Shirl Jae Atwell earned her bachelor's degree from Kansas State Teachers College and a Master of Music Theory/Composition degree at the University of Louisville. She also completed four years of post-graduate work in composition at the University of South Carolina.
In 1984, Ms. Atwell won the Clifford Shaw Memorial Award for Kentucky Composers; was commissioned to write Fear Not, Little Flock for the 175th anniversary of the Little Flock Baptist Church; and saw the New York City debut of her first opera, Sagegrass. In 1991, another of her operas, Esta Hargis, was premiered at Emporia State University in Kansas, followed shortly by the 1992 debut of Handelian, a work for string orchestra premiered by the Jefferson County All-County Middle School Orchestra. The Southern Baptist Seminary Orchestra in Louisville premiered her Movements Four South, an orchestral suite, in 1993. That year also saw the placement of six Shirl Jae Atwell scores in the permanent collection of the Paris Bibliotheque Internationale de Musique Contemporaine at the invitation of the Contemporary Music International Information Service. Ms. Atwell was named the 1996 winner of the National School Orchestra Association composition contest with her string orchestra piece Modus a Four. She is also the 1997 winner of the Texas Orchestra Directors Association contest with a string orchestra piece entitled Drifen.
Lucy, the ballet, with music by Ms. Atwell and choreography by Alun Jones, was premiered by the Louisville Ballet in January 1999. Lucy was inspired by the discovery of a 3.2-million-year-old skeleton, and was the subject of a Kentucky Education Television documentary that aired on November 10, 1999. In June 2000, the televised production of Lucy was awarded the Arts & Culture Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences; in July, a Certificate of Merit was awarded to Lucy by Unda-USA, the National Catholic Association for Communicators; and in January 2001, Lucy was awarded 2nd place by the National Education Television Association for program performance. In 2002, The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra of North Carolina recorded the music to the ballet Lucy, which is now available on Albany Records. The compact disc also includes the orchestral suite Movements Four South, and three string orchestra works, Pulsar, Meander, and Drifen.
Ms. Atwell has been commissioned to write works for the McEachern High School String Orchestra of Powder Springs, Georgia; the Oceanfront String Orchestra of Virginia Beach, Virginia; and a full orchestra piece for the 2007 Kentucky All-State Orchestra. In the fall 2008, Ms. Atwell was commissioned to write a full orchestra work, in honor of Lincoln's bicentennial, which was premiered by the Louisville Orchestra in February 2009. She has also completed work on her second ballet suite entitled Evoquer. An active composer with many commissions and publications to her credit, Ms. Atwell retired from full-time string teaching with the Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, Kentucky in 2007. She is now spending her time composing, conducting, arranging, presenting and working with string teachers in the Louisville area. Ms. Atwell is an active member of ASCAP.