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A Day in the Life: Sarah Quartel

Do you ever wonder how composers compose? Where do they find the inspiration for your favourite choral music? And do they get writer’s block? Or, most importantly – do famous composers watch Netflix too?

Do you ever wonder how composers compose? Where do they find the inspiration for your favourite choral music? And do they get writer’s block? Or, most importantly – do famous composers watch Netflix too?

Felicity Turner looks behind the scenes into the daily life of one of the living composers featured in The Stay At Home Choir Album Project.

The Stay At Home Choir is extremely lucky to be able to work alongside so many talented living composers. We know you enjoy getting to know the artists you work with as part of our projects, so we spoke to Canadian composer Sarah Quartel, composer of ‘Amabile Alleluia’, to gain unprecedented access to her life behind the scenes.

We asked her how she goes about writing her extremely popular compositions. What inspires her? What does she do when she gets stuck? And what does she like to do when she’s not composing?

Sarah grew up the daughter of a church organist, so music has always been a part of her life. She began singing in choirs from the age of six and studied piano from an early age. She recalls that she was eight years old before she realised that not everyone had a harpsichord in their basement.

Her earliest memory of writing music, aged three or four, is of making up harmonies to a funny sound their family washing machine made. Her love of making music continued and she became a singer-songwriter before later returning to her choir roots as a choral composer.

Now based in London, Ontario with her family, Sarah gives us an insider view of her life on a typical day. Read on to discover her creative process, how she deals with writers’ block, her hobbies, her morning routine, and of course, her favourite TV show.

This is an edited version of a longer article originally published on The Stay at Home Choir website

From Sarah Quartel’s day

9am: Creative work

I’m lucky that I can plan creative time. So I schedule this at nine to noon every morning. It’s the most intense creative time in my day because it’s when I’m fresh and the house is quiet.

When I begin working on a new piece I memorise the poem and I just start singing the words, improvising melodies until I find something that I really can hold on to. Because I’m a singer first and foremost, it has to feel good in the voice. It has to feel natural. I have to feel some sort of connection to the piece myself, for it to come to life and hopefully inspire connection in others.

If I get stuck, I have to take time away from thinking about it. I do something physical, for example, go for a walk, or do something kinesthetic where I’m not trying to force my brain to come up with something good. I’ll sing it outside digging in the garden. I’ll sing it driving in the car.

Read the full article on the Stay at Home Choir website here

2pm: Admin work

After lunch, I get the little one down for a 2-hour nap. Nap times are so precious for work hours – and in the afternoons it means I can focus on the administrative side of things.

Today, I meet a commissioner online to talk about ideas for a project. There’s lots to think about. My goal is always to write a piece that the group will feel connected to. One that will help them communicate their key message. So, it takes time to get to know them, listen to their recordings, read their mission statements, and explore their social media. Plus of course, this year we need to talk about what’s going to be physically possible in their region. It becomes a real partnership.

Then I meet with my colleagues at Oxford University Press about an upcoming release. I’ve taken on some editing roles at OUP recently which exercises a different part of my brain. It’s such a joy to be thinking critically and creatively about other people’s work. I love being able to help them along.

Read the full article on the Stay at Home Choir website here

8.30pm: Time to relax (or work some more!)

At least once or twice a week I will join a session on Zoom with a choir that’s singing one of my pieces. Tonight I get to speak to a girls choir in Texas. They come up with all sorts of brilliant questions, from ‘What was the inspiration behind this piece’ to ‘Waffles or pancakes – what’s your favourite?’. I think that’s great – it shows they want to know these personal details and connect. I think it’s particularly meaningful for young people to know that composers are living, breathing people with normal lives.

Read the full article on the Stay at Home Choir website here

About the author

Felicity Turner has sung in choirs since she was six years old, achieving her dream of becoming a professional choral singer before going on to enjoy a solo career.

When the pandemic struck she retrained as a copywriter and now loves writing for the Stay At Home Choir and other wonderful people doing good things in the world.

You can find out more about her work here.

CHORALLY Editor
Author: CHORALLY Editor