Sharon Isbin is a groundbreaking American guitarist. In her stellar career, she has performed in the finest music halls throughout the world such as: Wigmore Hall in England, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam as well as Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall and Avery Fisher Hall here in the United States. As a young woman, Sharon was trained by some of the best instructors in the world with the likes of: Andres Segovia, Oscar Ghiglia, Aldo Minella, Rosalyn Tureck and many others. With relentless practicing and performing, major composers started taking notice of Sharon and they began to write compositions for her to perform. Some of the composers that have written for Sharon include: John Corigliano, Tan Dun, Christopher Rouse, Lukas Foss, Aaron Jay Kernis, Joseph Schwantner and others. Sharon received her B.A. and Masters degree at Yale University and has used this knowledge to develop into a master instructor herself. She was responsible for forming and directing the first ever guitar department at Juilliard Music School as well as directing the guitar department at the prestigious Aspen Music Festival. The list of orchestras that Sharon has performed with is extensive and some examples are: The New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, London Symphony, Tokyo, Jerusalem and so many others. One thing that makes Sharon unique is that she is not afraid to cross over into different genres other than classical music. She has collaborated and recorded with artists such as Steve Vai, Nancy Wilson, Stanley Jordan, Larry Coryell, Herb Ellis, Laurindo Almeida, Steve Morse and many more. The music community has recognized Sharon's achievements and has rewarded her with multiple Grammys and other awards. Sharon has a large arsenal of recorded works and albums under her wings, which includes many distinguished guest artists. Warner Classics has just released a box set of five of her albums in October 2014. One of her CDs went for a weightless ride on board the Space Shuttle. In 2009, Sharon had the privilege of performing at The White House in front of President Obama, his family, and closest friends. There will be a documentary released on Sharon's storied career entitled "Sharon Isbin: Troubadour". It will be presented by American Public Television for broadcast on nearly 200 public television stations this November/December so be sure to check it out. The documentary will be released on DVD/Blu-ray by Video Artists International. here is a link to the documentary trailor. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjROsUG6xoE I recently had the privilege to speak with Sharon.
S.I. - Hi there - it's Sharon
R.V.B. - Hi Sharon, this is Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island. How are you today?
S.I. - Good, thank you Robert
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking this time with me. I consider it an honor.
S.I. - My pleasure.
R.V.B. - So I understand that you just got back from Washington D.C. doing a master class? Was this a workshop for children or advanced players?
S.I. - The Levine School has about three hundred guitar students. It's a very unusual situation and a good 70% of those are classical guitar students and they're under college age. So they're Junior High and High School. I have a relationship with them, in which they invite me every year to network with the master classes of their students to inspire them - and that's what I did.
R.V.B. - That sounds like a fun thing to do, actually.
S.I. - It is actually, yes.
R.V.B. - The next thing I see on the agenda is that you're going to be releasing a box set
S.I. - That's correct, on October 14th
R.V.B. - Looking forward to hearing it. So when you were a little girl were you always focused on classical music? What made you choose classical music?
S.I. - It's very simple, our family took a sabbatical in Italy from Minneapolis when I was nine years old. My older brother asked for guitar lessons and when he discovered that it wasn't Elvis Presley but classical... he bowed out and I volunteered to take his place.
R.V.B. - Did you like the Elvis stuff that was going on?
S.I. - I was only nine years old. I didn't know anything. I just knew that I liked folk music and my parents were all excited about this teacher because he studied with Segovia and was concertizing all over Italy, so I figured out a family duty - how bad could it be - if I liked folk guitar? So I raised my hand and said I'll do it. I didn't know anything about classical music... I didn't know anything about Elvis... I was only nine years old.
R.V.B. - Right, so you obviously enjoyed what you were doing.
S.I. - I enjoyed it, but I didn't get serious about it until I was 14 years old. I won a competition and the award was to perform with the Minnesota Orchestra. Up until that point, I was going to be a scientist. My father used to say, "You can't launch your model rockets until you put in an hour on the guitar". When I won this competition and I performed in front of 10,000 people - backed up by the Minnesota orchestra - I decided that was more exciting than launching my worms and grasshoppers into space.
R.V.B. - Hahahaha
S.I. - I switched gears and decided to devote myself to the guitar. One of the things that's really interesting about the documentary film, "Sharon Isbin: Troubadour" - the one that will air in November and December by American Public Television. It will be shown on nearly 200 public television stations throughout the country. They had access to a lot of early footage, including me launching model rockets at the age of twelve. You get to see how it later impacted my professional life when I was contacted by an astronaut from NASA, who brought up one of my CDs into space.
S.I. - You can see that floating weightless in the Space Shuttle. There are a lot of interesting synchronicities that happen.
R.V.B. - That's funny because I grew up during the space years and I was a young child myself. With that going on, it captured everyones' imagination and I also shot up model rockets.
S.I. - Right... so see, we're a secret clan.
R.V.B. - Hahaha, did the grasshoppers survive?
S.I. - Not always - but one of the things that science taught me was problem solving, so when I was really on my own and I didn't have a teacher for a period of years. I was able to sit there and analyze in front of a mirror and with a tape recorder how to figure things out.
R.V.B. - Right. How long were you in Italy?
S.I. - We lived there for a year and then moved back to Minneapolis.
R.V.B. - So you were showed the basics in Italy and then you taught yourself for a few years here back in the states for a while?
S.I. - Well, I was in Italy from the age of nine to ten and then we came back to Minneapolis. I had a teacher for about six years... he left on sabbatical and then I was on my own. During that time I would seek lessons with people like Segovia, Julian Bream... I took master classes with Oscar Ghiglia at the Aspen Music Festival for five summers. That's the festival which I now direct and teach there every summer.
R.V.B. - That's a lot of big names to be taking lessons from.
R.V.B. - I can see why you are as good as you are today. So you mentioned the Aspen Music Festival. I see that you are the director of the guitar department.
S.I. - I am. I've been doing that since 1993.
R.V.B. - So you interface in bringing talented guitar players there?
S.I. - Yes, that's the whole point. Everything I do is master classes, so they get to hear other people's lessons as well as their own. I created the guitar department at Juilliard in 1989 - they'd never had one before and I've had students from over twenty different countries come and get degrees from me there.
R.V.B. - How did you go about saying, "Hi, I'm Sharon and I want to start a guitar department". What was the process?
S.I. - They invited me. It was just the right people at the right time. Joseph Polisi was the President at the time and still is. He's been very supportive and is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.
R.V.B. - I watched the trailer to the documentary and I am looking forward to seeing it. I also noticed that you will be at B.B. Kings in November.
S.I. - That's correct, yes.
R.V.B. - I've noticed that you have worked with a lot of big named people in music... for example John Corigliano.
S.I. - Yes, John Corigliano is one of the composers who has written for me... uh huh.
R.V.B. - Are there any venues that you have played at that stick out in your mind that might've had the best acoustics?
S.I. - There have been many wonderful places. It could be the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, it could be, Wigmore Hall in London, and it could be a beautiful church somewhere. What I try to do is recreate the acoustics whereever I played by using very discrete sound reinforcement that is unbeknownst to the audience. It just expands the resonance and dynamic range of the instrument. I like to use sound reinforcement so that I have the full exciting dynamic range that I have in my mind and have the ability to have all the nuances that I play heard by people wherever they are sitting in the audience.
R.V.B. - Do you play your own music?
S.I. - I'm not a composer, but I've certainly have done some arrangements and have worked on cadenzas with composers and I've collaborated with composers in order to help guide them in the process if they don't play the instrument.
R.V.B. - Is there anything that you are particularly proud of?
S.I. - Well, I've had 10 different concerti for guitar and orchestra written for me, that includes: John Corigliano whose concerto I've performed over seventy times, the Chris Rouse concerto - which won a Grammy. I performed it again over seventy times. Tan Dun who is famous for writing "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"... I've premiered his concerto that he wrote for me in eight different countries. You can hear all of these - in fact, the 5 CD set that Warner is releasing - includes the pairing of the Tan Dun and the Rouse Concertos. It includes a really interesting album I did called "Journey to the Amazon" where I have two guests. One of them is Paul Winter on sax and Thiago de Mello on organic percussion from the Amazon rain forest. The music we do is from countries bordering the Amazon. It's a very special CD - it's one of my favorites.
R.V.B. - I sampled a video on YouTube and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
S.I. - Thank you... then the New York Philharmonic CD with Rodrigo, and the "Concierto de Aranjuez". It's still the only recording that the New York Philharmonic has ever made with guitar. The other one is a solo album called "Dreams of a World" which ended up winning a Grammy in 2001 as the first for guitar in almost 30 years in classical category. That was really another landmark for the instrument. It includes a number of premiers, including a work for me written by a British composer John Duarte called "Appalachian Dream Suite".
R.V.B. - I see you're very busy. How do you manage to regiment your practicing in with working as an instructor at Julliard and Aspen?
S.I. - Well, I take very few students at Juilliard. I basically choose three or four in any given year and Aspen is a finite period of time... it's four weeks so for me. It's a luxury to be able to go in the Rocky Mountains. It's one of the most gorgeous places in the country, and be able to have time to hike and be immersed in nature in addition to doing the performing and teaching that I do there.
R.V.B. - That sounds like a lot of fun. Now to even expand more, I see that you worked with Larry Coryell for a while.
S.I. - The trio that I had with Larry and Laurindo Almeida was my first crossover experience and it happened very organically. They invited me to join them, and the centerpiece was a work by Rodrigo that Laurindo had arranged for the three of us that incorporated electric guitar and bossa nova improv and all kinds of wild stuff. That song is the centerpiece also on the album I did called, "Guitar Passions" with Steve Morse playing electric guitar and Romero Lubambo playing Brazilian style.
R.V.B. - I have a particular connection to Steve Morse because I'm a Deep Purple fan and I went to see him a couple of weeks ago at Westbury.
S.I. - Oh great
R.V.B. - Was it recorded together personally, or was that an internet recording?
S.I. - It wasn't internet, but Romero and I recorded together and Steve was able to add his part separately because he came towards the end of that electric guitar improv session, so we were able to lay down the bossa nova track for him to improvise to. The thing I did with Nancy Wilson for example... she and I went into the studio and just invented it on the spot. It was an arrangement of "Dreamboat Annie". That's on Guitar Passions as well which is the most recent album I have done.
R.V.B. - You are taking the "Guitar Passions" work with Stanley Jordan to the road right?
S.I. - Yes, the "Guitar Passions" tour is playing several dates in New York and Washington D.C. this November, and then Romero and I are continuing that in Minneapolis and in Phoenix. We did a big eighteen city tour last February with over twenty concerts.
R.V.B. - Did anything interesting go into making the CD "Journey to the New World" with Joan Baez and Mark O'Connor on country fiddle?
S.I. - Well, I was exploring the idea of the centerpiece, which is a solo piece called the "Joan Baez Suite". When she heard it, she offered to sing on the album and then it kind of gradually evolved into an exploration of folk music in the 16th century in the British Isles... crossing the ocean with the immigrants and their music and their dreams into the new world and then became our folk music. At that point, I was premiering with Mark a folk suite for violin and guitar that he had written for the two of us. He suggested this should be on the album. So again, it happened quite naturally and it would up winning a Grammy in 2010. It was an exciting way of beginning with a seed and having it reveal itself to me in process. One of the other collaborations I am doing is with a star from the Metropolitan Opera right now, Isabel Leonard. We are touring this fall and the spring - and in fact - Carnegie Hall is commissioning a new work to be written for us when we play there in a year from now.
R.V.B. - Oh wow, very nice... what was it like playing in the White House?
S.I. - Playing the White House was surreal and exciting and it was amazing to be able to participate in a celebration of classical music in that evening... to be in such a storied environment and have the president and his wife and their kids and three hundred of their best friends right in front of me. That was a rarified experience and very exciting.
R.V.B. - With all of your experience, do you ever get nervous for something like that?
S.I. - I think one is always very focused and I think it's important to have that little edge because it just makes you really more revved up.
R.V.B. - When you do a show for something like the White House, is there a certain amount of practicing that you dedicate to your day?
S.I. - With something that is high pressure, you kind of do 300% instead of 200%, so I think you just ratchet up the time and focus so that you're covered, no matter what curveballs that might be thrown at you. I think it's really important to be prepared and that's really part of the fun.
R.V.B. - From what I saw in the video, you looked very composed and prepared.
S.I. - Thanks
R.V.B. - Do you have anything in the works in the future as far as recording?
S.I. - Well, the next project that I have coming up other than the documentary that's coming out is... I'm excited to be premiering a new work for guitar and orchestra that's being written for me now by Chris Brubeck. It will be in honor of his late father Dave Brubeck. I'll be premiering that in April in 2015 with the Maryland Symphony.
R.V.B. - Is "Take Five" going to be on it?
R.V.B. - I see that you were voted classical guitar player of the year for Guitar Player magazine. That must have been a nice thrill for all of your hard work.
S.I. - Well, I've always believed in crossing genres and when I began doing that, crossover was still a dirty word so it's nice to see that the rest of the world has embraced that whole concept. I think that for me, there aren't really any boundaries with this instrument and I've learned that in playing with people like Steve Vai, with whom I've collaborated with for many years. He's a guest also on "Guitar Passions" and had a really fun role in the documentary. He even gives me an electric guitar lesson which is hysterically funny. It's really great to be able to think of the instrument as being so versatile that it's not confined to a particular style.
R.V.B. - Right. Now with this documentary release, is there a certain amount of public appearances that you are going to have to make?
S.I. - There's gonna be a lot of promotion associated with this.
R.V.B. - Alright one other question, do you have a large area to store all of your awards - your Grammy's and everything?
S.I. - It's not that big, come on (hahaha)
R.V.B. - Well, thank you very much for taking this time to speak with me. I appreciate it and consider it an honor and I will be seeing you down at B.B. Kings.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission
For further information on Sharon Isbin visit her website www.sharonisbin.com
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Photo credits J. Henry Fair, Tessa Severijns, Hiroyuki Ito, Steve Sherman, David Black, NASA
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