Who or what inspired you to take up the clarinet and pursue a career in music?
My mother was a woodwind teacher, so music was always in the house. She used to sit me at the piano in my highchair and I’d happily play away to myself as a baby. When I was potty trained, I asked for a recorder as my reward which I then learnt to play the same day. I could read music before I could write. I chose the clarinet because my arms weren’t long enough to play flute and I didn’t like the look of the curved head flute! I was six when I started clarinet and never really looked back.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
There have been a few major influences who have really influenced and supported my career development.
The late flautist Sebastien Bell was Head of Woodwind at the Royal Academy of Music when I was a student. He understood my developing passion for contemporary music and bass clarinet and gave me a huge amount of encouragement to go my own way. I can’t thank him enough for that and he taught me so much about playing new music.
Whilst a student at the Royal Academy, I wrote to Czech bass clarinettist Josef Horak who developed the bass clarinet into a solo instrument in the 1950s. At that time I had little repertoire or knowledge of the bass clarinet world. He would send me piles of music, CDs, past concert programmes and set me off on the journey I am on today.
And of course, we have our godfather of bass clarinet Harry Sparnaay who died last year. I regret never studying with him, but the help and support I got from him whilst doing my PhD was just incredible. His influence lives on today in myself and all of my bass clarinet colleagues.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Specialising in contemporary music means that the greatest challenges appear several times a year and never stop arriving! It may be in a new work written for you that you have to master or an existing work that pushes your technique. I’ve had many moments of opening a score and thinking that I’d never in a million years be able to play the piece. Luckily I’ve been determined and it’s a great feeling to overcome these challenges and see works all the way to performance and recordings!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I am the clarinettist with Northern Ireland’s Hard Rain Solist Ensemble. I’m incredibly proud to be in this ensemble which specialises in performing core contemporary repertoire and commissioning and promoting Northern Irish and Irish composers. Every one of the concerts we do is a massive achievement and it’s like a second family to be with.
I also work with my bass clarinet and piano duo SCAW and rarescale. I’ve recorded with both and love my work with both ensembles.
I just have a new recording of Strauss, Beethoven and Glinka works out on the Hyperion label. I know it’s surprised people as I’m playing clarinet on the CD. Recorded three years ago, it was at a different part of my career, but pushed my playing skills in a different way.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I love contemporary music where you have to discover the music as you learn a piece. If you can find the music, untraditional phases, melodies, thematic material in such a piece and engage an audience in your interpretation, then I think that is mission accomplished. I love the music of composers such as Franco Donatoni. You can live with his music for years and it still keeps revealing new exciting secrets each time you play his pieces.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
As a contemporary music specialist, your programme choices are often influenced by who is writing for you at the time. I’m recently working with composers writing for contrabass clarinet and these pieces will feature in future programmes along with currently unwritten works.
I also like to perform core contemporary music within a programme of music writen for me and always have projects of existing repertoire on the stand. I currently have Monolog, by Isang Yun for solo bass clarinet, Ombra for solo contrabass clarinet, by Franco Donatoni and Bug for solo clarinet, by Bruno Mantovani on the go.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I don’t think I have a favourite, but I enjoy playing in small and intimate venues and also in rural places where there is limited access to live music. I’ve had some fantastic experiences playing on small Scottish islands over the years.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Gosh – that’s a hard question, as there are so many! I love all types of music and there are players in all genres I appreciate. I like musicians who are able to express emotion and a sense of enjoyment with their music. Be it a player like Pat Methany who plays from the heart, the jazz playing of bass clarinet greats like Eric Dolphy and Bennie Maupin who make you appreciate the bass clarinet for where the contemporary side has partly come from. And then of course, the late Harry Sparnnay, our godfather of bass clarinet for all he achieved and for just being the greatest bass clarinettist ever to live!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My first solo bass clarinet recital in the Purcell Room was special because it was a defining moment for me when I was being accepted in the UK for being a bass clarinettist. It was also one of the scariest concerts I’ve ever done as the repertoire of Donatoni, Cardew and Marc Yeats was some of the most difficult repertoire I’d ever performed and on a prestigious stage.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
When you find yourself and your direction as a player. As a bass clarinet specialist, it’s nice to be respected for what I do and to have people from all over the world contact me to ask questions or to ask to study with me. Publishing my multiphonic book was a special moment for me, because it was the final step in a huge project and enabled me to contribute to an area of bass clarinet development that needed clarification.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be yourself and follow your own ambition. Some players want to play in an orchestra, some want to play chamber music and some want to be soloists. Grab all the opportunities you can whilst studying and consider all the options. Being an orchestral player, a chamber musician, a soloist or a combination of all is great, but ultimately never be afraid to specialise if that is what you want to do.
Until around eighteen months ago, I was still under pressure to pursue orchestral auditions and yet, deep down I knew I didn’t want too. I love doing occasional orchestral work, but I love contemporary solo, chamber music and also my university and research work much more. At that recent point in my life, I dug my heels in and made some firm decisions about what I wanted and what was right for me, and have never been happier.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Hopefully still playing, premiering new works and teaching at university/conservatoire level. I teach at RNCM and am Director of Performance at Sheffield Univeristy, so I intend to work hard to develop both of these roles and courses. I’m also planning further research and want to write at least one more academic book.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Sitting down somewhere on the Isle of Raasay, Scotland where I have a cottage and looking at the sea and views to Skye and appreciating the peace that comes with it. Sometimes the silence or simple sounds of nature is as great as music and is a very humbling experience that puts life into perspective.
What is your most treasured possession?
Two things! My cottage on Raasay. I purchased it ten years ago sight unseen on an island I’d never been too. It’s the best thing I ever did!
The other is my contrabass clarinet which is known as ‘the beast’. It’s been amazing to learn this instrument over the past year and to start to commission works for it.
What is your present state of mind?
I’m doing what I love to do which is playing contemporary music, teaching at Sheffield University and RNCM and preparing some research projects. I also have some fantastic contemporary music ensembles I play with. I’m very content knowing that I’ve achieved that.
Sarah Watts studied clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music with Angela Malsbury and Victoria Soames Samek (bass clarinet). Sarah then decided to specialise in the bass clarinet and continued her studies at the Rotterdam Conservatorium bass clarinet with Henri Bok, funded by the Countess of Munster Musical Trust and a Leverhulme Trust Studentship. Sarah was awarded the Exxon prize for the best classical music student in Rotterdam.
Successes include: Winner, UK Howarth Clarinet Competition 2000; Winner, Hawkes Clarinet Prize (RAM) 2001; Winner, Sir Arthur Bliss Chamber Music Prize (RAM) 2000; Winner of wind section and Faber Prize, UK Performing Australian Music competition, 2001 (her clarinet and bass clarinet recital was broadcast on ABC radio); Finalist, Wind section, Royal Overseas League Competition 2000. Sarah has performed clarinet concertos with the Royal Academy of Music Sinfonia, European Union Youth Wind Orchestra and the Nottingham Orchestra of the Restoration.
Sarah specialises on the bass clarinet and has gained an international reputation as an artist, teacher and researcher on the instrument. She has performed solo repertoire across the UK, Ireland, Asia, Europe and the Americas and has attracted composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Piers Hellawell and William Sweeney to write works for her. In January 2003, Sarah performed a solo bass clarinet recital in London’s Purcell Room as part of the Park Lane Group Young Artist Series.
Sarah teaches bass clarinet at the Royal Northern College of Music and clarinet at Nottingham University. She is Associate in Music Performance and Director of MA Performance at Sheffield University. Sarah hosts bass clarinet and clarinet courses on the Isle of Raasay in Scotland and runs and tutors on other wind chamber music courses in the UK and France. Sarah has given workshops on bass clarinet technique at many establishments including the Royal Academy of Music, Trinity College of Music, The Royal Welsh College of Music, The Royal Northern College of Music, The Royal Irish Academy of Music, Keele University and Edinburgh University.
Sarah performs with Hard Rain Ensemble, rarescale and SCAW.
Sarah has completed a PhD in bass clarinet multiphonic analysis at Keele University and has published ‘Spectral Immersions; A Comprehensive Guide to the Theory and Practice of Bass Clarinet Multiphonics’ via Metropolis publishers.
Sarah is a Selmer artist, a Vandoren UK artist and a Silverstein Ligature artist.
In 2016, she was made an assocaite of the Royal Academy of Music, London.
(photo: David Carslaw)