Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle grace the cover of the Fall 2018 edition of Berklee Today, the alumni magazine of the Berklee College of Music. Both of these bluegrass whiz kids studied at Berklee up in Boston, though they graduated three years apart.
They are also highlighted in a feature article within the magazine, which is available online. Titled Young Bluegrass Virtuosos, the piece by Berklee Today Editor, Mark Small, starts with brief introductions of the two IBMA instrumental award winners, and the similarities in their backgrounds.
Tuttle and Hull have long been known in bluegrass circles for their awe-inspiring virtuosity. Each was a child prodigy playing at festivals since grade school. Both received support from their families. Molly’s father Jack Tuttle, a teacher at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in their hometown of Palo Alto, CA, schooled Molly and her brothers Sullivan and Michael in bluegrass repertoire and technique. All three became virtuosos. For years Jack, a multi-instrumentalist, led the family band (The Tuttles) at festivals and on the NPR radio show A Prairie Home Companion among other appearances.
Hull grew up in tiny Byrdstown, TN, 120 miles northeast of Nashville. Her father, Stacy Hull, became interested in playing the mandolin as an adult, and shared what he learned with young Sierra and took her with him to picking parties and jam sessions. He later drove her to weekly lessons with a mandolinist who had played with bluegrass artist Larry Sparks. Sierra’s prodigious talent was immediately apparent. Alison Krauss invited Hull to sit in with her band at the Grand Ole Opry when she was only 11. Krauss remains a mentor and friend and sang at Hull’s 2017 wedding.
Small then asked the two how they managed to learn so much as young musicians…
What approach did you take to learning your instruments that enabled you to advance so quickly when you were so young?
Molly Tuttle: I just started by learning songs, licks, and jamming. I went to a lot of jams with my dad and to festivals like the Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival put on by the California Bluegrass Association. I learned a lot of repertoire that way. I worked hard on my cross-picking as a teenager. By playing the same tunes over and over and coming up with little variations I learned to improvise. Sometimes I would work out solos and that would help me build up ideas.
Sierra Hull: I started by learning fiddle tunes. Bluegrass is a wonderful music for building a foundation on your instrument through the traditional music that everybody knows, like Red Haired Boy, Salt Creek, or Old Joe Clark. There are hundreds of tunes that bluegrass musicians know no matter where they grew up. Learning to play this way is a very organic process. You end up playing the songs over and over and go to festivals and jam with people who may show you a tune you didn’t know. I also learned a lot by sitting down with CDs by mandolin players and learning their original songs and the others they played.
The article then discusses the Berklee experience with the two prodigies, along with their current musical approaches, and the growing number of young women coming into our music. You can read the whole thing on the Berklee web site.
Congratulations to Molly and Sierra for the recognition!