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The New Phase Shifters: Women in Guitar Higher Education

Beth Marlis

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In this new Jazz Guitar Today series, meet the women influencing the future of guitar education. In upcoming articles, more about what motivates them.


Beth Marlis (jazz guitarist, guitar professor, former Guitar Dept. Chair GIT and current Vice President at Musicians Institute): I’ve often joked that once there are just a few more great women jazz guitar players, we’d instantly have world peace. 

Pre-dated by the early jazz studies programs of the 1940s, jazz guitar-specific education was formally established in 1962, when Berklee College of Music launched its guitar program.  By 1977, Howard Roberts had started the Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT), which further codified electric guitar pedagogy, shaped both by his early guitar seminars and his many years in the studio. Numerous other academic guitar programs soon developed around the world and quickly became popular.  There is scant history or reliable documentation of the presence of women as teachers or students in the early years of formalized jazz guitar academia. 

Today, for the first time in the long narrative of jazz education, several of the world’s elite higher education jazz guitar programs are being run by women. 

This dramatic shift has happened very quietly without ceremony and it reverberates very loudly. This is big. This is different. This is inspiring.  

This new cohort of women Guitar Department Chairs has changed the game for good, with each one a superb musician, brilliant educational leader, insightful role model, and visionary trailblazer committed to educate and change the world. 

You need to know them…

World-renowned Classical guitar virtuoso and legend (3-time Grammy winner with 30 albums) Sharon Isbin founded the Juilliard Guitar Department in 1989, where she continues to serve and inspire as its Classical Guitar Chair. This was absolutely groundbreaking. She is an alumnus of Yale School of Music (MM) and Yale University (BM).

Highly in-demand touring and recording artist, Dr. Molly Miller was named the Chair of the Guitar Department at Los Angeles College of Music in 2017. She has recorded and toured with Jason Mraz and The Black-Eyed Peas. She is an alumnus of USC (DMA, MM, BM).

Performer, recording artist and composer, Dr. Kim Perlak was named Chair of Guitar at Berklee College of Music in 2018 after five years of serving as Berklee’s Assistant Guitar Department Chair. She is an alumnus of The University of Texas (DMA), Yale University School of Music (MM) and Stetson University (BM).

Internationally acclaimed bandleader, composer, touring and recording artist, Professor Sheryl Bailey was named Assistant Chair of Guitar at Berklee College of Music in 2019. She is an alumnus of Berklee College of Music (BM).

Performing and recording artist, Professor Jocelyn Gould was named Head of Guitar Department at Humber College in 2019. She is an alumnus of Michigan State University (MM) and the University of Manitoba (BM).

Tectonic shifts can happen when you’re busy doing other things.

Rapidly evolving political, social and cultural conditions have recently brought the collective conversation and presumptions about gender and racial equality, biases and exclusionary practices into sharper focus. This accelerated reckoning and honest dialogue is happening within the music industry at large and music education is no exception. 

The good news is that there’s been meaningful real-world progress in the world of jazz and jazz guitar higher education.  

The establishment of Berklee’s Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice in 2018 demonstrates a serious and substantial commitment to address historic gender and racial inequities and sustain a positive cultural shift towards inclusiveness at the institutional level.  This shift continues to gain speed and momentum towards greater opportunity and visibility for women as educational leaders, jazz guitar faculty and students, reverberating thru the halls of numerous music college and university programs.  Another net positive result of this shift, is the high level of talented female music college alumni who are now hitting the professional jazz guitar scene succeeding, gaining visibility and greater respect.

Significant ground and glass ceilings have been broken. Music colleges and conservatories are no longer behind the curve. Women leaders in jazz guitar education are the driving force as catalysts for a more diverse, inclusive and expansive guitar community. Their work as educators embodies the ethos of jazz guitar as a creative, collaborative experience where the music always speaks for itself with no boundaries in sight. 

The profiles in this series provide insight into each of these influential leaders in guitar education, their unique visions, accomplishments, and what the future may hold.  Stay tuned…

About the author Beth Marlis:

Beth Marlis is a jazz guitarist, guitar professor (since 1987), Emeritus Guitar Dept. Chair (GIT) from 2000 to 2009 and current Vice President at Musicians Institute. She is the author of Guitar Soloing and Advanced Guitar Soloing (Hal Leonard/MI Press), serves on multiple non-profit boards, and is the Executive Director of The Musicians Foundation. She is an Emeritus Chair of the Board of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. She is an alumnus of USC (MM) UC Santa Cruz (BA) and Musicians Institute. For jazz, she plays Benedetto guitars and Henricksen amps exclusively.

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