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Olivia Sparkhall Interview

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Olivia Sparkhall is an award-winning composer and conductor. In 2022 she won the Three Choirs Festival composing competition (in association with Hereford Three Choirs Festival and Oxford University Press) with Hear, O ye kings. Her music has been performed internationally, has featured on BBC Television and BBC Radio 3, and receives critical acclaim when reviewed in Organists Review, Church Music Quarterly and Choir & Organ magazine. 

We got a chance to ask Olivia about her work:

Can you describe your journey into becoming a composer and conductor? What inspired you to pursue this career?

My journey into becoming a composer and conductor has been a deeply rewarding one. It began with the encouragement I received as a child, and progressed through my school years, with my study of music preparing me to read for a degree in the subject at university. There I blossomed as a composer, and had the opportunity to conduct both orchestral and choral music. As I honed my skills, that initial spark evolved into a career that I’m incredibly proud of today.


Your victory in the Three Choirs Festival composing competition is remarkable. Can you walk us through the creative process behind “Hear, O ye kings”?

Winning the Three Choirs Festival composing competition was an incredible honour, and it was a wonderful opportunity to attend the premiere in Hereford Cathedral. The creative process behind “Hear, O ye kings” involved using repetition techniques to exploit a small amount of material. The piece is an introit so the whole piece needed to be conceived in miniature – like a sort of bonsai version of an oak tree. 


How have partnerships with publishers like Encore Publications and Chichester Music Press influenced your work?

Partnerships with publishers like Encore Publications and Chichester Music Press have played a significant role in my career. These collaborations have allowed me to share my compositions with a broader audience, making my music accessible to performers around the world. The support of these publishers provides me with a platform to showcase my work and contribute to the world of choral music.


As part of the Kassian Choral Series, you’ve been involved in both composing and editing choral music. What unique insights have these dual roles offered you?

Being a part of the Kassian Choral Series has given me a unique perspective on choral music, particularly that written by women composers from the past. My dual roles as a composer and editor have provided valuable insights into the intricacies of choral composition. This experience deepened my understanding of historical pieces and allowed me to make available performing editions for upper voices of choral music by women from earlier eras, as well as contribute original compositions to the series.


Your music has been performed internationally and featured on BBC. How does it feel to have your work recognized and acclaimed on such a grand stage?

Having my music performed internationally and featured on BBC platforms has been an immensely gratifying and rewarding experience. It’s a validation of the hard work and dedication I’ve poured into my niche area of sacred choral music. Being recognized and acclaimed on such a grand stage is both humbling and motivating, validating the merit of my works, and inspiring me to compose more.


What has been your role in the Multitude of Voyces’ Sacred Music by Women Composers series? How do you see this contributing to the representation of women in music?

In the Multitude of Voyces’ Sacred Music by Women Composers series, my role has been to contribute original compositions and arrangements as well as being part of the research and editorial team. This series is a significant step towards representing and celebrating the contributions of women composers to the canon throughout the ages. It sheds light on overlooked female composers from the past and showcases the contemporary contributions of women in the field, fostering greater gender equality in music.


Can you share some highlights from your work as an arranger and editor of choral music by women from the past? What challenges and rewards have you encountered?

As an arranger and editor of choral music by women from the past, I’ve encountered both challenges and rewards. Highlights include reviving and celebrating the music of women who were generally highly successful in their time, but forgotten after they died. Challenges involve interpreting historical manuscripts accurately and adapting them for modern editions, while preserving the integrity of the original compositions. The rewards come from revitalizing these hidden gems and giving them the recognition they deserve.


With an MA in vocal pedagogy, how do you approach vocal tuition, and what makes your teaching method unique?

My MA in vocal pedagogy has greatly influenced my approach to vocal tuition. I believe in tailoring lessons to the specific needs of my students. What makes my teaching method unique is the ability to assess each student’s strengths and weaknesses and set personalized goals according to their individual needs. I’m passionate about helping individuals of all skill levels, from beginners to professionals, reach their full vocal potential.


You emphasise tailoring lessons to individual needs. How do you assess and adapt your approach for different ability levels, from beginners to professionals?

Assessing and adapting my teaching approach for different ability levels is a fundamental aspect of my pedagogy. For beginners, I focus on building strong foundational skills: working on breath, muscle use, the position of vowels etc. 

With professionals, I delve into more advanced matters, often teaching technique through repertoire, and focusing on resonance and tone. At every level I instil an understanding of music theory into lessons to aid the singer’s development as a musician. It’s crucial, of course, to understand each student’s current abilities and aspirations, and to create a tailored curriculum that fosters growth and challenges them appropriately.


Can you share a success story from your vocal teaching, perhaps where you helped a student reach an unexpected potential?

Certainly, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing students achieve remarkable growth, sometimes in a very short space of time. It’s important to remember the process isn’t linear and remarkable breakthroughs can happen at any time. One success story that stands out is helping a student overcome significant vocal challenges with their range, finding a whole part of the voice they had no idea existed, and strengthening that tessitura to open up a whole new repertoire to them. Witnessing their journey and transformation is incredibly rewarding and reinforces my commitment to teaching.


How do you maintain strong relationships with several publishers, and what role have they played in your success as a composer?

Maintaining strong relationships with several publishers is a result of effective communication, and delivering compositions that resonate with publishers and performers alike. These publishers have played a pivotal role in my success as a composer by providing a platform to showcase my work, ensuring it reaches a wider audience, and contributing to my reputation in the music industry.


What are some key considerations when selecting publishers for your work, and how has this shaped your relationship with entities like Tim Knight Music and Lindsay Music?

When selecting publishers for my work, key considerations include the publisher’s reputation, their target audience, and their ability to effectively promote and distribute my music. It’s ‘horses for courses’ as different pieces suit the catalogues of different publishers. 


How do you balance your roles as a composer, conductor, teacher, and editor? What does a typical day look like for you?

Balancing these different roles can be a challenge at times but I tend to prioritise work according to deadline and demand. Honestly there is no typical day as I utilise my skill set to fulfil the task at hand, which varies considerably depending on whether it is daytime, evening, weekday or weekend. 


What trends do you see emerging in contemporary choral and organ music, and how do you respond to them in your work?

In contemporary choral and organ music there is a divergence of styles which reflects the differing demands of audiences. The amount of choice available, and the high expectations of finding exactly what is desired, means that there are niche audiences for a wide range of styles and idioms. This widens the platform for contemporary composers’ work to find its audience, wherever that may be. It has been tremendously rewarding for me to be discovered as ‘exactly what I was looking for’ by many performers. 


How do you keep yourself motivated and creatively inspired, especially during challenging times?

It is hard to stay motivated and creatively inspired during challenging times. Sometimes it is best to take a break and try again when circumstances have changed. 


Can you share some insights into your collaborations with other musicians and composers? How do these interactions enrich your work?

Collaborations with other musicians and composers always provide great opportunities. When I work with performers it is so helpful to try out composition drafts with them to see how they work in practice. This allows me to hone my ideas and to respond to all-important feedback. 


What advice would you give to aspiring composers and musicians who look up to your career?

To aspiring composers my advice would be to write for your musician friends and for ensembles you are involved with. If you don’t have any contacts, consider joining a local group and get involved in their music-making. 


Are there any upcoming projects or compositions that you’re particularly excited about? Can you give a sneak peek?

I’m very excited that several of my pieces are being professionally recorded as part of new recording projects, and I have a few commissions in the pipe-line which will be enjoyable to fulfil. Keep an eye on my website for more details!


How do you see the future of choral music, especially in the context of modern technology and digital platforms?

I believe choral music will continue to have a place in both sacred and secular music-making. Modern technology opens up the possibilities of using tablets rather than traditional sheet music and I think more and more performers will opt for that. The easy provision of rehearsal tracks will also enable individuals to practise their parts at home with ease. 

See more about Olivia here

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