Sonya Holowell

Bachelor of Music

Undergraduate Degree: Bachelor of Music

Current Position:Vocalist, Composer and Writer, recently undertook Banff Residency

1. What attracted you to studying Arts & Social Sciences at UNSW?

I knew by my early 20s that I wanted to focus on a career in music. The Bachelor of Music program at UNSW seemed to offer the kind of mode I was looking for that would allow for both specialisation in classical voice, and the room for my interests to take unexpected turns (which they did!)

2. Did you always have a clear idea of what you wanted to do after completing your degree?

Not really. My path has unfolded one step at a time, and I think I prefer it that way, as I’m constantly surprised! Cultivating a fulfilling practice has required a combination of being open to surprise, and discerning about my choices. A process of following my joy, trusting God and trusting myself. Of learning to say “no”, weighing the value of potential projects, and finding ways to build up and encourage other people in their own creativity. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, sensing a growing need to empower voices that aren’t my own. It feels joyful so I want to follow it! And I’m excited to see how this continues to take shape.

3. How did your time at UNSW help shape who you are today?

In completing the degree I proved to myself that I can achieve what I set out to do, and that I can overcome obstacles to do so. The most obvious example of this is when I had surgery for a brain tumor in my final semester. This was one of the most defining, character building things that has happened for me; it shifted a lot and was actually very healing. My time at UNSW inspired me and exposed me to new worlds of sound, art, language, people and thinking. The electives that I took helped to make me well-rounded, and all the writing involved sharpened up those skills which had been dormant for a little while.

4. How did studying Arts & Social Sciences at UNSW help you develop transferable skills? 

On that same point of writing, I’ve taken those skills into my practice, of which writing is now a core component. I’ve also started up an arts publication with two colleagues called ADSR Zine, for which I regularly write and am co-editor. There were other skills gained from my degree which I now lean on; skills like giving presentations, collaboration, time management and multitasking (very useful for a freelancer with a ‘multi’ practice).

5. How did studying Arts & Social Sciences at UNSW help form your view on the world and the contemporary issues we face today?

I met a lot of different kinds of people, with different life circumstances, tastes and world views. I also learnt a lot about the lineages, legacies, structures, models, baggage and paradigms that pertain to the arts, in particular to Western classical music, and to the institution of academia as well. I think this was fruitful as it helped me identify where I fit within (or outside of) these worlds; where there was already space for me, and where I would need to carve it out myself. Anything I identified as problematic or lacking presented an opportunity for me to address this in my practice, giving me direction and purpose. I think everything is an opportunity, which I guess speaks of hope, which I am a believer in.

6. How did UNSW Arts & Social Sciences help prepare you for the workforce throughout your degree?

My degree developed in me a strong sense of self-discipline, resilience and perseverance, and gave me inspiration to motivate me beyond uni. It offered an opportunity to learn a lot about myself; my strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes- that sort of thing. It taught me some things about what I need to best be able to function as a solo practitioner (like regular solitude, for example), which would set me in good stead for a sustainable and rewarding working life.

7. How did you get your foot in the door as a graduate, following the completion of your degree?

I was offered the chance to audition for a position as Young Artist with the Song Company, and was successful. The following 2 years working with the company under Roland Peelman was absolutely fantastic- highly formative. My skills and knowledge increased exponentially during this time, as did my sense of the direction my own practice was wanting to take. And I was able to feel what being a busy working singer was like!

The other awesome thing that happened was reconnecting with a classmate from uni, Elia Bosshard. After talking we realised we were both really interested in the intersection of new music with design. With a common vision we combined our skill sets to develop a concert platform called Cache In Point, which would allow us to see these visions realised. We now have about 8 years of history working together, during which time we’ve been resident artists at UNSW, presented numerous shows together (including Three Voices which won Critics Choice Award in the Sydney Fringe Festival), and started our most recent project, ADSR Zine.

8. What advice would you give to someone considering studying Arts at UNSW?

I would say do your research and listen to your gut. Make sure you get a feel for the universities you’re considering, and the way they flavour and structure their arts degrees. It’s important to be at the right institution for you. I knew UNSW was right for me at that point in life, and this proved correct! But I’ve also learnt that there are multiple ways to learn and develop a practice, and that self-awareness, reflection and trust are important guides to success. I’d also add- “go where you’re appreciated”, “follow your joy” and “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” to that list of guiding considerations! They work for me, anyway.

9. What is your most memorable experience from your time at UNSW?

Honestly it was the brain surgery! That’s pretty hard to top. And the support of my friends and family during that time. I also loved some of the extra activities I participated in like choir, and additional subjects I took like dance, life drawing, Indian music, Ancient Hebrew language and Greek Mythology. I left no room for boredom!

10. Why do you Love What You Do?

I love what I do because it affords me such freedom of expression. It is liberating, joyful, empowering, transformative, and is able to inspire others to discover and express their own unique voices. It is the most powerful vehicle of truth-telling for me, offering limitless scope to decide how this is done. It is also a fantastic vehicle for problem-solving, and for playfulness. It allows me to work with, rather than against myself, and to create space for all parts of me to be heard. I feel integrated and whole because of what art has given to me and if it’s not obvious, I am very thankful for it.