By Felicity Turner
See behind the scenes into the daily lives of the living composers featured in The Stay At Home Choir Album Project.
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?
At The Stay At Home Choir we’re 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.
A Day in the Life: Sarah Quartel
5am: Wake up
I don’t wake up at 5am every morning, but quite often – and this morning I’m up with the sun.
I know some composers like to work late into the night, but I’m a morning person. Being a mom to a toddler means that you need to steal pockets of time throughout the day to do your work. So, I love to grab a few quiet moments before the dizziness starts.
Coffee in hand, I attend to some emails and just enjoy some personal time. I love looking out at the garden from the lovely new studio that my husband fixed up for me over the pandemic. It’s all windows in here, with a lovely carpet and plum purple walls – a beautiful space to spend the early hours.
Now my family has woken up, we traditionally make breakfast together. My little one just loves to stir the blueberries in the oatmeal or mix the waffle batter.
This time is so precious. It means our day starts with people, with connection, and with playing. My little one’s already in a connection headspace before going off to childcare. And it means I’ve already had playtime before my workday starts. I get to see through a little person’s eyes for a while before I dive into the seriousness of writing.
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.
There have been pieces where I’ve been digging – planting little tomatoes – and suddenly thought “Oh, 5/8 would be great there” and all of a sudden the whole piece works. So sometimes when I’m willing it to come and it doesn’t, I take a step back and get outside. I’m often inspired by nature, so I have my phone nearby so that when I have a little creative inspiration I make a voice memo that I can come back to later.
Then I’ll get out my toolbox of theory and composing lessons I’ve received over the years and flesh out the piece. That’s what I’m doing this morning. I only ever work on one piece at a time so I can give it the focus it needs – as well as give time to my family, and myself. I used to write a typical three- to five-minute work over four to six weeks, but now with a young toddler around, it’s stretched into six weeks.
Today, I use the piano to flesh out harmonies to a melody I’ve already written. I sing all the parts, making recordings so I can hear how the parts sound together. I love making up melodies but it’s building harmonies I find really exciting.
There was something about being placed as a second soprano in choir when I was little. It felt really satisfying that I wasn’t the melody or the bass, but in the middle supporting all the notes around me. To have that musical function as a young singer was captivating.
Even at age three or four humming countermelodies along with the washing machine – I didn’t want to be the melody, I wanted to be something else. I wanted to make the song something bigger, something deeper. That’s why I started writing choral music after having been a singer-songwriter. And that’s what I continue to love about choral music-making today – that it’s not just you. You’re not alone in this music-making experience.
Speaking of not being alone – my quiet work time is up, as the little one descends again. We spend the next couple of hours playing inside and making lunch before nap time.
Like breakfast, lunch is another socially made affair. I’m trying hard not to raise a picky eater, so I’ve got these funky little food cutters in heart and star shapes. I cut out cheese hearts and ham stars – food is always exciting when it’s star-shaped. So, lunches are usually all sorts of heart- and star-shaped foods. Joy on a plate!
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.
Now the little one’s awake we head outside, to dig in the garden, make supper – do all those normal family things before the evening.
I love my garden. I’ve just planted a whole herb garden under my studio window with every variety of lavender I can find that will survive the Canadian winter. I’ve got a big vegetable garden too. I’m planning some tomato plants and heirloom peppers this year, so today I plant some seeds in my basement with my grow light. In the fall, I’ll harvest them and make jams, sauces, preserves – all sorts of stuff. All my free time is spent gardening in the Canadian summer months.
I love, love anything with cheese. So supper tonight is a Greek bowl with feta cheese, quinoa, green olives, and little turkey meatballs spiced with oregano. There’s not a lot ready in the vegetable garden at this time of year, but the oregano is picked straight from my new herb garden!
8.30pm: Time to relax (or work some more!)
I like to get a relatively early night, as I’ll be up early tomorrow morning. But now the little one’s asleep, I have a few hours before bed to relax, or even get more work done.
I like to do some yoga or pilates. I was a Pilates instructor years ago, and I’ve enjoyed keeping up with it. It helps to clear my mind so I don’t have music running through it all night and keeps my muscles strong so I can spend many hours at the piano without aches and pains.
Sometimes I like to wind down by watching TV. I love the American Office – it feels like an old friend. Recently I got the DVDs of Detectorists from the library, and I just love the character writing in that.
The evenings are also when I can spend time with my husband, whom I adore. We enjoy working on our house in those evening hours together.
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.
I’ve actually connected with more people in the last year through Zoom and these sorts of platforms than I have my entire career. I know more choristers and more conductors now, and I get to see where my music goes. I suddenly feel more connected to the music and the music-making out in the world, as cut off as it’s been. I feel very, very fortunate for that.
I think another thing I’ve experienced in the past year is realising how important making choral music is to our sense of community and our mental health. All of these projects that have sprung up, like The Stay At Home Choir, acknowledge that we have this need to sing with other people and be that part of the whole. That’s something that’s hit home for me this year, and it’s something that I will remember for years to come – about how important this art is to so many people all over the world.
Sing Sarah’s Music
Now you know the process behind the music, don’t miss your chance to sing the beautiful ‘Amabile Alleluia’ by Sarah Quartel. Sign up to join The Album Project today!
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.