A Cultural Treasure
Interview with Sharon Isbin, Juilliard Classical Guitar Program Founder
By Thomas Amoriello Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair
It is not a stretch to describe Sharon Isbin as one of America’s cultural treasures. The accomplishments of this classical guitarist go beyond what can be described as a successful career in the arts but fall gracefully into an elite category.
Ms. Isbin toured Europe at the age of 17 and soon was a top prize winner in major international competitions in Toronto and Munich. Upon graduation from Yale University (B.A., M.M.), recording contracts, guest spots as a soloist with major orchestras, new composition dedications, and prestigious faculty positions awaited the artist. Along with Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams, and Christopher Parkening, Sharon Isbin was easily one of the most recognized artists in the classical guitar world during the cassette and compact disc age and received GRAMMY nods during the digital age. Isbin’s playing is paramount on the Howard Shore score in legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. In 2009, Ms. Isbin performed a concert at the White House by invitation of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and has been the only guitar instructor in The Juilliard School’s 100-year history.
Thank you to Ms. Isbin for this exclusive interview and sharing your insight with the NAfME membership.
Sharon Isbin at the White House
The old model for a pathway to a career as a classical guitarist was obviously to learn repertoire and go to Europe to study with a master teacher. Your career has not followed the traditional way: You have collaborated, either touring or recording, with unlikely musicians outside of your field, ranging from folk icon Joan Baez to 7-string electric guitar whammy wiz Steve Vai. How do you feel your open mindedness and musical diversity has affected your career and artistic path?
It’s inspiring to collaborate with so many amazing artists from different genres. Being open-minded has enabled me to explore new paths I might never have imagined, and which are profoundly enriching. Each new venture is a somewhat scary leap into the unknown, including each commission and premiere, so I only choose projects that I genuinely believe in. I must have faith that they will be fulfilling, exciting, and worth the challenge and effort. And I have to be willing to spend whatever time is necessary to make it an artistic success.
The classical guitar has not only found its way into the conservatories such as Juilliard but is currently becoming a part of public school education alongside band, chorus, and orchestra. This is inspiring a guitar culture that is inclusive to students of many backgrounds. You are a witness to this rise of our instrument in your travels teaching master classes across the United States. What are your thoughts on the current level of musicianship since, let us say, 1990?
The technical level of playing is tremendous. The musical level must continue to strive for highest standards, finding inspiration to achieve lyricism, color, phrasing, shaping, dynamics, rhythmic precision, historical performance practice, and more from listening to brilliant artists in other fields, including great pianists like Alicia de Larrocha, Arthur Rubinstein, Rosalyn Tureck, and great orchestras, instrumentalists, and singers.
In addition to NAfME supporting guitar education by adding a Council for Guitar Education, the organization has a Council for Music Composition as well. You have worked with many composers at different stages of their careers. Do you have any words or advice to inspire young composers to explore writing new music for the guitar?
That’s wonderful! If you don’t play the guitar, work with a guitarist you trust; hear how your music sounds on the instrument as you are writing it so that you can revise it to sound natural and idiomatic. Be courageous and humble in seeking good advice from master composers so that your music evolves with good structure, direction, skill, and vision.
“Be courageous and humble in seeking good advice from master composers so that your music evolves with good structure, direction, skill, and vision.”
You are a “mindful musician,” having practiced Transcendental Meditation for the last 40 years and keeping yourself healthy by immersing yourself in other activities away from your instrument such as jogging, cross-country skiing, snorkeling, and mountain hiking. How important do you feel it is for serious musicians to explore other avenues away from the instrument from time to time?
Transcendental Meditation is a simple and powerful technique I practice for 20 minutes twice a day. It gives the mind rest, accesses inner creativity, increases mental stamina, and releases stress. The many benefits are remarkable, and you can learn the technique in just four 1.5 hour lessons. It gives me so much energy and focus. I feel as if I experience twice as much life! It’s valuable to everyone, and musicians especially will appreciate how it increases their ability to perform in the “zone.” Regarding activities, any form of exercise in nature is rejuvenating for me and provides a sense of joy and balance. It’s also essential for a person’s health, strength, and well-being.
As an educator who has taught at Juilliard since 1989 (a program you founded), what do you hope your students are able to walk away with after their studies conclude with you?
In addition to mastering technical and musical skills, I hope that my students continue to listen and evaluate their playing with an ever-growing sense of refinement so that they continue to evolve and mature. I also encourage them to forge creative new visions, directions, partnerships, community outreach, arrangements, and compositions to make contributions of genuine quality that no one else has done before. I feel so proud when they do that!
The NAfME Council for Guitar Education thanks you for sharing your knowledge with our membership. Do you have a current musical project that you care to promote?
Students and teachers can enjoy the one-hour documentary that has been airing on PBS, Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, also available with bonus footage on DVD and Blu-ray. The film provides a behind-the-scenes view of all I’ve discussed in this interview, and in an entertaining and fun way.
Check out my latest recording Souvenirs of Spain & Italy with the brilliant Pacifica Quartet. And 2020 will bring two more releases: Affinity, featuring world premiere recordings of works composed for me, and Strings for Peace, a collaboration with the legendary Amjad Ali Khan from India performing world premiere ragas for guitar, sarod, and tabla that he composed for us to perform with his sarod master sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash. If you sign up at www.sharonisbin.com to receive my twice-a-year newsletter and follow me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll know what’s happening before I do!
Billy’s Theme from The Departed
Read past articles by Thomas Amoriello:
- The Season’s Greeting’s Guitarist: Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Al Pitrelli
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Two
- The Student Teacher in the Guitar Classroom
- Double Trouble: Interview with Innovative Musician Gabriel Guardian
- The Patriotic Guitarist: Master Sergeant Alan Prather of “The President’s Own”
- Interview with Progressive Funk-Rock Guitarist DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight
- Heavy Metal Guitar: Neo-Classical Style
- Heavy Metal Guitar: From Times Square to Netflix and Beyond
- Make a Sound! Interview with Drummer Michael Bland
- What about the Electric Bass?
- An Article for Jazz Educators: Interview with Guitarist Kevin Eubanks
- Hip Hop Empowers: Interview with Harlem-Raised, Boston-Based Hip Hop Artist Billy Dean Thomas
- Heavy Metal Guitar Style: Virtuoso Shred Guitar with Toby Knapp
- Adult Education: Rock Camp
- Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books
- Empowering the Musician in Your Classroom
About the author:
Thomas Amoriello Jr. serves as the chair on the NAfME Council for Guitar Education and is also the former Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association. Tom has taught guitar classes for the Flemington Raritan School District in Flemington, New Jersey, since 2005 and was also an adjunct guitar instructor at Cumberland County College, New Jersey, for five years. He has earned a Master of Music Degree in Classical Guitar Performance from Shenandoah Conservatory and a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Rowan University. He is the author of the children’s picture books A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo and Ukulele Sam Strums in the Sand, both available from Black Rose Writing. He recently made a heavy metal recording with a stellar roster of musicians including former members of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and Dio that was released on H42 Records of Hamburg, Germany. The record released on 12-inch vinyl and digital platforms has received favorable reviews in many European rock magazines and appeared on the 2018 Top 15 Metal Albums list by Los Angeles KNAC Radio (Contributor Dr. Metal). Visit thomasamoriello.com for more information.
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