Posts Tagged ‘Paul Villanova’

h1

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

h1

Sierra Hull: From Prodigy to Pro

2 May 2012

We got a chance to sit down with Sierra Hull at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. Hull has been performing in public for a little over a decade. Almost from the start, she shared the stage with the stars of bluegrass, young and old. Stepping into the spotlight so early doesn’t seem to have loosened Hull’s attachment to her rural Southern roots. As we can see in this video portrait, even as she leaves her “child prodigy” identity behind, Hull remains very much a product of the small town in Tennessee where she first picked up the mandolin:

What struck me as I spoke with Hull was how timeless her background was. She may be part of the millennial demographic, but the childhood she describes— attending small churches, learning to play an instrument by ear—  differs very little from the one in which bluegrass pioneers like Ralph Stanley grew up decades before her. In an era where great pickers can come from Brooklyn, Switzerland and Japan, it’s worth remembering that the “true vine” of  the Cumberlands, the Bluegrass and the Smokies still produces a lot of natural talent.

Hull began playing mandolin when she was eight. She was fortunate to live near Carl Berggren, a fine mandolinist who has played with established bluegrass figures like Larry Sparks. (For proof that Berggren is no slouch, check out this video of him playing “Roanoke” with Hull, and while you’re at it, check out this clip of teacher and student horsing around on a Django Reinhardt swing tune.) Berggren gave Hull lessons, and she proved to be a very apt pupil. Within a couple of years, she was performing at bluegrass shows, and by the time she was eleven, she was sharing the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with one of her idols, Alison Krauss (check out this video of that encounter).

It’s not hard to map Hull’s biography through her music. There are the traditional bluegrass tunes of her childhood that still season her set lists, the echo of Krauss in her songwriting and vocals, and the jazz and swing influences from her recent studies at Berklee College of Music that can be heard in her sophisticated solos. In forthcoming profiles, we’ll dig deeper into both Hull’s approach to music and her exceptional technique, so don’t wander too far off.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Paul Villanova for the fine video editing on this series.

h1

String by String: Banjo Secrets Revealed

27 February 2012

As mud season approaches, it’s a good time for pickers to do some “woodsheddin’.” With that in mind, here are some more fun banjo tips from a workshop that five-string guru Tony Trischka ran at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

We often think of creativity as being the manifestation of some primal inner force. Such associations, as well as terms like “free expression,” obscure the fact that creativity is fostered as much by constraint as it is by freedom. That’s why a lot of artists find it useful to impose strictures or rules upon themselves. This might mean painting a picture using just one hue, or writing a poem with lines constructed in alphabetical order. In the case illustrated in this video, Trischka gave himself the assignment of composing brief tunes for single strings of the banjo. It’s clear that none of these compositions were meant to be more than clever diversions. Even so, it’s interesting how Trischka draws different moods from different strings— a new spin on the old idea that every key has its own special flavor.

This clip was put together by Cousin Curly’s Minister of Propaganda, Paul Villanova. As you see, Paul’s got some hot editing licks. I’d take my hat off to him, but my stubble might get singed.

Yer Pal— Curly

h1

Don’t Fret: Professor Trischka Is Here!

6 February 2012

The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival— New England’s annual rebuke to winter— again looms large. I’m looking forward to catching up with Sierra Hull, The Whites, Della Mae, Blue Highway, Josh Williams and many other acts in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I still have some fine stuff from the 2011 fest to share.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the fact that Joe Val takes place indoors makes its workshops unique, in that the performers don’t struggle to hear or be heard. As a result, these sessions are often intimate and informative. As an example, check out banjo ace Tony Trischka as he holds forth in this first of two new videos:

Some musicians, either by inclination or philosophy, seem incapable of revealing anything about the mysteries and insights embedded in their music. They play essentially the same material in a workshop that they would perform on stage. When asked to demonstrate a technique or explain a musical choice, they stammer or bluster for a bit and then play another tune. Not so with Trischka, who is clearly a natural teacher. He comes to these workshops fairly bursting with ideas to share, and for all the attention to technical detail in his remarks, he always brings it all back to the sound and the music. As his adaptation of that almost forgotten musical form, the foxchase, illustrates, he also always has his ears wide open.

If you can’t make it to one of Prof. Trischka’s workshops, don’t fret: he makes house calls, virtually speaking. Like a growing number of “A List” bluegrassers, Trischka gives lessons via online video exchanges. I’m not shilling here, but I heard a couple of satisfied alums of Tony Trischka’s School of Banjo speak up in the Joe Val audience.

The Trischka video clip marks an important new chapter here at Second Cousin Curly World Headquarters. It was edited by Paul Villanova, our new Minister of Propaganda. Thanks to his efforts, the video crackles with wit and vigor. Watch this space for more of his work.

Yer Pal— Curly

%d bloggers like this: