A lifelong love of music and musical theatre has resulted in 23-year old Birr teacher, Laura Sheils, becoming one of Ireland's youngest choral composers to have her work published.
Despite her youth, Laura, who lives in Crinkle, and is a teacher in Birr Community School, is already a very accomplished musician, soprano and composer, and credits much of her success to her music teacher, Enda O'Connor.
“From as far back as I can remember, I have always loved music, and when I went to St Brendan's Community School, the music department, under Enda O'Connor, had such a massive influence on me that I believe it shaped my whole future,” she says.
Having been on stage from a young age, the only daughter of renowned Birr dress designer, Geraldine O'Meara and her husband, Denis Sheils, says she takes her love of music and singing from her Dad. “There is a lot of music on my Dad's side, so I think I inherited that as I definitely wouldn't make a living designing dresses!” admits Laura.
The young teacher is no stranger to the stage, having been one of the leading lights in the annual school musicals staged in St Brendan's Community School during her time there, and also being a member of Midland Musical Youth, the Irish Youth Choir and Birr Stage Guild. In fact, she is currently very busy with the final preparations for the Stage Guild's upcoming production of 'All Shook Up' which opens its three-night run in Birr Theatre and Arts Centre on Thursday next, January 31.
Her love of music saw her achieve the highest grade, an AI, in her Leaving Cert in 2013, and she says she was “over the moon” later that year to learn that she was also the lucky recipient of a JP McManus All-Ireland Scholarship, which entitled her to full fees for the duration of her teaching Degree course in Music and Religion at the Mater Dei Institute in Dublin.
At her graduation ceremony from Mater Dei, Laura, who has one brother, Dermot, was one of two recipients of the prestigious Boylan Award for Music Student of the Year 2017 for making an “outstanding academic and cultural contribution throughout her studies.”
While Laura admits to loving “all types of music” she has always had what she describes as “a special affection” for choral music, and has always been fascinated by conducting.
That fascination with conducting took Laura Sheils to a small town called Kecskemét, outside the Hungarian capital city of Budapest, last year where she enrolled in a one-year Diploma Course in choral conducting and music education at the world-renowned Kódaly Institute of Music.
“There is a huge push for active music making in education, and as it is my long-term goal to hopefully become a music lecturer at third-level, I wanted to learn about all aspects of music education and choral conducting, and I felt the Kódaly Institute would give me that good, all-round approach to all aspects of music education” she says.
Laura funded the vast bulk of her studies in Hungary, and found herself surrounded by students from 17 different countries in her new surroundings, although she did have 12 Irish students in her year. All classes were conducted through English, but the young Birr teacher says she found the choral conducting aspect of the course “very tough and challenging” but admits that the lecturer got “the best out of us as students.”
Music composition formed a big part of Laura Sheil's teaching Degree at Mater Dei, and she says her composition lecturer, Dr Séan Doherty, was “extremely encouraging and supportive” of her efforts to compose a choral piece. “He is a really lovely person, and a very renowned composer” she says, so Laura made a New Year resolution in 2015 to compose a piece of choral music, but it took another year before she composed what she describes as her “first proper piece” and she was delighted to have it performed by the Matei Dei Chorale. She was very pleased with the piece, which was set to the text of the 'Sanctus' part of the Mass, and it gave her the confidence to continue.
Laura's next composition was 'Hodie Christus Natus Est' (Latin for 'Today a Child is Born') which was set to the text of a Gregorian chant normally sung at Christmas, and she was thrilled to have it performed by a young female voice choir from St Louis Primary School in Rathmines, Cantairí Óga, on RTE's Lyric FM recent 'Carols for Christmas' programme.
“It was also performed in Hungary and Barcelona” says Laura, who says she usually sits down in front of the piano when she starts to work on a choral composition. She admits she is also “heavily influenced” by pop music, and likes her pieces to have “a catchy and upbeat tempo.”
Her latest choral composition, “A Child is Born in Bethlehem” has been published by a Wexford-based music publishers, Cailíno, whose mission is to “showcase the exemplary quality of Irish choral music, and to ensure that it becomes recognised the world over as music of the highest calibre.”
Laura Sheils has set herself a “ten year goal” to become a music lecturer at third level, and says she will have to undertake a Masters and a PhD in that time, while also continuing with her choral compositions. She also finds time in her busy schedule to sing with a Dublin-based choir called Laetare Vocal Ensemble.
No doubt, we haven't heard the last of this extremely talented young Crinkle teacher!