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Sharon Isbin: Grammy Winner, Best-Selling Artist, and Founder/Chair at Juilliard Guitar Department



Jazz Guitar Today continues the Women in Guitar Higher Education series and talks to renowned guitarist Sharon Isbin.

JGT’s Women in Guitar Higher Education Series continues, Beth Marlis interviews Sharon Isbin, Founder and Chair Juilliard Guitar Department

Beth: Could you briefly give our readers an overview of your career to date?                                             

Sharon: I’m fortunate to have won multiple GRAMMY Awards and was recently named Musical America Worldwide’s 2020 Instrumentalist of the Year. I’ve made over 30 recordings, and performed as a soloist with over 200 orchestras, in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed, the White House by invitation of President Obama, and in over 40 countries. The award-winning documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour has been seen by millions on PBS and abroad. I am the founding director of The Juilliard School guitar department and author of The Classical Guitar Answer Book. My latest albums Affinity: World Premiere Recordings and Strings for Peace: Premieres for Guitar & Sarod and were released in summer 2020.

What initially drew you into higher education leadership?

The day I graduated from Yale and just days before moving to New York City, I was invited to join the guitar faculty at the Manhattan School of Music. I left MSM after ten years to create the first guitar department at The Juilliard School. Since I am away on tour two-thirds of the year, I have always been given complete freedom to travel and perform and to take as few students as I wish. I enjoy teaching talented students, and have been doing so since I was a teenager! 

Sharon Isbin, Guitarist Photo by J. Henry Fair

Can you talk about the emergence of women into guitar education leadership roles? What are your observations about why and how this paradigm shift took place; and do you see it continuing?

Role models inspire others to follow in their footsteps, and when one is proactive in creating and nurturing opportunities for younger generations of women, as I have been, progress will flourish. About Juilliard: All classical guitar faculty at Juilliard have been women, with me at the conservatory level, and two in pre-college. The first undergraduate degree in guitar was awarded to a woman, the extraordinary guitarist Bokyung Byun, who stayed on to get her Master of Music degree with me and who currently serves as my fellowship teaching assistant at the Aspen Music Festival. The first ever Juilliard DMA candidate in guitar is Alberta Khoury, who received her BM and MM from me, and who has spearheaded an extraordinary outreach program that is the first of its kind in the school’s 130-year history. Progress speaks for itself!

Have you seen an increase in the number of women guitar professors in higher education in recent years?

Yes, and in Europe as well. For example, my former student Antigoni Goni (MM Juilliard) has been tremendously successful directing the guitar program at the Conservatory in Brussels for many years, creating a center of guitar education in Europe, while maintaining an active performing and recording career. She also directs the Volterra Project in Italy every summer which she created, and which nurtures diverse aspects of performing and teaching for an international group of students. It is very significant that the President of the Guitar Foundation of America for the last several years has been Martha Masters, whose brilliant leadership has helped to change the face of guitar in education, competitions and performance.

Sharon Isbin – Affinity

On the historic ZOHO release, Affinity, legendary guitarist Sharon Isbin performs the jazz and world music-influenced title work, Affinity: Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra by Chris Brubeck, with the Maryland Symphony/Elizabeth Schulze, marking Strathmore Concert Hall’s first commercial release. Her live performances of the work have been praised in reviews for “Isbin delivering rapid-fire virtuosity and a tender jazz-based tribute to Chris’ father Dave Brubeck.” From the Africa-influenced El Decameron Negro by iconic Cuban guitarist/composer Leo Brouwer, through the Chinese and Spanish-inspired Seven Desires for Guitar by Tan Dun, to Richard Danielpour’s sensual song cycle Of Love and Longing (with multiple Grammy winner Isabel Leonard), Sharon Isbin gives her inimitable imprint to, and vastly enriches major new repertoire for guitar. The four world premieres also include a two-guitar arrangement for her by Colin Davin of Antonio Lauro’s Waltz #3 Natalia.   

As college educators, most of us go about our day-to-day responsibilities without thinking about gender; we do our jobs with utmost professionalism and work to support the growth of our programs, students, faculty, ourselves as leaders and our impact in the community.  Nonetheless, you are a powerful and visible role model for everyone under your purview and far beyond.  Do you have any comments you’d like to share about encountering and successfully overcoming institutionalized sexism or misogyny as an educator and/or professional musician? 

My story is a little different in that I began guitar at age nine when my family lived in Italy, a country where it was not unusual for girls and well as boys to study classical guitar. As a teenager, I studied at the Aspen Music Festival for five summers with Oscar Ghiglia, and served as his teaching assistant one year when 50 students showed up and only two were girls! I learned early on that I had to work extra hard to become the best player I could possibly be so that the focus of others would be on my music, not my gender or instrument. In the guitar world I had to fight as a woman, and in the music world I had to fight as a guitarist. Needless to say, growing up with two older brothers helped to train me for the task! In grade school, I rebelled against home economics and wearing dresses, and developed early on an intolerance for injustice and inequality. 

In college, I had no guitar teacher, and instead began ten years of study of baroque performance practice with the great keyboard artist and Bach scholar Dr. Rosalyn Tureck. Together we created and published landmark performance editions of the Bach lute suites for guitar, all of which I recorded for EMI, an album which remains available to this day.

Tell us what are your go-to guitar(s) and amp(s) these days?

I play a beautifully warm and resonant cedar double top built for me by the German maker Antonius Mueller with brilliantly designed tuners by Jorg Graf, and strings by Savarez.

What are your goals and plans for the future? Is there anything you might want to share with our readers about upcoming gigs, projects, sage advice or final words of wisdom?

I’m excited about two world premiere recordings of music composed for me that were released  in the summer of 2020, Affinity and Strings for PeaceAffinity is a world embrace by composers from three continents, with the centerpiece a dazzling guitar concerto by Chris Brubeck, replete with virtuosic jazz and Middle Eastern influences, and a beautiful ballad by his father Dave Brubeck whose centennial is celebrated in December 2020! Solo guitar works from Cuba, Venezuela, China, and a song cycle I perform with Grammy winning vocalist Isabel Leonard, commissioned for us by Carnegie Hall and Chicago’s Harris Theater, add to the exotic feast. 

Strings for Peace is a soulful collaboration of North Indian classical ragas with the legendary sarod master Amjad Ali Khan and his virtuoso sons, which we recorded and titled in the spring of 2019 just following our tour in India.  We could never have imagined that it would be released in the midst of a global pandemic, when its heartfelt message of peace and unity would be needed more than ever. 

My advice for students would be to seek out the best teachers, follow your passion, work with dedication, diligence, the highest standards, and respect for the art.

Create engaging music, collaborations and projects that no one has ever done before. I also recommend learning Transcendental Meditation, a powerful and effective form of meditation which I have practiced since age 17. This simple stress release technique takes only twenty minutes in the morning and afternoon sitting in a chair, and you learn it in only four one-hour lessons. It is a gift for life that nurtures creativity, mental stamina, calm in the face of adversity, productivity, physical and mental health, empathy, understanding and energy. I can honestly say that TM gives me twice as much life each day! As a vegetarian for years who jogs regularly, eats healthfully, meditates and is devoted to a career and art form I love, I feel tremendous gratitude for all that I have experienced and am able to share with others. 

Sharon Isbin photo credits: J Henry Fair

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