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About James Humberstone

James Humberstone

If you'd like to contact James Humberstone, you can email him by clicking here, or click on your preferred form of social media via the icons at the bottom right of every page (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn). Humberstone welcomes commissions for concert music and special projects or residencies in music education, as well as invitations to speak at conferences on the role of composition in the curriculum and music technology in education.

Just like the categories of this website, Humberstone's music divides into two main fields, although there have been projects which have crossed the two. His background and the basis of aesthetic is in experimental music, especially the music of Howard Skempton. This is frequently heard in his concert music. Over the past decade Humberstone has become expert in composing for children, and especially in creating supporting resources and aligning his work to curricula. He has completed research in how composers retain their voice when writing for children.

Humberstone's other great interest is in music technology and its application in education. Since becoming a self-taught programmer while still in primary school, he has always had an interest in expanding (not replacing) musical experiences through the use of technology. After working for Sibelius Software for nearly a decade and at the same time, in his role as a teacher at MLC School in Sydney, producing many units of work and related resources and sharing them on this very website, Humberstone is widely recognised as a leader in this field internationally.

You can read more about any of these topics below.


I aim to write music which is simple and beautiful. While I began composing (and computer programming, as it happens) around the age of 10, a strong sense of aesthetic wasn't established in my work until hearing Howard Skempton's Lento in 1990. I couldn't place this piece: it sounded ancient, and it sounded new, all at once. It didn't go from A to B, it started somewhere, and ended somewhere.

Arriving at Exeter University in 1993 to read composition, already with a number of orchestral works under my belt, I was eager to learn more about Skempton's work. As early lectures in 20th century techniques introduced me to Cage, my reading of Skempton lead me to Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra. (English) Experimentalism for me was about community, social democracy, humour, and perhaps a little anarchy that didn't take itself too seriously.

But where in this history did Skempton's catalogue of simple music fit? Certainly many of the elements were open, inviting the performer to be involved in the act of interpretation, but as I began to analyse his work I discovered it was also incredibly ordered: in fact, Skempton described himself as a constructivist. And so I discovered a balance: a balance between order and chance, between detail and gesture, and between seriousness and humour.

When I say I am to write simple and beautiful music I'm not talking about consonance and soft dynamics. In fact, much of my music is loud, fast and dissonant, or silly and fun. But I've always been attraced to simple material, pared-back, its sound explored. Some of my work, such as the String Quartet, Chance : Chants or Cycles & Circles has allowed me to explore this material in its most basic element, drawing on what I learned writing theses about Skempton's music and also the music of Australian David Ahern, and has afforded the performer an active role in music-making. And other works have "dressed the material up", sometimes bombastically, sometimes joyfully: but even dressed-up, the material often comes down to combinations of intervals (the perfect fifth most often); simple series, transposition, inversions or retrogrades; harmonic fields; or motivic working.

Having this approach to material has probably been helpful in my interest in composing for children over the past decade. There is nothing like limitations of the performers to make paring-back of material essential. So in many ways my aesthetic compositionally has influenced much of my work in the field of music education.

Music Education
James Humberstone

I would be lying to suggest that I haven't learned at least ninety percent of what I know about Music Education from my colleagues at MLC School in Sydney, where I've worked since 2002. The music department there is the same one depicted in the award-winning documentary Mrs Carey's Concert but probably more importantly was one of the model departments reviewed in the Australian Government's National Review of School Music Education in 2005. There, the authors wrote in the case of MLC Burwood, the integration (of performance-based learning) was so extensive that the school music programme was conceived as completely holistic, with no distinction made between curricular and co-curricular aspects, each reinforcing the other.

I began work at MLC School in 2002 with some university teaching experience but no classroom experience at all. Joining as one of the school's composers-in-residence, the then Director of Composition suggested I watch him teach Penderecki's Threnody to a bemused year 10 class, then handed me keys, a timetable and told me to enjoy myself. I'd sworn never to become a school teacher, having had parents who both taught and had become so dismayed with the direction of public (small p) education during Thatcher's reign that when they put the placards down, they accepted Major's early retirement option to get "old" teachers out of the system and thus save taxpayers money.

James Humberstone

But it turned out I loved teaching. No, I adored it. What I've learned in the decade since can't be put into a few paragraphs on a website. Yes, MLC is an independent school (ergo the composers-in-residence), but I got to learn about the philosophy of music education directly from Richard Gill. I got to study Orff pedagogy levels in Sydney and Melbourne, and when they realised I was 'properly' trained but also knew a lot about music technology, I got to become an expert in the integration of approaches like Orff's and the new technologies. The school supported their teachers in experimenting with the "BLs" as I call them, (Project/Enquiry/Challenge etc. Based Learning) online and virtual learning and so much more. I was flipping my classroom back in 2002 before I'd heard the term. Now I call it "teaching from the back", because my approach is all about using online resources to free the teacher from the black/white/interactive board, and get more one-on-one time with students. Build trust. Get to know them. Help them along the way.

My teaching wasn't just limited to MLC, either. I did residencies at first around Sydney, then around Australia, and the world. I worked with co-ed schools, with government schools: even an incredible project for the NSW Department of Education North Region writing songs and making resources for physically and mentally handicapped children in three schools. I have been humbled by working with incredible educators around the world, and I've learned so much from them.

This learning directly influenced my composition, too. I've learned not to be proud about the notes one writes, because often on the stage or in the classroom clever ideas turn out to be not-so. Collaborating with other educators and teachers is key to producing something truly spectacular. I have learned that children almost always surpass pre-supposed boundaries if we scaffold their learning well - for example, I've never met a year 3 child who can't stomp in additive metre when performing What Shall We Do? from my children's opera Kiravanu.

Back at MLC, my dedicated colleagues and I throw away old programs of work every year, plan the performance repertoire, and write them afresh. I thought that the Gill-inspired curriculum of judging children's understanding of performance, musicology, theory and aural through composition assessment and reflection was the most innovative approach to music education ever until during my PhD research I discovered Elizabethan treatise suggesting just the same thing. So in my classroom we make music, then we make it up. Sure, there's a little more that goes into it, but that's the essence.

Music Technology

My interest in technology began around the same time as my interest in composition. My aunt gave me her old Atari 800 and I was more interested in programming in BASIC than playing Pac Man or Space Invaders. At high school I did work experience in technology, though I was pretty certain I wanted to be a composer. After graduating a good friend of mine, the conductor David Challis, sadly passed away and left me his Acorn computer with Sibelius 7. In the six month period between leaving Exeter University and migrating to Australia I worked for the Halle Orchestra copying scores for composition fellow and friend Camden Reeves, and continued working as a copyist and orchestrator with Sibelius on arrival in Australia, especially for Warner Chappell music over a seven year period.

James Humberstone

In 1999 I was offered a job at a company called Intelliware, the Australian distributors of Sibelius, principally to look after Sibelius support but also generally speak to the classical and education markets. Over the next nine and a half years I worked part-time at Sibelius and part-time at MLC, moving up the ranks at Sibelius to eventually lead the education and support teams in Australia which became the second highest userbase for Sibelius per capita anywhere in the world. Sibelius bought Intelliware, and so I was able to work more closely with the team in Cambridge and London, eventually becoming part of the Product Management Group - the people who actually invent the new software and software features. I left in 2008 so that I could focus more on composition and education, but I have very happy memories of my time at Sibelius and still glow a little when I get to use a feature that I contributed to in some small way.

I am one of those people who just loves new tech. Nowadays I'm a bit of an Apple poster boy, after becoming an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2009 and giving a keynote (for want of a better word) at the ADE Global Summit in Cork, 2012. I've been one of those people queuing in line for the newest iPhone or iPad at 6am, but I wouldn't ever want to be pigeon-holed as one-eyed when it comes to technology. The Apple ecosphere for music and education is superb, but for me it's all about tools most appropriate to do the best job. I've been somewhat alarmed by the numbers of governments or state bodies piling in money to tablets in education before any good research has been done. Those of us in NSW know what a disaster the first rollout of the Rudd laptops in schools programs were - so I want to make it clear that I'm not one of those involved in grabbing the latest tech and running with it.

As a teacher there has been no better time to produce your own learning materials, and this is the first and most fundamental interest I have in technology. Next comes creation: I want intuitive software that helps children experiment, but I don't want it to replace traditional instruments. What is the point of a virtual xylophone ensemble if you have piles of real xylophones in the corner gathering dust which sound better, respond to touch better, and so on? For children, what is exciting is when technology opens up new opportunitites that simply couldn't have happened any other way. For example, many teenage children are too self-concious to improvise in front of a class, but they will on a MIDI keyboard with headphones on, or tapping away on a step sequencer on an iPad. Some of our students don't seem interested in music in the classroom, but at home they have a YouTube channel with original songs and over 10,000 subscribers. We have to jump on this, or we're not doing the best for them that we can.

Short Biography (for programme notes, conference proceedings, etc.)

James Humberstone's output is influenced by his research background in experimental music, and his interest in composing for children and community ensembles. Born in London, Humberstone migrated to Australia in 1997 after completing a degree in composition at the University of Exeter. His honours thesis was on the music of Howard Skempton, with whom Humberstone studied briefly after graduating. Humberstone has often cited Skempton as his greatest influence.

By combining postgraduate studies in composition and experimental music with education qualifications and an 11 year residency at Sydney's MLC School, Humberstone developed an approach to combining new and challenging music for children with supporting resources, and continued to extend his experimental research and practice. He also combined knowledge about technology gained through nearly a decade at Sibelius Software with his compositional and education experience, and has become a leading authority in this field, publishing and regularly speaking at conferences internationally. In 2013 Humberstone completed his PhD and was appointed Lecturer in Music Education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Today he works in the fields of composition, music education and technology research, as well as experimental music.

Long Biography

James Humberstone's output is influenced by his research background in experimental music, and his interest in composing for children and community ensembles. Born in London, Humberstone migrated to Australia in 1997 after completing a degree in composition at the University of Exeter. His honours thesis was on the music of Howard Skempton, with whom Humberstone studied briefly after graduating. Humberstone has often cited Skempton as his greatest influence.

Humberstone undertook further studies with Professor Anne Boyd at the University of Sydney (MMus), and with John Peterson and Andrew Schultz at the University of New South Wales (PhD). Over the first decade of this century his focus changed from the exploration of minimalist and experimentalist structures (for example String Quartet (1995), Chance : Chants (2002), Requiem (2002, 2006)) to composing for children.

Composer-in-Residence at MLC School in Sydney from 2002 to 2013, and often invited to residences at other schools around Australia and the world, Humberstone has had a great number of opportunities to develop his voice while writing within the limitations imposed when composing for children. He scaffolds extensive repertoire (for example his children's opera Kiravanu (2008) or Symphony of the Child (2009)) with sound pedagogy and learning resources. In 2013 Humberstone was appointed Lecturer in Music Education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Recently Humberstone has begun to combine his aesthetic interest - pairing back music to its essences and involving the performer in the act of interpretation through open forms - with his educational experience in a number of works: The Speaking Piano (2012) combined a children's book, eBook, webapp and simple piano repertoire with concert music commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and premiered by Michael Kieran Harvey; while Cycles and Circles (2012) was a commission for Ensemble Offspring's Music to Infinity tour and included a downloadable education kit.

In 2013 Synergy Percussion commissioned, premiered and broadcast Campanella on the ABC, a work in which Humberstone explored Skempton's constructivist approach to composition; that same year Humberstone's Passion premiered at the Sydney Opera House, Three for Two Flutes was commissioned and released on Fluteworthy's Spirit of the Plains CD, and several new education works were premiered, including a setting of Sassoon's Before Day for the HICES 25th anniversary orchestra and choir at the Sydney Town Hall. In 2014 Humberstone conducted the premiere of his The Very Music of the Name, also for orchestra and choir at the Sydney Town Hall, but in this case as a celebratory massed piece for the A life in song tribute concert to Karen Carey.

2015 promises to be another extraordinary year for Humberstone. In addition to a number of scheduled conference keynotes nationally and internationally, Humberstone is contributing to a number of papers and a book on technology, music education and musicology. He is composing a new choral work for another residency in China in November, a song cycle in collaboration with Nigel Featherstone and Paul Scott Williams, and a huge electro-acoustic installation work with Ensemble Offspring for the new pavillion and battleships on Darling Harbour at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Curriculum Vitae

Download my CV by clicking here.

Other interests and beliefs

Composers tend to be an opinionated lot. I'm not sure whether that's because universtities beat into us the importance of having a clear aesthetic to speak to, or because composing for most is an act of self-expression, and one needs to express something, or what. I'm not actually someone to set forth on the things important to me over the dinner table, but I'm passionate about a number of causes in my life, and anyone who composes a children's opera about magical beings helping humans see the errors in their environmental ways has to be a bit of a greenie, right? So, just for those who made it right to the bottom of the page...

  • I am a cricket tragic. I am a member of the Sydney Cricket Ground and watch every day of every test match played at this ground. I play cricket for Collaroy Plateau Cricket Club in the heady heights of fourth grade. I also enjoy running and watching AFL.
  • I am not a member of the Green party because I hate the state of career politics in this country, but I have always considered myself an environmentalist, supported GetUp!'s campaign to introduce a carbon tax in Australia and have been a paid up member of Greenpeace since 2000.
  • Since 2008 I have only bought Fair Trade clothing, coffee and chocolate wherever possible. Where Fair Trade brands are not available (for instance, buying sports gear and business shirts has been tricky) I have contacted suppliers for statements and assurances on ethical treatment and fair pay of their workers before purchasing. I have been an active advocate of human rights, being a member of Amnesty International and the Australia Tibet Council.
  • I am "definitely vegetarian, mostly vegan", for the big three reasons in no particular order: 1. It's better for you nutritionally; 2. It's better for the environment; 3. Almost all modern farming practices are brutal to animals. I am a member of Animals Australia.


Website Design by Joni-Leigh Doran

Portrait of James on the homepage by Dominique Viney

Portrait of James on this About page by Bill Frakes

Illustrations for The Speaking Piano by Little Pink Pebble

Beethoven portrait Christian Horneman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tubular Bells image by geodesign, sourced from http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:40038

Image of David Ahern used with permission from Geoffrey Barnard

Image of Howard Skempton used with permission from Katie Vandyck

Image of Malcolm Williamson assumed to be fair use (see Wikimedia Commons; sourced http://www.musicweb.uk.net/Williamson/.

Student DJ image purchased from iStockphoto dot com.

All music composed by James Humberstone. Authors of words set have been credited for each work.

Website lovingly coded in HTML5 and CSS3 by James Humberstone. He composes, he codes.