Sierra Hull was a child prodigy who has become a musical master as a young adult. Identified as a genius player at age 11 by Alison Krauss, Hull is the first female winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s mandolin player of the year award, and she has won that prize for the past three years. Her album Weighted Mind was nominated for a Grammy. Here, she talks about the pains and glories of growth, the necessity of commitment, and history’s inspiration.
Peter on Episode 9: Sierra Hull
The problem many musicians have with prodigy status is that eventually you age out.
When someone is heads and tails above their contemporaries at age 13, that doesn’t mean they’ll be notable at age 23. It’s not unlike athletics, where “can’t-miss” prospects often miss, and where high school MVP awards may never be joined on the shelf by collegiate or professional trophies. What seems like high musical accomplishment from a teen can seem humdrum when played by an adult, and young players might never develop the habits or mindsets that allow them to continually develop through adulthood, like better-with-agesters Mark Knopfler or Paul Simon.
And so Sierra Hull was a child prodigy, capable of playing wildly inventive mandolin of the sort that made greats including Alison Krauss and Chris Thile take notice of her while she was still in middle school. Then audiences began taking notice, and soon there was a recording contract and a touring schedule for a preternaturally talented young woman . . . for a prodigy.
After that, Sierra just kept getting better. She went to the prestigious Berklee College of Music on the first scholarship given to a bluegrass-oriented student, and she studied music theory and styles far beyond traditional bluegrass. On her own, away from school, she studied just as much, listened just as deeply, and developed even more rapidly, into a player who must now be reckoned with as one of the world’s finest. For the past three years, she has been named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Mandolin Player of the Year, and her albums and concerts receive glowing reviews and garner new fans.
Prodigy involves talent, and talent is a grand starting point. What’s most impressive about Sierra Hull is the way she has both honed and broadened her talent into something she sees as a smiling work in progress and the rest of us receive as something more like mastery. As a player and singer, she is many things, but she’s not a prodigy. That stuff’s all just pretty scenery viewed through a rearview mirror.
On this episode of Voices in the Hall, Sierra Hull talks about her life in music, and the kindness of famous strangers who became friends and mentors.
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