Posts Tagged ‘Berklee’

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Introducing The Lonely Heartstring Band

25 April 2013

The Facebook page for The Lonely Heartstring Band states the facts succinctly: “We like the bluegrass music. We like The Beatles.” A couple of months back, we caught up with the LHB in the hallways of the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. The Fab Five were practicing for their debut set at the fest. As you can hear, they were in fine form:

What we have here is a convergence of late and early: late Beatles; early Lonely Heartstring. The LHB consists of George Clements (guitar), Matt Witler (mandolin), Gabe Hirshfeld (banjo), Patrick M’Gonigle (fiddle) and Louis Fram (bass). These guys met at Berklee College of Music in Boston. They had all played in various combinations in and outside of school settings, but last year, they decided to explore their mutual fascination with bluegrass and the Beatles. What started out as a whim quickly evolved into a going concern.

Bluegrassers have been playing Beatles tunes practically since Lennon and McCartney first hit the charts. We’ll review this longstanding symbiosis in greater detail in coming weeks. A distinguishing aspect of the LRB approach to Beatles material is that the band hews as closely as possible to the original arrangements. That’s what makes listening to them so much fun: we all know those harmonies and solos by rote, but when they are transposed so precisely into other voices and instruments we get to hear them anew.

A Lonely Heartstring show isn’t just Beatlemania Unplugged. These guys know their way around bluegrass and always feature at least a couple of tunes from the traditional canon in each set. If you are in the Greater Boston area this week, you can sample the full LHB menu, since the band will be playing at the Boston Bluegrass Union’s Springfest event on Saturday at The Second Church in West Newton. Doors open at 5:30. Verily, it will be a hard day’s night.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— At Second Cousin Curly’s World Headquarters, we’ve been tinkering lately with our recipe for streaming video. We want to give you not just the best quality videos, but also the best possible delivery of those videos. If you find that the video clip above doesn’t play smoothly, try the Vimeo version. We appreciate reports from anyone having problems with playback.

P.P.S.— Hats off to Adam Lawrence for the fine editing job on the video, and thanks to our fine camera team at Joe Val: Phoebe Waldron, Christian Trapp and Bill Politis.

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Fade In: The Deadly Gentlemen

3 April 2013

The Deadly Gentlemen, a Boston-based outfit, have just announced that their next album will be released by venerable Rounder Records. The album, which will be titled “Roll Me, Tumble Me” is due out in July, but to whet our appetite, the group has just released a three-song EP, “Bored of the Raging.” With all this buzz, the time is right to share this video, which showcases some of the band’s new material:

The Deadly Gentlemen consist of Greg Liszt on banjo, Stash Wyslouch on guitar, Mike Barnett on fiddle, Dominick Leslie on mandolin, and Sam Grisman on double bass. Although Wyslouch’s voice does a lot of the heavy lifting, all five members contribute to vocals, which allows the group to achieve a variety of textures in their songs.

Every member of the band has virtuosic chops on their respective instruments as well. Given this breadth of talent, it might not be strictly accurate to peg Liszt as the group’s leader. Nevertheless, since he came to The Deadly Gentlemen with a ten-year stint in the renowned and influential band Crooked Still already on his résumé, it’s hard not to see him as the band’s éminance grise. Certainly the rich sonic tapestry of the band’s wonderful debut CD, “Carry Me to Home” seemed to owe a lot to Liszt’s taste for filigree in both lyrics and musical technique.

As evidenced in the video clip, the band’s newer songs are generally simpler and more direct. The emphatic rhythmic hooks of the early material are still there, but now they are frequently mingled with soaring melodies that, when repeated, can create a trance-like effect.

Over the past few months, the band has been touring with Greensky Bluegrass and The Yonder Mountain String Band. On one level, this makes sense. It’s easy to imagine the Dead Gents getting a warm reception in the jam band culture of which those bands are a product. At the same time, The Deadly Gentlemen’s songs tend to be more tightly arranged than yer typical jam band’s stuff. As anyone who has seen one of their combustible live shows can attest, these guys know how to cut loose, but most of their tunes clock in at no more than a few minutes.

In describing its music, the group says it has “kind of a rock ‘n’ roll feel,” and Liszt doesn’t hide the fact that, before he picked up the banjo, he went through a phase during which he listened to almost nothing but the Rolling Stones. The Deadly Gentlemen are known to cover a Stones song or two, and the Jagger/Richards influence comes through in their music in other ways as well. If all bluegrass jam bands on some level can be seen as offspring of the Grateful Dead, then The Deadly Gentlemen are the progeny of the Rolling Stones. That formula might be a bit reductive, but as with any effective caricature, it captures the essential features of its subjects.

We recorded “Faded Star” during a sound check at The Lizard Lounge, an intimate listening room/watering hole in Cambridge, Massachusetts that has served as a testing ground and second home for The Deadly Gentlemen as they have refined their sound over the past several years. We’re working on another video from that shoot, so don’t wander too far. To Joe Stewart and the Lizard Lounge management, thanks for the use of the hall.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Dispatch from the Slippery Slopes

22 January 2013

Emy Phelps’ “Bluegrass Tune”

Emy Phelps set out to write “Dancin’ Round Your Door” as her “offering to the world of bluegrass,” but the song apparently had other ideas. Have a listen:

Phelps is accompanied here by partner Darol Anger (who on this tune has traded his fiddle for an octave mandolin) and mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist. The song— which is featured on Phelps’ latest album— was recorded at a notloB Music concert in Jamaica Plain, Massachustetts last Spring.

Phelps doesn’t claim that her song is bluegrass, nor would I, but I’m also not going to spill any ink trying to demarcate the territory that is or isn’t defined by the bluegrass genre. I think we can all agree that it doesn’t pass the Justice Stewart definition of bluegrass: “I know it when I hear it.”

Hearing a straight-ahead bluegrass tune performed with salt and feeling is revelatory: it’s like having your head dunked in cold, clear water. That’s not an experience that can be compromised or adulterated. But in my view, the folks who experiment at the margins of bluegrass help us to keep reexamining the music. In doing so, they also keep us alert to new ideas. As Phelps says in her introduction to “Dancin’ Round Your Door,” “Stretch your imagination!”

Beatle or Catfish?

It’s not everyday that you see a message like this in yer inbox: “Ringo Starr has commented on your video.” Such was the news I received from the busy scribes at YouTube last week. First thought: “Ringo Starr? The Ringo Starr?!” Second thought: “Which video?”

Faithful readers of this site will know that my primary goal has been to add to the library of online media pertaining to music with bluegrassish tendencies. The challenge of providing a regular flow of content (sometimes described as “feeding the beast”) is both stressful and fun, but as with any test, success is never assured. Sometimes I just have to get stuff out there and hope for the best. This ain’t Pee Wee soccer, so I recognize that not every post can be a winner. Rather than try to go back and airbrush the past, I tend accept that I must live with my missteps, figuring that “he that lives by YouTube shall die by YouTube.”

There is, however, one post that I have on more than one occasion considered quietly deleting. It’s an early video in which I just talk. And then I talk some more. Oh, and then I demonstrate the “bluegrass chop.” If you feel compelled to watch, here it is…

In my estimation, these aren’t my finest three minutes. For starters, there’s the substance of my rant. For the record, I still believe there are good reasons why most bluegrass bands, from the Clinch Mountain Boys to the Punch Brothers, don’t employ percussion. Be that as it may, I have come to understand that anytime you try to proscribe something, you sound like you’re prescribe another thing. In that old post, my point was not that I wanted to define a specific “bluegrass sound.” If anything, I was staking out more or less the opposite position: that by leaving percussion out of the mix, bluegrass bands could more deftly control and alter their sound. I tried to argue that they could do this with ease and without sacrificing drive because of the uniquely percussive nature of bluegrass instruments. That’s the case I was making, but some viewers clearly believed that I was defending some canonical notion of what bluegrass was supposed to be. Some viewers said “right on!” to this blinkered perspective, while others allowed as how it was narrow-minded anti-percussionists like me who were responsible for the fact that all bluegrass bands sounded exactly alike. To all this I reply…oh, never mind.

Anyway, setting aside whatever validity my argument might have, I’m not convinced that having some pasty guy (more Creepy Uncle than Second Cousin) gas on without even playing a dern tune is really what the public longs for. However, every time my finger inched toward the “delete” button, I noted that a few more people had written lively responses in the comments section. Figuring that fostering one of the few civil debates on YouTube was the least that I could do, I held off.

Which brings us up to last week, when none other than Ringo Starr appeared to have commented on the video— quite a detailed and thoughtful response, in fact. I suppose hearing from a Beatle would be a big deal for anyone of my vintage, but perhaps I should explain the particular association I have with that seminal group. The first feature film I recall seeing in a movie theatre was The Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.” I was mesmerized by the experience, and I honestly think that initial, intense enchantment contributed to my choice of becoming a filmmaker.

Given that history, you can appreciate the frisson of excitement I experienced when I visited my correspondent’s elegant YouTube Channel and found it loaded with tasty hi-def clips of the Fab Four in their heyday. You can also imagine how transported I was to find this in my personal message inbox:

Message_from_Ringo

Once I recovered from my swoon, I alerted all my friends on Facebook, my followers on Twitter and all the ships at sea. Dear God, it’s me, Curly. Ringo Starr commented on my video! As for the lame clip that had attracted Ringo’s attention, well, as I noted in my reply to Mr. Starr, now that a Beatle had chimed in, I could never erase it!

So things stood for a day or two. Then, as the novelty of having Ringo as my new BFF wore off, I did a little research. Apart from having his snazzy YouTube channel, the Ringo Starr who contacted me has this Google Plus account. So far, so good, but what are we then to make of this Ringo? “My” Ringo, though knowledgeable about percussion

  1. seems a tad attached to the Beatles’ golden years,
  2. uses some rather raw diction in comments on his channel
  3. has the YouTube username (a rimshot, please) “monkeychunger.”

Fishy, no? Speaking of suspect aquatic life, in 2010, brothers Yaniv and Ariel Schulman released a provocative documentary called Catfish. The film chronicles the brothers’ attempts to attach flesh and bone to a dubious online relationship. For those of you who have yet to see the film, I won’t spoil the ride. Suffice it to say that the experience of watching Catfish is like entering a hall of mirrors, where you quickly lose track of whether what you’re looking at is a reflection or the thing itself. The moral is as obvious as the “truth” is obscure: In this day and age, don’t believe everything you see.

Catfish the movie has subsequently spawned Catfish the reality TV series on MTV. On the show, the Brothers Schulman help other people investigate personal connections made via the internet. With episodes of Catfish rolling off the assembly line every week or two and stories like that of football star Manti Te’o making headlines, it’s hard not to look at “my Ringo” with anything other than a very jaundiced eye.

Yup, I suspect that “my Ringo” is really just “my Catfish.” If I’m right about that, then perhaps he/she/it is doing me a backhanded favor by reminding me that, when it comes to relationships forged online, there really is no “there” there. Even so, to quote the title of a well-known fiddle tune, I can’t help feeling that I’d like to “Nail That Catfish to a Tree.”

Yer Pal— Curly

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John Hartford’s Legacy at 75

28 December 2012

With his bowler hat and colorful duds, there was always something boyish about John Hartford. It therefore comes as something of a shock to realize that Sunday, December 30th would have been his 75th birthday. By way of appreciation…

Of course, that is Hartford’s giant hit, “Gentle On My Mind” as performed by Molly Tuttle, Eric Robertson, Nick DiSebastian, Gabe Hirshfeld and John Mailander. This campsite performance was captured at the 2012 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. See below for a special note on the circumstances surrounding the recording.

How you think about John Hartford probably depends a bit upon your vintage. I confess that, for a really ancient cuss like Yers Truly, it’s hard for Hartford ever to escape that bell jar of late sixties folksy nostalgia. Some part of him remains trapped forever in an easy-listening ether, along with the likes of Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb and the Smothers Brothers.

That limited view is unfortunate, and it certainly doesn’t do justice to Hartford’s multifaceted career. In truth, Hartford never spent much time marching in the hit parade. Instead he used his pop success to branch out and reach back. In the early 1970’s he was a central figure in the development of New Grass music, a melding of bluegrass with pop riffs, rhythms and instrumentation. For many young listeners who had grown up on a diet of folk and rock, Hartford’s 1971 album Aero-Plain seemed doubly authentic: on the one hand, with its fiddles and banjos, the album sounded as old and comfortable as a broken-in pair of jeans, but its playful references to contraband substances and life on the road gave it youth culture credibility.

In its heyday, it was easy to view New Grass as a musical manifestation of the Generation Gap, and there were of course plenty of bluegrass traditionalists who considered it an adulteration of the genuine article. At the distance of several decades, such hand-wringing and haranguing seems almost quaint, especially given that tunes like “Steam Powered Aero Plain” now show up regularly at jams, perfectly at home between “Salt Creek” and “On and On.”

Of course, the Young Turks of New Grass never saw the canon of bluegrass and traditional music as an “establishment” that had to be overturned. On the contrary, they were the first generation who could view the music with an archivist’s appreciation for historical context. If you watch the strange and wonderful double-DVD set that Homespun Music Instruction produced on the mandolin technique of Bill Monroe, it’s John Hartford who plays the role of MC, avidly encouraging and supplicating the Father of Bluegrass to share the secrets of his playing method.

Hartford’s interest in traditional string music led him back to songs and tunes that predate bluegrass. In 1998, he released, The Speed of the Old Long Bow, which had as its subtitle A Tribute to the Fiddle Music of Ed Haley. Haley was the blind fiddler whose composing and performing during the first half of the 20th Century greatly expanded the Appalachian fiddle tune repertoire.Hartford’s album didn’t ignite a renaissance in old time music— that phenomenon had been percolating already for several decades— but I do suspect that the current generation of hot shot fiddlers, all of whom know tunes associated with Haley like “Forked Deer” and “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom,” owe a thing or two to John Hartford.

The Haley tribute was just one of a series of projects that Hartford undertook at the end of his life that widened the audience for old time and bluegrass music. His contributions to the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou insure that a vast new generation of traditional string music fans got to know his fiddle and voice.

More than a decade has passed both since the passing of Hartford and the launch of the O Brother juggernaut, and we could use another galvanizing project that will once again give the bluegrass scene a shot in the arm (the fizzling of a biopic to coincide with Bill Monroe’s centennial seems like a lost opportunity in this respect). When you consider Hartford’s many guises— banjo-wielding hit maker, archangel of New Grass, champion of bluegrass and fiddle music— you have to wonder: where would he be leading us today? For of Hartford’s many gifts, perhaps the greatest was his ability to draw from the past while always looking ahead.

I am happy hear that two musicians, Marcy Cochran and Sheila Nichols, are well along in their efforts to produce a John Hartford documentary. I look forward to learning more about this protean picker through Cochran and Nichol’s film.

On The Joys of Field Recording

Here at Second Cousin Curly, we strive to bring you bluegrass in all its unvarnished glory. Sometimes that means venturing into the wilds of church basements and backyards to capture the music in its native habitat. This is not without its challenges. In the case of the recording featured above, you’ll notice that the audio gets kinda soggy about half way through the song. That’s because a portapotty truck arrived at that point and started doing its dirty work. In editing this video, we struggled for many hours to clean the sewage off the recording, so to speak, with only partial success. Even after all the pain and loss, I still keep a warm place in my heart for the portapotty crew, because as anyone who goes to outdoor fests will tell you, the only thing worse than having a portapotty truck show up and spoil yer jam is not having the portapotty truck show up at all.

Second Cousin Curly’s Hostile Facebook Takeover

Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine has a Facebook page (4800+ likes). The Punch Brothers have one, too (48000+ likes). So does the Little Roy and Lizzy Show (2700+ likes). Heck, even Bill Monroe has a Facebook page (4400+ likes), though he died long before Facebook was born. Anyway, we have gotten the message. With 2013 dawning, the time has come…

[a banjo roll, please…]

Debuting New Year’s Day: Second Cousin Curly’s Facebook Page! If you visit the page right now, you will find only the virtual equivalent of a freshly graded parcel of land. Soon, however, an empire will rise out of the barren soil, so watch that space! We’re going to use the page to share all sorts of entertaining stuff, from vintage videos to timely tips. It may not change the face of bluegrass, but we hope Second Cousin Curly on Facebook will put a smile on your face. So here’s a deal for you: “Like” us, and we’ll love you in return.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Yep, we are also on Twitter @2ndcousincurly!

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Five Rising Stars at Grey Fox

12 December 2012

Winter has its charms, but let’s face it: they pale in comparison to the joys of sitting around a campsite in yer shirtsleeves, playing with friends. But don’t take my word for it, listen to these folks…

This quintet of young musicians all share an affiliation with Berklee College of Music. We caught up with them last summer at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival as they were running through some tunes in advance of a Berklee showcase. Here, Eric Robertson leads the group through his own composition, a gospel-tinged beauty called “Take Me Under.”

It’s hard to keep up with these young pickers— and I don’t mean when they’re ripping through “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” though I’m sure that would be true as well. They all seem to be at a stage when the world is spinning in overdrive, and enormous changes are happening almost minute-by-minute.

Exhibit A: In the few months that have intervened since we shot this footage, Robertson has toured the Middle East with his group The Boston Boys. While in Egypt, they took a moment to record a touching performance of Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come” with the great pyramid of Giza looming in the distance. The sentiment of the song couldn’t be more timely for both Egypt and the U.S. It gets my vote for Best Video from the whole interminable election circus.

While Robertson & Co. were trotting the globe, Molly Tuttle was making a splash in an altogether different setting. Tuttle hails from the hollers of Palo Alto, where she grew up in a musical family. In October, she and her dad, Jack Tuttle, appeared on that public radio institution, “A Prairie Home Companion,” where they took second place in the show’s duet singing competition.

While still a student at Berklee, the ever-affable Nick DiSebastian established himself not simply as a performer, but as a ringleader for Boston’s young pickers. A natural networker and MC, he toyed for a while with becoming a local music producer and promoter. Eventually, however, the siren song of Nashville got to him. Literally any minute now, he’s due to relocate to Music City. Though featured on bass in the Grey Fox ensemble, DiSebastian is versed in several instruments.Once in Nashville,” he tells me, “I’m gonna put my efforts towards improving as a player and spending more time on the road playing.” Those of us who have enjoyed his company in Beantown would like to remind Nick that New England summers can provide a comfortable respite from Nashville’s sticky heat.

Another fixture of Boston’s picking scene, banjoist Gabe Hirshfeld, is staying put for the time being as he finishes his degree at Berklee. Throughout the fall, Hirshfeld has been immersed in the music of those fathers of bluegrass, The Beatles. Hirshfeld reports that, along with partners George Clements, Louis Fram, Patrick M’Gonigle and Matthew Witler,We’ve been taking Beatles songs and playing them as close to the original recordings as possible with the bluegrass instrumentation.”

Sometimes it seems like everyone at Berklee plays with everyone else, sooner or later, and never does that impression ring truer than when you look at fiddler John Mailander’s dance card. In recent months, he has worked with Hirshfeld on an EP called “The TriMountain Sessions” (produced by DiSebastian) and played a number of dates with Tuttle (including a recent gig with Berklee prof Darol Anger and partner Emy Phelps). But that only accounts for half his musical life. Mailander is from San Diego, and he continues to maintain links with the West Coast bluegrass scene, performing in the Bear Republic with Janet Beazley, Chris Stuart and the group Backcountry.

Not sure that I’ve got my cosmology right, but I hear tell of certain “unbound,” high-flying stars that have exited our galaxy. As yet, no one knows where these vagabond bodies are headed. Seems that much the same could be said of the stars grouped in this campfire constellation.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Sierra Hull: Some Finer Points

27 July 2012

Yer Second Cousin Curly is based in that seat of bluegrass scholarship, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tonight, in the town across the river, the multitalented singer, songwriter and mandolinist Sierra Hull will be kicking off the inaugural Boston Summer Arts Weekend with a free concert in the heart of the city. In honor of her visit, here’s a final installment of our interview with her, which includes some fiery picking from this winter’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

The comparisons Hull makes about various players’ techniques (including her own) might be too arcane for those who don’t play the mandolin, but to those of us enslaved to the eight-stringed midget, her observations are manna from heaven. The issue of whether or not to plant your pinky when you’re picking may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a subject of endless debate among mando players, and Hull’s down-the-middle approach is interesting in this regard.

Another insight Hull shares is the fact that she doesn’t use the classic closed chord pattern that Bill Monroe used as the foundation for his sound, favoring more open chords or simply using partial chords. At the outset of the video, you can see Hull tearing into Monroe’s “Old Dangerfield” on the octave mandolin. As that clip illustrates, Hull can more than hold her own on traditional bluegrass numbers, but her choice of chords gives her take on these tunes a distinctive flavor.

A native Tennessean through and through, we can’t exactly claim Hull as a hometown hero, but Boston was a home away from home while she recently studied at Berklee College of Music. Hull’s phenomenal technique and impeccable tone were already firmly in place before she came to Beantown. More than anything, studying with the late, great John McGann and others at Berklee seems to have given Hull the validation she needed to keep on doing what she’s doing.

The video clip also features some of Hull’s original instrumentals. She has penned some contemporary fiddle tunes that haven’t gotten half the attention they deserve. I hope that, as she keeps doing what she’s doing, Hull keeps doing plenty of those numbers.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Tip of the hat to Paul Villanova for his outstanding editing on the whole Sierra Hull series.

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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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