Sierra Hull is Boston bound

Sierra HullWe had a piece up on Monday about Sarah Jarosz and her decision to attend college at Boston’s New England Conservatory. But she’s not the only talented, young singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from the bluegrass world headed for Boston in the fall.

Sierra Hull, the 18 year old fret wizard from central Tennessee will also soon be packing her grip for the long, long trip to New England, where she will study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Like most high school seniors, Sierra spent a lot of time this past year pondering college, but unlike most of her contemporaries, she was also considering the trade-offs between furthering her education and pursuing an already burgeoning career as a performer and recording artist. Her debut CD, Secrets, was released in 2008, she fronts her own band (Highway 111), and maintains a very active touring schedule all over the US and Canada.

Recently, Sierra shared some of the thoughts that passed through her mind during the decision-making process.

“Berklee was really the only school that made me think very much about actually going on to study music at a college level. Prior to thinking about Berklee, I really didn’t imagine going to college due to the fact that I really want to tour a lot and do what I love – be on the road, make records, play with a band, etc.

They first contacted me when I was a sophomore in high school and at that point I’d never even heard of Berklee. They wanted to let me know that if I was considering studying music after high school that they’d love to have me come to school there. I didn’t think all that much about it then, until people starting saying… ‘Berklee! Wow… that’s a great school!’ So when my senior year of high school rolled around, I really started thinking that it was probably a good idea to at least have options, and that I should pursue the idea a little more and see what all Berklee had to offer. Alison Krauss really encouraged me to at least go check it out.

So… in February, I spent 3 days in Boston touring the college, meeting instructors and students, and discussing my situation. I was amazed to see how supportive Berklee really was of musicians that already have careers going and my current situation. After all – isn’t that the whole idea? For a music school to uplift and support musicians who choose music as a career? I guess it just took a while for me to realize just how supportive they were going to be. I immediately realized upon my visit in February that I was going to be very supported whether I decided to come to school at Berklee, or whether I decided to just go ahead and play music full time.

That really helped the pressure level along the way, and made me respect the staff and faculty very much.”

Berklee was indeed very interested in Sierra. At IBMA 2008, Berklee President Roger Brown was lobbying her hard – not unlike a coach recruiting a standout ball player they hoped to sign. Wherever she was, Brown or Berklee professor David Hollender was sure to go.

I’m sure that the attention was flattering, but moving to New England proved to be the biggest hurdle for her to leap.

“With all of these things pending with Berklee, I still hated the fact that Boston is such a long way from home. That in itself made the decision harder than you’d probably know. Having traveled a lot in the last few years, I’ve not been one to get homesick very much, but I imagine moving that far from home will bring a great deal of that along the way. With that in mind, I started thinking – ‘you know, if Berklee was in Nashville, there would be no question! I’d just go to school there.’ It was then that I started looking into Belmont University.

Claire Armbruster set me up with a visit there and we went to check it out. Belmont is such a beautiful and highly respected school and one that I would have enjoyed going to as well. Being in Nashville would have been so ideal also. However, it is not a fully focused music school and the music scholarships available there are much lower than Berklee, so that also influenced my decision.”

Sierra told us that she hasn’t yet decided where she will focus her studies at Berklee.

“There are so many options, that I almost feel like it’ll be hard for me to know until I get up there and actually experience it on some kind of level. Of course it would make sense for me to study mandolin, but I’d also really love to take some vocal classes and really learn to improve my singing as well.

I don’t know how to read music either, so I’d love to learn how to read as much as possible.”

She is also the recipient of Berklee’s Presidential Award scholarship, offered to only 3 or 4 incoming students each year. It is a “full ride” scholarship, never before offered to a bluegrass musician.

“I never imagined that they would give me of all people this scholarship, but I’m really grateful that they did. In fact, it’s probably the deciding factor in why I have decided to go to school. As you would imagine, Berklee is a really, really expensive school. With this scholarship, I am able to go to school completely free. It covers all of the tuition, the registration fees, housing and food as well as a free laptop.”

Having discussed this question with her at some length last year, I was curious what led her to to choose school and gigging over focusing full time on performing.

“There were a lot of factors that made me finally decided to give Berklee a try. I certainly put a lot of prayer and tears into the decision and still feel a little nervous about it all, but I do believe that God will lead me in the right direction. After all, He’s really the only one that knows what’s best for me in the long run.

Anyone that knows me, knows how much I love playing music, and how much I have longed to get out of high school and play music full time. There’s no way for me to try to put playing festival and gigs on the back burner completely to go to school, and I would never do that because that is where my heart truly is.

I was able to maintain a pretty busy tour schedule being in high school through working hard and having teachers that really understood my situation. I really feel like Berklee is going to be a similar environment. They all know where I am coming from and understand my situation and desire to continue touring and playing with the band.”

We also asked Sierra what she values in a music education, even as her professional career is taking off.

“The things you can learn with music are completely endless. I don’t believe that anyone could ever learn everything there is to know. So, in my opinion, just going to school doesn’t mean that you will learn everything you need to know in order to have a good career. I believe everything I have learned about music so far to be from personal experiences throughout the past 9 years. I’d still feel positive about just deciding to put school on the back burner and touring full time.

However, I really feel like God is giving me such a great opportunity to hopefully have the best of both worlds. Going to a school like Berklee will certainly just broaden my musical visions and open a lot of doors that I might not get to experience otherwise.

I’m not a believer that college is for everyone. For myself, I am totally someone who would enjoy going to college. I’ve always been one to study hard in school and do my best to make good grades. But if someone doesn’t have the drive it takes to actually go to college and soak in as much as they can, I think it can be a waste of time and money.

I’d definitely encourage it to those who have a hunger for learning and want to musically be all that they can be.”

We wondered whether Sierra had any Boston networking in place, and what her parents thought about he move so far from home.,

“I don’t know a whole lot of people in Boston to be honest. I kind of feel like I am just totally about to take on this journey with only God by my side!

However, I know that isn’t the case. I do have plenty of people that I know will be supportive and helpful as I go along. All the folks at Berklee have already made me feel like part of the gang and are just wonderful people. Rounder Records is just around the corner as well, so I’m lucky to have some friends up there too!

As far as my folks go – I know they really love me and will hate to see me go, but they are really happy for me. They totally left this decision up to me and have supported me in deciding to go which means a lot to me.

I’m lucky to have the parents I do.”

Bluegrass Today congratulates Sierra Hull on her scholarship, and Berklee on landing her as a student. I suspect that the simple fact of her attendance will get more young bluegrass musicians looking at Berklee next year.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.