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Sierra Hull: Just Feeling It

24 May 2012

We recently got to sit down with mandolinist and songwriter Sierra Hull. In this second installment of our conversation, Hull talks about her relationship with music and a fundamental issue: how much should you think about what you’re playing? Here’s what she told us:

Hull draws an insightful analogy between learning music and language acquisition. As we noted in a previous post, Hull went from novice to playing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in a matter of a few years. No question, she’s a natural. Hull picked up music the same way that most of us learn to speak. In this regard, I think she’s part of a lucky cohort who are touched in a special way. This intuitive relationship to music eludes a lot of people— including a fair number of professional musicians.

Of course, if you get formal training in music, to some extent, you learn not to approach music intuitively. The very act of reading music requires a certain degree of analysis. Not surprisingly, many formally trained musicians pick up traditional musical forms as a means of developing a more direct connection with the essence of music. A musician like Hull, on the other hand, learned mandolin without the encumbrance of notation or even a fixed curriculum.

A potential down side to this approach is that it might make it harder for her to grasp some of the more arcane musical principles, such as tricks for spicing up a melody or adding color to harmonies. Hull’s already lengthy performance record rebuts such concerns. For example, the video clip above includes excerpts of the new instrumental “Bombshell.” You only have to listen to a few notes of that tune for any notions that Hull has been confined to a homespun and simple musical approach to melt away.

“Bombshell” is from “Daybreak,” Hull’s recent album. On the studio version of this composition, she is accompanied by fiddler extraordinaire Stuart Duncan. Duncan is another supremely sophisticated musician who does not read music— and another player whose natural gifts launched him very early onto a storied career path.

The Berklee Connection

Despite their obvious gifts and demonstrated abilities, one drawback peculiar to many “naturals” who forgo organized music education is that they get caught up in the tautology of not knowing what they don’t know, and thus they worry that they missed out on some secret afforded only to those who get formal training. Perhaps it was such a nagging sense of mystery that propelled Hull to enroll in Berklee College of Music in Boston a couple of years ago, even though she already had an album and numerous tours to her credit at that point. It’s poignant to hear her recall memories of wandering around Berklee, worried that people wouldn’t realize how lost she was. It was left to John McGann, the great teacher who taught Hull while she was in Boston and who died this spring, to make her see that much of what she was studying were concepts that, in her own intuitive way, she had already assimilated.

Berklee seems to have been a good fit for Hull. It let her try out different styles of music and gain confidence without warping her natural gifts. This is a hallmark of the college’s mission. Carl Beatty, Berklee’s Chief of Staff, once remarked that, because so many students come to their programs already some distance down an artistic path, the College takes pains to practice its own version of the Hippocratic oath: “Do no harm.” It seems clear that McGann and his colleagues did no harm to Hull’s burgeoning talent. On the contrary, her evolving musical identity stands as another testament of both the College’s nurturing philosophy and McGann’s rich legacy.

Yer Pal— Curly

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2 comments

  1. Great write-up on (future superstar) Sierra Hull. One small note: The late acoustic music instructor at Berklee College is named John McGann with a G, not C. Just a minor thing. Loved the interview videos.


    • Thanks for flagging the slip, which I have corrected in the text. Don’t know how I got hooked on that misspelling. In my previous post about McGann (a couple of weeks back– Granny’s Hot Sauce playing “Brush Hogger”), I got it right. Glad to be back on the straight and narrow. Thanks again– Curly



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