Sarah Frances Jenkins is a young composer with a decorated career. She has multiple prestigious commissions to her name, is a qualified educator, a talented instrumentalist, and the recipient of numerous awards. In conversation about her work she is engaging and considered, touching on the social impacts of access to music education and the importance of collaboration.
This week, her piece Music and Meditation will be performed at The Dream Prom, a storytelling spectacle that combines dreamscape projections, live music and theatre in a BBC Proms first. Her work to date is founded on both instinct and persistence, drawing inspiration from nature and art. It’s an intuitive approach, and one that seems to stem from a lifetime of immersion in music.
‘I started the piano when I was quite young, and we were always encouraged through a sort of Suzuki method to really sort of use our ears and explore. We were always encouraged to improvise,’ Sarah says. ‘We were given the freedom to come up with our own ideas and share them with the other people in our class. And that, I think, is where the hunger to explore creation has come from.’
That hunger for creation has also fuelled a professional drive that has served her well. Sarah’s pursuit of learning opportunities has indirectly fostered the kind of persistence necessary for a successful career in music. It’s also grown into fruitful relationship with the BBC, after she won its Young Composer Award five years ago.
'I think music has such an ability to bring people together.'
‘There's a competition that now runs every two years I think, but it used to be every year. I entered something I'd been working on and didn't hear anything,’ she says. ‘But it was such a great experience, because you got to go to a free workshop just for entering. I thought, “Oh, great. This is such a good learning experience!” I didn't really care about the competition, I just wanted to get the experience of learning with others.’
The way Sarah tells it, she’d gotten the prize she really wanted already. ‘I'd had a lovely experience at that workshop, and I found it really inspiring in the end. So the next year, I thought I might get to go to another workshop, so I entered again. That year, I was really lucky to be highly commended. I guess that gave me a bit of confidence. So the following year, I entered again, thinking another workshop might come out of it, and I won.’
She sounds as delighted about it today as she must have been then. This three year process solidified Sarah’s relationship with the Proms. After being named BBC Young Composer in 2017, she has gone on to be a BBC Proms Inspire Ambassador, helping to facilitate creative music workshops for young people. ‘It's been such a wonderful thing, and it's really given me a love for wanting to do as much as I can to work with younger people – and any age groups - because I think music has such an ability to bring people together,’ she says.
A lot of Sarah’s work is about drawing connections – between music and people, music and nature, music and art. It’s made her a great fit for The Dream Prom, an ambitious project which seeks to create an immersive, inter-textual experience using works from various artists on the subjects of dreams and mental wellbeing. Sarah’s piece, Music and Meditation, sits alongside works like Clair de Lune and the classic soul track Lovely Day by Bill Withers in an evocative programme that encompasses a broad sweep of emotions.
‘I was approached by BBC Radio 3 because they were coming out with a new podcast called the Music and Mediation podcast,’ she says. ‘They basically needed composers to write some new ten minute long soundtracks, which they were going to use for guided meditations. It was such an interesting challenge to approach, making sure that it wasn't something that would get in the way of the words, but that it would also enhance the meditation experience.’
Sarah’s inspirations dovetail neatly with the meditative mindset. Much of her composition draws on themes of the natural world, bringing to mind beauty, solace and inner calm. ‘I’ve always absolutely loved nature, and I love being outside. I've always found that that's where I feel happiest. That's where my ideas seem to come to me,’ says Sarah. ‘I tend to just get obsessed with something, like the winter solstice, and then I try and figure out how to make it into music. I often find that I think best whilst I'm walking, and then I come back and fiddle on the piano, and it goes from there.’
For Sarah, playing and composing are inextricably linked. In addition to her composition work she is also a clarinettist, regularly playing with the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra. Here, too, she has received numerous accolades, having been a finalist for the RWCMD Concerto Competition and winning The Musicians’ Company Silver Medal in 2020.
‘I never want to sort of stop doing one or the other. I've always said that they're very connected,’ says Sarah. She can’t seem to switch off one thought process or the other when working. ‘Playing in an orchestral setting once I nearly missed my entry, because I was too busy thinking, “Oh, that's such a cool texture, I wonder how you write that down. I wonder how you do that.” I've always been very interested in what's going on around me.
'It’s all well and good writing dots on a page, but until someone plays it, it’s nothing.’
‘I'm not a very technical person. With me, it feels much more like I do it by feeling and hearing and energy and atmosphere. I find it really hard to be technical about things to do with composing. It just takes me a lot longer. I'm more of a feel person.’
That Sarah is the kind of composer to feel her way through a piece seems fitting given the theme of her work at the Proms. It also speaks of an openness that leaves room for inspiration and intuition, which can come in handy on a collaborative project like The Dream Prom. In addition to the creators working on the visual dreamscape projections and storytelling elements - alongside actor Omari Douglas who plays the story’s protagonist – the Dream Prom features the work of 30 BBC Open Music artists.
‘As a composer, I love collaboration. I really feed off working with other people,’ Sarah says. ‘Typically, a lot of the actual composing process can be very lonely if you’re just sitting at your desk chugging away on something.
‘Sometimes, it’s only when you get to the rehearsal that you think “oh, there are actually other people here!”’ she laughs. ‘You forget that, actually, that’s what it’s all about. That’s the bit that I really love. And that’s where you learn. Because really, it’s all well and good writing dots on a page, but until someone plays it, it’s nothing.’
Even as she goes from strength to strength, Sarah Frances Jenkins is always looking for ways to grow with others.