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.
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 took its toll on this aspect of university, but, like everyone, I found ways to adapt, even if it meant changing focus slightly. I was actually 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.
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. Trinity's choir 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 also proudly became a member of the Trinity Tiger Tones, a male a cappella group, and became 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 did you even start?
Good question! Not sure really. You just start!
It’s a huge privilege I was given. While I have been a keen composer for a while, I had 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 was 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 helped me out. Chris Watson – Trinity College’s Director of Music – is a great support too and encouraged me from the beginning.
(Jem's successful production Mageia: A Musical Fable was based on Paul Gallico’s 1966 novel, The Man Who Was Magic.)
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