO, UTAH

“How do you play the cello?” one might ask 15-year-old Michael Spencer of Provo, Utah.

At first glance, it’s hard to see how someone missing half his left arm can play any sort of musical instrument that requires two hands. But with the cello over one knee and the bow in his right hand, Michael uses the funny bone on his left elbow to feel for the notes on the string. “He says he finds it quite ‘humerus,’” said his mother, Rita Spencer.

Michael, a member of the Edgemont 2nd Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont Stake, was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome. Fibers from the amniotic sac in his mother’s womb wrapped around his limbs, amputating his left arm. They wrapped around his legs as well, causing him to be born with a club foot that took several surgeries to correct. Despite this, Sister Spencer said, “He is such a do-it guy. Just do it. He doesn’t count handicaps.”

When he was a baby, Sister Spencer noticed his penchant for music. She said, “He was lying on the floor, and he had a keyboard. As the [garbage] trucks would come by, he would roll over—he was so young, he couldn’t move any other way—to the keyboard and he’d be hitting it, trying to find the resonant frequency of the truck.”

“I started playing [the piano] just for the fun of it when I was three,” Michael said. “I started taking lessons from multiple people when I was five or six, including my mom.”

Michael Spencer plays baseball, one of his favorite sports. He was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, which caused the amputation of his left arm just above the elbow in the womb. Photo courtesy Rita Spencer.

Michael Spencer has been playing the piano since he was three years old. Photo courtesy Rita Spencer.

Michael Spencer demonstrates his proficiency on the cello, one several instruments he plays, including the trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and harpsichord. Photo by Valerie Johnson.

Michael Spencer, far left, in the Timpview High School marching band, plays a variety of instruments, including the cello, piano, clarinet, and trombone, despite having only one arm. Photo by Valerie Johnson.

Michael Spencer created and donated 41 costumes to Primary Children’s Medical Center for his Eagle Scout project. Photo courtesy Rita Spencer.

Sister Spencer taught him music theory. Music comes to him so naturally, she said, “he must absorb it from somewhere.” His four older brothers and sisters each play or have played a variety of instruments, which they in turn had inherited from their parents.

He didn’t stop with learning how to play the piano. For instance, he noticed his dad and his brothers could play the trumpet. So, he said to himself, “If they’re playing the trumpet, I’m playing the trumpet.” Then he went and figured out how to play it.

Currently, Michael takes private cello lessons, plays trumpet in his high school’s marching band, plays the piano in sacrament meeting and seminary, and knows how to play the harpsichord, trombone, clarinet, and more. “I just [picked up] whatever sounded coolest,” he said.

“In elementary school, this one really surprised us,” Sister Spencer said. His teacher had given out recorders but figured Michael would have a difficult time reaching the low notes. “The teacher was going to put him on bells so he could participate. He said, ‘No, I can do it.’ And he played the recorder by rolling his elbow up and down those notes,” she said.

Michael has used his musical gifts to bless the lives of others. He has played the cello at the Jamestown Assisted Living Center, performed the trumpet for his ward’s Christmas program with some friends, and played the cello at an EFY variety show. “He brings a lot of joy to people that way,” Sister Spencer said. He’s received many thank-you cards, telling him how his performances have touched their lives.

In addition to Michael’s many musical endeavors, he also enjoys playing a wide variety of sports. “I’ve been playing baseball since second grade. I’m not sure, but I guess I’m good at it. And I’m trying out for baseball and football next year. I decided on football next year because I figured, ‘Hey, could be cool.’” He seems to take to new sports as quickly as he takes to learning a new instrument. He also plays basketball with his ward, has played soccer, and has tried playing lacrosse.

“I’m just one of those kids that was born with energy,” he said with a smile.

“The fact is that it’s a miracle that he can walk,” Sister Spencer said.

Besides playing music for sacrament meeting or seminary, Michael participates at church whenever he can. He is a teacher and attends the temple often. For his Eagle Scout project, Michael created and delivered 41 Halloween costumes for children at Primary Children’s Medical Center. “He made them so that they were more appropriate for kids who were … in wheelchairs or who have come out of surgery,” Sister Spencer said. “They’re baggy enough that they can wear [a costume] and it’s comfortable.” Many of the patterns he designed himself. He pinned them, cut them, and sewed them—all ‘singlehandedly.’”

Michael loves his family and especially appreciates the blessings of being sealed in the temple and of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.