Choral composer Sarah Quartel grew up in a household filled with music. Whether it was her mother singing Italian arias in the kitchen or her father practicing church music in the basement, she was surrounded by the sounds of master musicians and composers.
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“I think I was eight years old before I realized that having a harpsichord in your basement was a bit of a unique thing,” Quartel quips about her father, a church organist, who often practiced at home.
Quartel’s exposure to and love of music at home was only the beginning of what would bring her to prominence not only as a composer and educator in her native Canada but in many other countries around the globe. Her recent contract with Oxford University Press is a testament to her talent.
Quartel is the youngest composer Oxford has added to its select group of major choral composers. Other gifted composers in that group include English composer and conductor John Rutter and the music director of The Tabernacle Choir, Mack Wilberg.
Born and raised in London, Ontario, Quartel learned to enjoy and participate in music throughout her formative years. She participated in choir from elementary through high school and also in a children’s community choir – The Amabile Choirs of London, Ontario, at that time under the direction of Jennifer Moir and Jackie Norman.
Moir was also Quartel’s private voice teacher, and she subsequently taught Quartel when she was a theory and composition major at the University of Western Ontario. When asked about the best educational experience she had as a composer, Quartel says unequivocally that singing in choirs was her best preparation.
Why? The music she sang was carefully selected by her directors; meaningful and full of integrity. Participating in choirs also taught her about building connections between singer and song and the sense of community that is fostered in these ensembles.
Quartel says singing is a lifelong skill that can connect people in a unique way. People who sing in choirs can achieve a level of artistry that they could not achieve on their own.
“Choral music has this incredible way of bringing people together,” Quartel said.
The Path to a Full-Time Career in Music
During Quartel’s high school years, she wanted to be a performer. She spent those years as a singer/songwriter, performing in local cafes while refining her craft with her love of melody. However, upon entering college, Quartel realized that the depth of her songs might be more fully suited to the choral realm.
It was here in her university studies that Sarah Quartel the composer began to emerge. It was within the choral realm that her fondness for melodies could transform into multiple layers of voices and complex textures. It was also here during her second year of college that her first commissioned work, Snow Angel, was composed.
After college, Quartel taught elementary music while composing on the side. As an educator, she learned to choose as well as write music for her students in the same way in which it was given to her when she was younger: carefully selected, meaningful, and full of integrity.
While teaching was a joy for Quartel, it became a challenge to keep up with the number of commissioned pieces she was being asked to compose. So, after five years in the classroom, she became a full-time composer – although to this day, she continues to substitute teach for music classes.
“Some of my best teachers have been people who have challenged me musically but also have cared for me as a person.”– Composer Sarah Quartel
Quartel’s process of composing can vary from piece to piece. Sometimes she is inspired by poetry or a melody she has created; other times by the person or group that is commissioning the work. However, the common thread through all of her work is the need to feel a connection with some part of the origin of the piece.
“The first 25% of a composition is dragging it out and finding that hook – that bit of the song that is going to excite me and encourage me to write more,” Quartel said. The next 50% is ‘Off to the races; things are coming out; I’m writing it all down!’ The last 25% I’m polishing and agonizing over the piece, second-guessing myself. It’s a wonderful roller coaster!”
Quartel says the most difficult part is choosing the text, as she is highly selective. She does quite a bit of reading and research to find just the right text, then memorizes it before setting it to music.
What continues to surprise Quartel most about composing is that, once she emerges from the isolation of writing, she will often hear from choristers who have performed her works. They will either write her or tell her how much the music means to them as a singer. As one can imagine, this is always very gratifying to Quartel. She highly recommends that singers and performers who enjoy a composer’s music reach out to that composer and let them know how much their music means to them. Composers will always appreciate a connection to someone who has performed their work.
For young composers, her advice is to “Write, write, write! Always be writing.” Write for diverse voicings. Make sure you have anyone and everyone rehearse or perform your music, and seek out opportunities to practice with it. She says if you are not writing, you’re not learning.
Over recent years, Quartel has gained prominence in the choral world. She now has about 28 pieces published.
“Sarah Quartel is a brilliant composer and clinician who sees the world, and singers themselves, more deeply than most,” said Zimfira Poloz, artistic director of the Hamilton Children’s Choir.
Her works have been performed in a number of high-profile events. In 2015, the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) commissioned her work Wide Open Spaces. It was performed by a boys’ honors choir at the ACDA National Convention under the direction of Bob Chilcott.
In 2017, her first commissioned work that she penned in college, Snow Angel, was performed at Lincoln Center in New York City. It was sung by the highly-regarded National Children’s Chorus of the United States of America. Quartel’s compositions also have been featured in numerous other concerts and radio broadcasts internationally.
When not composing, Quartel continues to delve into the world of education. She still teaches in Ontario, Canada and serves as a guest clinician at various music education and choral events internationally. This work gives her a chance to reach out to others in a way her teachers did.
“Some of my best teachers have been people who have challenged me musically but also have cared for me as a person,” Quartel said. “I think that why I love what I do now is because it’s not only a job… it’s also something I feel very emotionally connected to.”
View Sarah Quartel’s choral works here.