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Where's The Crop of New Young Hotshots?

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Sierra Hull just graduated from high school. Sarah Jarosz too. Both will be touring this summer as part of a fresh crop of new musical blood in what I term the first internet/post-Chris Thile influenced generation of mandolin players who are moving from the bedroom in mom and dad's house out into the real world.

There's no denying it. Thile had a huge influence on young players at the height of Nickel Creek, and you can hear his influence in their playing. His influence hasn't diminished. What I'm saying is this is the first generation he influenced that grew up and then moved on in front of our eyes via the world wide web. And it all seemed to happen at once with a large group of very talented kids.

Josh Pinkham is in this age range. Dominick Leslie (if my memory serves) just completed his first year at Berklee and is out touring for the summer in a support role. There are several others, and by leaving them out I don't mean to diminish their talent or what they'll achieve. I just can't recall their names as I compose this.

These young adults first became household names at events like the Mandolin Symposium and major festivals a number of years ago. We watched them grow up on YouTube. They had their own web sites, then MySpace pages. They got discussed on message boards and listservs (remember those?). They had their own CDs along with the requisite parental marketing department.

So am I missing something here? Where's the next generation? 6-7 years ago there were a dozen of these young upstarts that could scald a fretboard and we could all name them. But sitting here at this moment, I'm hard pressed to name a single 12 year-old to match this crowd that just took off the cap and gown or will be putting them on this time next year.

Nothing like throwing down the challenge to hear from people, and maybe the videos and reports coming out of this summer's events will introduce us to the upcoming young talent.

I sure hope so, because right now those names seem to be missing.

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Updated Jun-22-2009 at 2:28pm by Scott Tichenor

General Mandolin Comments


  1. Patrick Gunning's Avatar
    I really don't have a name to answer you, but it's an interesting phenomenon to note (and, apparently, to write egregiously long stream-of-consciousnes rambles about). Sierra Hull, Josh Pinkham, Dominick Leslie, Sarah Jarosz, along with (I would add) Rebecca Lovell (now playing all the major festivals and Europe with her sisters), Jake Jolliff (probably the best player of the lot, but also the shyest - now with Joy Kills Sorrow), Bryce Milano, and Eric Robertson (at Berklee now, touring with his band The Boston Boys). They were all 9-12 years old when Nickel Creek's major debut first came out, and then when they were around 12 to 14 got to attend the very first Mandolin Symposium and were collected into an elite group personally taught by Chris himself for the entire week in private sessions for 2004 and 2005.
  2. Patrick Gunning's Avatar
    You have to remember that this was when the Symposium was a brand new thing, combining an unprecedented enthusiasm in instruction from Mike and Chris with impressionable young minds who suddenly could not only dream of the music of their heroes and play it, but also be recognized as the next generation of leading lights by the stars they admired themselves.

    I noticed this generational phenomenon as well. As a perennial Symposium b-lister and late-comer to the nascent acoustic revolution, I first heard Nickel Creek at 17. When I went to the symposium in 2006 I was twenty, the people playing with the same musical ideas I was were all at least three years younger than me. A buddy of mine and me spent the whole week hanging out with fourteen and fifteen year olds, which seemed absurd but they were peers not necessarily in musicianship (they were generally kicking my butt all over the place), but in the sound of the arrangements we were seeking, mostly inspired by Chris Thile.
    Updated Jun-22-2009 at 4:42pm by Patrick Gunning (typos)
  3. Patrick Gunning's Avatar
    An interesting parallel to this is this article: "How to Grow a Super Athlete," which talks about a startling concentration of young Russian girls, who all came from the same small part of Moscow, went to the ramshackle Spartak tennis academy, and grew up to become some of the best in the world.

    The festival scene is the small community, the early, electrifying days of the Symposium were our Spartak, and Chris Thile provided the breakout allure of stardom and popularity, combined with breathtaking musical virtuosity which brought in people with talent and taste.
  4. Patrick Gunning's Avatar
    Those elements have waned. While the festival community is still close-knit and cohesive, the Symposium (with all due respect to Mike, David, the Ruffos, and everyone else involved) has waned, if for no other reason that increasing familiarity. When I first went in 2006, it was a magical gathering of like-minded musicians from all over the world, subjected to breathtaking displays of unparallelled mandolin excellence by Hamilton de Holanda, Sam Bush, Evan Marshall, Mike, David, etc. But when I returned in 2008, it seemed as though the fire had somewhat gone out of the community; it had become too familiar. Most of the returners who I still knew generally felt like singing John Hartford's "Back in the Goodle Days" too often for our liking.
  5. Patrick Gunning's Avatar
    Plus, the visible stardom of Chris Thile is no longer what it once was. While the Punch Brothers are even more breathtaking than Nickel Creek, and Thile's technique and instrumental mastery are both FAR improved (regardless of what some would say) over his Nickel Creek days, their music is also far less accessible. They also play for far smaller audiences. Whatever the spark is for the next generation of closely-knit mandolin virtuosi, it may not be Chris.

    The most important thing, though, in my opinion, were the friendships and community between the players themselves. You can see this importance in the tennis example above, but also in the near-universal migration which has been happening of acoustic talent to Boston. The attempt of these now adult musicians to build the community exists in the festivals, fiddle camps, and the mandolin symposium is palpable, and will likely result in even greater acoustic feats fueled by this collaboration.
    Updated Jun-22-2009 at 4:58pm by Patrick Gunning
  6. Patrick Gunning's Avatar
    The above are mostly just ramblings from a man privileged to watch the phenomena of this acoustic generation from the outside, and even get to jump in for the occasional jam once in a while. I can tell you that even if there aren't a pack of super-powered 12-year-olds lurking out there somewhere, we'll be pretty well set for mandolin virtuosity for a while.
  7. adgefan's Avatar
    Check out Kyle Ramey. Not yet 10 and already playing mandolin as well as the pros...
  8. MassMando's Avatar
    I have to second Patrick's comment about Boston's acoustic music scene. And while it doesn't directly address the question in regards to those below the age of 10, the amount of fantastic players under the age of 30 here is amazing. A certain bass player with a very famous father told me that there's no better place in the country right now for this music. And I don't doubt it one bit.

  9. mandopete's Avatar
    Is it possible that this new crop of players will be the next influencers? As you mention Scott, most of these new players are just embarking upon their musical careers. I can't help but think of Mike Matrshall's Big Trio with Alex Hargreaves and Paul Kowert and the level of musical maturity in those two younger musicians.
  10. mando.player's Avatar
    I think Chris is a definite outlier in terms of age. It's been mentioned that this crop of kids were about 12y/o when they attended the first Symposium. By that age Chris was already well known. That just doesn't happen on a regular basis and you can't expect it to.

    Chris also had the benefit of playing in a high profile group. Talent and chops is one thing, having a means to express that talent is another. Not everyone is going to find a band or group to help them get to the next level. Sure, some of them will make it on their own (Hull for example), but others are going to have to find a band to fit in with.

    There are a lot of variables at play here, I'm just glad that there are 10 or 12 players under 20 that we can watch grow.
  11. Jim Rowland's Avatar
    Remember Dick Contino? Not likely. In the fifties he was a phenom of the ..accordion. He was young,curly-haired,cute,passionate in his performance,and had a national platform,the ancient Horace Heidt radio show. Hard to believe that a radio show could have had that kind of impact in the time period,but it did. Thousands of kids rushed to buy accordians and to seek lessons. Besieged teachers had to tell them that they need keyboard lessons first,but they were undetered for a couple of years. That's what's missing..national exposure of a kind that appeals especially to young people. Chris,for all his genius,has left that building. The symposium is great,but it's not enough.
  12. fatt-dad's Avatar
    Here's a link to a thread I started several weeks ago about a graduating 5th grader at our kid's former elementary school. The principal told me about her and she's been at it for several years. Maybe she'll go somewhere 'cause she has the keen interest and has stuck with it from a young age.

  13. Doug Hoople's Avatar
    While keeping our radars tuned for emerging wunderkind talents is all well and good, I think that it's a little early to write off this most recent group as 'over the hill.'

    That would be like saying that Chris Thile stopped producing interesting work after he finished 'Stealing Second,' or that Mike Marshall was washed up after 'Gator Strut,' or that David Grisman should have quit after 'Old and In the Way'.

    In fact, I would think that it's time to START paying attention to the likes of Josh Pinkham, Alex Hargreaves and Sam Grisman. I found it gratifying that these guys, as well as so many others in their class, had by last summer emerged from their generic wunderkind shells and shown themselves to have real voices with things to say that were actually interesting.

    Wouldn't it be a shame to already be writing them off, just as they're beginning to explore some really productive territory?
  14. fatt-dad's Avatar
    I never considered the intent of the OP as "writing off" the talent that's already in the pipeline. Rather, the interesting question of who's entering the pipeline - or whether they're out there at all. It sure as heck ain't my kids!

  15. Ken_P's Avatar
    I'd go so far as to say that Chris himself is just starting to produce his most interesting music. All the guys (and girls!) coming after him learned from his own teenage work, while his mature music was, and to a great extent still is, yet to come. Listen to the two albums he did last year, then compare them to anything he did before that - the growth is obvious. I would hope that the rest of the up and comers experience similar development as they enter their twenties.
  16. g-mac's Avatar
    Re. the Symposium, I only went in 2007, which was the first year that Chris didn't show up at all. Even then, there was a sense that some of the youthful energy and spark had gone out of it.

    One thing they might consider is bringing back some of the "kids" who are now young adults as faculty. It could be that they're all too busy this time of year with gigs, but I think having a balance of younger as well as more "seasoned" players on the faculty would help to bring back some of what folks feel to be missing in more recent Symposiums.

    I guess some of this is provided by the Brazilians, and I do think that Danilo and Dudu are great players. However, if you're not that into Choro (and a little goes a long way for me), then there's not that much youthful and new going on, it seems to me.

    I definitely hope to return to the Symposium one of these years, and it certainly would be a big incentive if there were a Josh Pinkham or a Sierra Hull on the faculty.
  17. fatt-dad's Avatar
    Played at a jam last night and the fiddle player was 15 and really great! He plays guitar and mandolin too, so they're out there. Now to see if they bubble-up! (Side note: Film crew was there and we made the 11 o'clock news playing "Red-Haired Boy."
  18. Doug Hoople's Avatar
    Actually, I've been reading through this thread a couple of times now, and find it very interesting.

    For one thing, I haven't found the Symposium to have lost that much luster. I thought 2007 and 2008 were both great years. 2007, in particular, was absolutely stellar, owing to the presence of Hamilton de Holanda, Danilo Brito and Dudu Maia. The jams in the wee hours, in particular, were simply mind-boggling.

    So yes, I suppose I was more absorbed by the choro, and that's where a lot of the excitement was.

    If I limit the focus to the Thile-generated youth movement, though, and try to think of the music-making that fell into Thile-esque musical expression, I suppose I'd have to admit that things were a little flat.
  19. Doug Hoople's Avatar
    For classical music, too, 2008 was a banner year. Caterina Lichtenberg really came into her own, and her results speak for themselves... her ensemble at the end of the week had remarkable delicacy and verve that could only have come from Caterina's tutelage.

    As for the kids, they were growing up. When I first attended the Symposium in 2005, they were a cohesive group with a cohesive buzz, and they sported a consistent sound that was remarkable for their age, but it was a tad generic.

    By 2008, a few of them had truly broken away and were on their own track. The group was no longer as cohesive, nor were they all speaking the same musical language anymore. But they were speaking in vocabularies that were much more interesting... less boxed in by their Thile-wannabe chops, more evolved and distinctive.
  20. Doug Hoople's Avatar
    So personally, I think the whole vibe is more textured and more mixed. Some things have grown a little worn, but other things have burnished with age and simply gone from remarkably good to really great!

    If it's the shock of novelty that we need, then I suppose there was nothing like the thrill of Symposium 2004. I'd still take Symposium 2007 over Symposium 2004 any day. Just my $0.02.
  21. dj coffey's Avatar
    Nice article Scott. For me, as a middle-aged newbie mandolinist brought into the addiction by exposure to Chris Thile, I would say more than anything, it was his sweetness of tone and playing than anything else radical. He's branched out remarkably, in ways that draw in an expanded audience (but also pushes away others).

    If we're looking for a recipe to identify others like him we should reflect upon what Chris brought to the table that was missing, and what now, that he's at the table, remains for others to bring.