Trinity College grounds

Jem Herbert on why music brings out the best in him and lessons we can learn from Mozart

According to Jem Herbert, his love of classical music has always brought out the best in him. It’s what drove him to join the Australian Boys’ Choir after a childhood spent in the Victorian High Country. It’s what drove him to leave home at age 13 to study music. It’s what delivered him to the gates of Trinity College, where he became a member of the Choir of Trinity College, Music Director of the Trinity Tiger Tones, and writer of one of our musicals.

Jem Herbert

What’s your background? Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the Victorian High Country, near Mount Buller. Like many kids from this part of the world, I had an idyllic childhood full of mountains, snow, eucalypts, skiing, bikes, rivers and biting early morning frosts before school in the winter.

My parents are both teachers and we lived in a boarding school community. This was a wonderful environment to grow up in, living the country life with its relaxed Sunday-morning-farmers’-market culture, while also living amongst a diverse, close-knit school community.

Another formative beginning for me was when, at nine years old, my parents started driving me twice weekly to rehearsals with the Australian Boys’ Choir – a Herculean effort on their part but something that opened up my world forever.

As a child with no sporting ability, little academic skill and in an environment where, at school, music was ‘gay’ and  for ‘losers’, choir gave me a place to shine. Monday and Friday evenings at choir practice in Melbourne, along with my weekly piano and cello lessons, became my whole world socially, creatively and spiritually.

For secondary school, my parents, seizing upon something I obviously loved, booked an audition for the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. I spent six happy years there, and, while it forced me to grow up quickly – living in a homestay situation from age 13 – I always felt I was with peers and teachers who encouraged me to be myself, a musician.

Looking back, it seems natural that I decided from an early age that I would make a life in music. While I was scattered and unfocused at primary school, I was disciplined and attentive in music. I felt then, and still feel now, that music brings out the best in me.

What attracted you to studying music academically?

Music seems a strange department to have in a university. Alongside medicine, history and law, a music degree doesn’t appear to offer clear career trajectories. Indeed, music graduates go into many different fields; sometimes they go on to study for non-musical careers. People study music for different reasons.

For me it’s an opportunity to meet, collaborate and network. Sadly, COVID-19 has taken its toll on this aspect of university, but, like everyone, I have found ways to adapt, even if it means changing focus slightly. I have actually been able to learn from teachers far afield that wouldn’t have been accessible to me if it weren’t for lockdowns. It’s odd the positives we can find when times are tough.

Has the pandemic changed your perspective on things?

It has! In so many ways that reveal themselves unexpectedly.

Needless to say, we all took things for granted pre-pandemic that we no longer do. An example of this for me was the concert audience. It is true that so called ‘classical’ musicians have felt threatened by the sea of grey and white (or no) hair as they gaze from a concert stage. There’s nothing new there. But as 2020 crawled along, and as each day went by without performers doing their usual evangelising to reach new audiences, something more than gigs in performers’ diaries was lost (although that’s bad enough!).

What is now under serious threat is a tradition. And if there’s a definition of classical music (a phrase I hate) it is ‘a musical tradition’. And, like all traditions, the more it fades away, the harder it becomes to revitalise.

While this saddens me, and really did send me into existential crisis last year, I am optimistic about the ways we might redesign the industry. I am aware that this sounds idealistic, but I do truly believe that great music is great music – whether it be Bach, Beethoven, the Beatles or the Bee Gees – and will speak for itself.

To come back to the question, my perspective on the formats of music-making has radically shifted since the pandemic. I hope to blow some dust from the moth-eaten wigs of the European Greats so many of us see as stuffy. The suits, tails, ornate opera houses and concert halls in which we present these composers is so far from the middle-class, deeply human, romantic and emotional beings they actually are. I am passionate about music education and how it can open up the minds of children such as my younger self. In my opinion, it’s not a matter of teaching every child that Mozart died at age 35 in a mass grave, it’s about showing that Mozart – after 200-odd years, across cultures, and being the supreme genius he was – speaks the same emotional language as us, therefore proving we are more similar than different.

Wow…there’s my evangelising done! I know this can all sound wishy-washy, but I really do believe that making and listening…really listening…to music can help us listen to others.

Why did you choose Trinity? What opportunities have you benefited from at College?

To be honest, my desire to come to Trinity preceded my desire to go to the University of Melbourne. The choir (of which I’m a member) was a huge drawcard for me, and I was aware of its fine reputation before I came. Since coming to Trinity, I have enjoyed getting to know all sorts of people heading in different directions.

I am also a proud member of the Trinity Tiger Tones, a male a cappella group here, and have the pleasure of being the group’s Music Director. I love that there is so much to get involved in at Trinity. There’s something for everyone.

Can you provide some insight into the process of writing the musical for Trinity 150th anniversary? Where do you even start?

Good question! Not sure really. You just start!

It’s a huge privilege I have been given. While I have been a keen composer for a while, I have done nothing in the theatre, which either makes me brave or stupid! Nonetheless, I worked with a family friend who also happens to be an author and an experienced actor and director, so he's been an invaluable co-worker and muse.

The comforting thing about this sort of composing though, is that when setting words to music, some of the work is already done. That is to say, once the words are written, I use their natural cadence and flow to guide my writing of the music. I also have some teachers around the place that help me out. Chris Watson – Trinity College’s Director of Music – is a great support too and has encouraged me from the beginning.

What’s one thing people don’t know about you?

People tend to know me well! But perhaps something that springs to mind is that I had a complete obsession with all things four-wheeled when I was young. Matchbox cars, utes, dump trucks, buggies, Henry the Turd (the local sewage removal truck!), you name it, I was abnormally hooked. I wouldn’t be surprised if my parents were concerned that I’d mistaken orchestral conductor for train conductor when I started listening to Mozart. I must add that I know nothing about cars now and the obsession has completely died, so don’t come asking me about F1 sportscars…

As told to Alistair Bates



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