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Writing the history of brass instruments

Professor Trevor Herbert's research has enhanced how brass performers play and teach, inspired the next generation of young musicians, and introduced modern audiences to the sounds of historical brass instruments.

During his 50-year career, Professor Trevor Herbert has become an internationally-recognised authority on the history of brass instruments. A seasoned professional trombone player with leading orchestras such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, since joining The Open University in 1976, Herbert has balanced worldwide performances and major recordings with extensive research on brass instruments' history, repertoires and performance cultures.

His distinctive work analyses the impact of social and cultural history on brass instruments, brass music and performance, from the middle ages to the present. It encompasses a uniquely broad spectrum from early music, orchestral and art music to jazz and musical sub-cultures, such as military and brass bands.

Writing the history of brass

Today, Herbert's specialist publications on these subjects are the resource of choice for performers, teachers, museum curators and music researchers worldwide.

Cyfarthfa Band 1905

The British Brass Band (2000) is the most detailed and definitive study of these bands and their unique social and cultural history. Meanwhile, The Trombone (2006) provides an authoritative and comprehensive history of the instrument, including insights on historical performance practice issues such as pitch, articulation and instrument design. It also emphasises how the people who played and listened to the trombone, and the social, economic and cultural circumstances in which they lived, have shaped its multiple histories.

Music for the multitude’ (2010) reveals the social make-up of the bandsmen, instrumentation and sophisticated repertoire of the bands competing in the Crystal Palace brass bands in the 19th century. ‘Trombone glissando’ (2010) considers the origins of the rapid sliding movement between one note and another. It also explores its subsequent use, for example, to comic effect in circuses and black-face minstrel shows. The article also examines the device’s place in early jazz, its assimilation into mainstream music and raises issues about the relationship between performance practices and race.

Herbert's article ‘"…men of great perfection in their science…"’ (2011) also explores a critical point in history when, in the 15th century, the invention of the slide trumpet gave the trumpet, previously a ceremonial instrument, a new life in both the church and secular music.

Enhancing performance, teaching and stimulating debate

Herbert's work helps musicians embed their performance in history and teaching.

Due to the trombone having such a rich & colourful history – understanding and appreciating where the instrument originated, developed and how it was utilised by centuries of famed composers is vital in learning contextual structure to one’s playing.

The vast ranging research by Trevor Herbert is essential reading and a staple for all trombonists and brass players in general resounding as major references for performers and tutors alike.

Adrian France
historical bass trombonist, Professor of bass sackbut, Guildhall School of Music & Drama and Head of Brass Studies, Newcastle University

The Trombone, in particular, is used extensively by conservatories and colleges in the United States. Close to 500 higher education libraries across the country hold reference copies of the book.

The Trombone […] is justifiably considered to be the most important monograph on the trombone to have appeared during its over 500 year-long history […] It appears on the reading list for countless trombone professors in colleges, universities, and conservatories of music in the United States and, I do not doubt, around the world.

Douglas Yeo
professional trombonist and Lecturer of Trombone at Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, Illinois.

Based on Herbert's research on the racist advertising that accompanied the original release of Henry Fillmore's ragtime trombone solos, Yeo has led discussions with his Wheaton students about the programming of Fillmore’s works. He also wrote a 2020 blog article on the subject, referencing Herbert's work, which was read 65,000 times and sparked vigorous conversations among trombonists, teachers, and conductors. As a result, many musicians no longer play Fillmore's racially stereotyped works.

Inspiring the next generation of musicians

Herbert's work also inspired St. Hilda's & St. Hugh's School, New York, an independent primary and middle school, to create the first school brass band in the United States. Comprising three ensembles ranging from beginner to intermediate for pupils aged nine to 14, more than 100 students have graduated from the brass band programme since 2013.

Many of the students who have gone through the St. Hilda's & St. Hugh's School brass band program cite it as an important influence in their academic and career success. Trevor's influence has deeply shaped their educations

Sandy Coffin
Former Director of Brass Bands at St. Hilda's & St. Hugh's School.

Celebrated trumpeter and former Principal of the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, John Wallace CBE, has applied Herbert's research to help young people learn brass instruments. In 2017, his 'Discovering Brass' programme enabled 90 students in three London-based primary schools to learn the fundamentals of brass playing and repertoire from professional musicians. In 2020, Wallace launched the St Andrews Music Participation (StAMP) music education project. Bringing together the Laidlaw Music Centre at St Andrews University in Fife, The Wallace Collection professional brass ensemble, the county's seven remaining brass bands and 12 local primary schools, the programme aimed to enhance the musical skills and overall well-being of those involved and to regenerate a sense of community in post-industrial Fife.

Herbert played a critical role in the inception of the programme. He also appeared in its two online events in July 2020, which brought more than 200 brass players of all ages and abilities from as far afield as the United States, Brazil, Russia and China, together to play and learn.

This would never have happened without that initial series of phone calls and face-to-face discussions with Trevor planting the ideas in my head five years ago.John Wallace

Introducing modern audiences to historical brass instruments

Herbert's research has also influenced the work of museum curators. His publications informed ‘The Sound of Brass' project (University of Bern), which explored the raw materials and techniques used to make 19th and 20th-century trombones held in museum collections. The project led Basel-based instrument manufacturers Blechblasinstrumentenbau Egger to reconstruct historically informed alto, tenor and bass trombones presented at an exhibition and concert during the 2018 Fifth International Romantic Brass Symposium in Biel, Switzerland.

The Trombone also informed the reorganisation of displays at the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels between 2016 and 2020. Museum curators have also drawn on Herbert's work in assessing the historical significance of new acquisitions for its collection.

In 2021, the International Trombone Association also bestowed Herbert with its Lifetime Achievement Award to recognise his scholarship and career-long commitment to the profession.

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