Minnestota-based violinist Cierra Alise Hill (I implore you to remember that name, with great hope it will become ingrained in many people’s minds) is an artist that I feel came to me through pure serendipity. Were it not for the fact that I was trying to do a search online for a photo of another violinist, it’s likely that I never would have known about her. What is quite great about her is that she’s gone from being a classically-trained violinist to a multi-genre player that also does jazz, blues, soul, rock and folk (I felt when we were talking that I should be referring to her as a progressive violinist, but that sort of implies one genre–Turns out she’s still deciding what she’d be called). Right now, among many things, Cierra does private violin instruction, freelances as a soloist on various projects, including a great CD by local singer-songwriter Jeremy Messermith, and she has several groups that she performs in–two particular bands are a really good, but sadly, unnamed one, and the Brian Metreyeon Band. And she is also in the process of recording a CD, and planning for a tour on the East Coast with the unnamed band.
Cierra is actually just about to graduate from McNally Smith College of Music, and she agreed to talk to us about her journey thus far, starting with where the alternative violin styles entered her life.
“It’s pretty interesting! First off, I can say that I was probably always meant to be a rocker or a blues player, or whatever–I don’t even know what to call myself right now. I’d say I was meant to do the alternative styles of violin. My dad was in an eighties rock band called Scarlet, and my mom was a musician as well, and they weren’t classical in any sense–I remember my dad having hair longer than mine’s ever been! That’s what I was always around. I love classical music, which I studied for a long time and I do still play, but I started hearing other violinists play other music, and I heard other instrument players play music. I knew there were 2 sides to violin–fiddle and classical–but I didn’t really know about the whole jazz/blues side. Then I met Randy Sabien, whom I study with now! While I was studying in Ohio, he was touring around doing workshops at colleges and schools. He came and did a jazz workshop, and I was like ‘Man, this is cool!’, so, it came time for me to look for colleges, and I knew he had started the program at Berklee [College of Music], so I was thinking ‘Okay, that’s where everybody seems to go’. So I visited there, thought about it, and then I just decided I’ll email Randy. He was a pretty big guy, so I didn’t think he’d email back. I said ‘Hey, do you know of any other music colleges besides Berklee that does alternate string styles?’. And he emailed me back and he said, ‘Well actually, in about 2 weeks, I’m getting ready to sign a contract to start the string program at McNally Smith!’. And so I was like “Wow! That’s really cool!, Where is it?’. and he replied ‘Here’s the application!’, and then a month later I came up and visited, and then the following fall, I was up here for good! That’s how that started, it’s been going ever since, and everything that I know alternatively, besides my own research, as far as lessons learned from Randy go. Everything else I’ve learned from listening to CDs, listening to other people play. I think I was meant to do it, but I think I fell into it too!”.
Afro Blue (w/the band with no name; somewhere in MN; Oct. 2011)
“I love my classical! Actually, for my senior recital, which is kind of like a ‘to see if you’re ready to graduate’ kind of thing, we do a variety of styles–we have to do a couple of classical, and I’m doing the Sibelius Violin Concerto! I’m very nervous because it’s the Sibelius Violin Concerto! [laughs] I’ve been practicing a lot, and I think even if you’re not a strict classical player, it’s very important to keep up your chops because I found out very quickly when I started improvising that all of the things I ever learned in classical–if I were doing any style, I was going to use every piece of vocabulary that I ever played, so all of the arpeggios or whatever that you play in any kind of music, you’re going to use them in other styles, so I’ve found myself quoting Bach in solos many times!”.
“I think I approach classical in a different way from anything else. It sounds weird, but when I play classical, I almost have to meditate before I play it. There’s a certain perfection about it that I feel I need to execute because, if it’s not my own creation, it’s someone else’s creation. I need to be able to channel what they intended when they wrote it, because every composer and every musician has a story, Like the Sibelius for example, it’s such an emotional piece, that you really have to settle into it before you play it. if you just jump into it and play, it’s not going to have the same feeling. Improvisation can happen on the spot, and you do have to settle into that as well, but it’s your own creation, so, it’s something that you’re feeling at the moment, and you’re constantly changing as you’re playing it vs. channeling someone else’s work.”.
“Before I branched out, I would say that I was a pretty stiff player because I didn’t understand stage presence very much, and in the alternative world, it’s kind of all about stage presence, so after I figured that part out, I found that playing in multiple styles helps your general playing, both the emotional output you put into it and the way that you move. The more that you move with your instrument, the better it sounds because it’s more of you. It’s more like an extra arm that feels natural.”.
Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers cover; Yes, she sings too! Her take: “That’s kind of new for me, I’ve never really been a singer before! I’ve been doing that more and more. I kind of always just made up my own harmonies and sang background for people, and I kind of was like ‘Well, I don’t want to have a vocalist for one song, so, I’ll just do it myself, and practice a bunch and see what happens!'”; W/the band with no name; somewhere in MN; Oct. 2011)
The unnamed group itself has quite a versatile sensitivity towards different venues, according to Cierra. “We want to be able to tailor to whatever venues that we play in. If we play in a little jazz club, then we want to be able to play jazz-oriented things, but if we’re playing in a hard rock blues cafe, we want to make sure that we can deliver that music, too!
This band doesn’t have a name right now! That’s probably not a smart way to go about it because I know that the way to make it is to market yourself!”
When she’s not rocking or jazzing out in the awesome unnamed band, Cierra also works in a more straightforwardly progressive ensemble known as the Metreyeon Band, and she also has a committed project geared towards the works of Danny Elfman.
“I love Danny Elfman! He is one of my all-time favorite composers, musicians, everything he does is great, I think he’s a genius. While I was at school, I decided, “what the heck, I’ll create my own creative ensemble”, and so I created The Danny Elfman Ensemble. We took all of his film music and Oingo Boingo stuff, and we worked on a bunch of things–‘Beetlejuice’, ‘The Simpsons’,
‘Edward Scissorhands’, ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’, etc. We wanted to do everything, and it was a challenge, because we had electric guitar, vibraphone, we had flute at one point. We had a hodgepodge of instruments, and we were taking orchestral music scores by ear because we couldn’t find any sheet music of it, and just transcribing it and trying to fit it for a rock band, so it was kind of interesting.”
Elfman: Theme from The Simpsons (w/The Danny Elfman Ensemble; MSCM Guitar Workshop, MN; Jun. 2011)
Okay, now about that other violinist we were doing a search for–It turns out we found Cierra Alise Hill through the one and only Hilary Hahn!
The picture we found was of these two having met after a workshop at Cierra’s old school.
“The picture’s at least 4 years old! I was taking some lessons and classes down in Ohio University, and she came and did a concert and a Q&A masterclass kind of thing at the college, and I just kind of was like ‘Oh, what the heck, I’ll try to talk to her afterwards cause she’s one of my idols’. I did get to talk to her for a while, and she’s a really nice person–Very talented too!”.
Please do keep a lookout for Cierra and her band when they are on the road!
Chincha (BTW, she dances as well–She was inspired to throwing in the step-dancing just minutes before this show. “I learned a lot of the Peruvian style when I was in Peru over the summer where we took our tour, and so I kind of decided I might as well incorporate it. I had always danced as a kid. I still had all my dancing shoes, and I was thinking at the last minute ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool to trade rhythms with the drums?’, and I thought it would be really cool, and right before I just decided ‘You know what? I ‘ll just go for it!’ It was a lot of fun!”. W/unnamed band, MN; Oct. 2011)
Cierra Alise Hill (rockjazzviolinist.com)
Cierra’s official website