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No Strings Attached: The Independent Spirit of Guitarist Sharon Isbin

October 9, 2018

Perhaps it is not every little girl’s dream to send bugs into space, but that was the aspiration of a young Sharon Isbin. Then, when Sharon was nine, the family spent a year in Varese, Italy, and the entomological rocket scientist’s life took a turn. “I only began by chance because my older brother wanted guitar lessons. My parents got excited about a teacher, [Aldo Minella] who had studied with Segovia and was concertizing in Italy. But when my brother found out it was classical, he bowed out. Out of family duty, I volunteered to take his place,” she told SFCV, speaking on the phone from Maryland, where she had just performed in a benefit for the Defiant Requiem Foundation, an organization that preserves the memory of the prisoners of Terezín concentration camp. “My grandparents had to leave both Poland and Russia to escape the pogroms,” she said. “I’ve certainly been moved by how important it is to know what happened. It’s incomprehensible on one level, and something that needs always to be a reminder and lesson for the present and the future.”

For a time as a child, Isbin harbored dual passions, saying of the guitar, “It was a hobby. When we moved back to Minneapolis I went back to science and model rockets, and my father used to say ‘you can’t launch your rockets till you put in an hour of guitar playing.’”

Guitar took the lead at the age of 14 when Sharon won a competition. The prize was to perform onstage with the Minnesota Orchestra in front of 10 thousand people. Now young Sharon was bitten by a different sort of bug. “I just transferred all that energy and time and focus to the instrument and discovered that the more I put into it, the greater the rewards. That’s really what sent me on my way to music away from NASA.”

Perhaps part of the appeal was guitar’s universality. “It is an instrument that has been with us in so many different guises in different countries, whether in South America accompanying ballads about people’s life stories and struggles, or in a different form in the Asian world, the pipa, the shamisen, or the koto. Throughout the Middle East there’s always been a guitar-like instrument. The oud would be the first to come to mind, and I’ve collaborated with oud players. The guitar has figured in so many styles of music in our country, jazz, pop, rock, folk, it’s omnipresent. It’s also one of the most popular instruments in American households, so that familiarity makes people open to it. A lot of people have never heard classical before, but when they do it’s a real discovery.”

Though she has studied with many greats, Isbin never embraced the classical custom of hitching her wagon to any particular mentor. Since the age of 16, she has not had a regular teacher.

“I would take master classes or private lessons with Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream, and in the summer,  I would do master classes with Oscar Ghiglia. It made me very independent and allowed me to use various skills I had in terms of working with model rockets and science to apply to technique for guitar, to figure out the mechanics of how things work and really understand it. It doesn’t work for everybody, but in my case, it helped to make me different, and very independent.”

It is this creative independence that seems to be the guiding spirit in a career that values collaboration and breaking new ground. [She uses a device designed specially for her to adjust the volume of a speaker so she can hear herself over the orchestra.] “Many times when I perform with an orchestra it might be the first time they are playing with a guitar, or the last time was 30 years ago. It’s great to be able to introduce people to the instrument anew and create many followers as a result.”

In November she will perform with the Santa Rosa Symphony. “Playing the Villa Lobos with their new conductor, Francesco Lecce-Chong, that will be an exciting experience for me. Villa-Lobos is Brazil’s most visible composer and his use of folk elements in his writing and his devotion to the guitar is something very special.”

Isbin has not only made a place for herself in the heart of classical music but has also expanded the tradition of classical guitar by commissioning and premiering dozens of new works with composers ranging from Lukas Foss to Academy Award-winning film composer, Howard Shore. Perhaps not since Andrés Segovia has the instrument had a better champion. Touring Europe annually since she was 17, Isbin has had a dozen concerti written for her, and her recording of concerti written for her by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun won both a Grammy and an Echo Klassik award.

Finding New Roles for the Guitar

Like Yo-Yo Ma and his cello, Isbin has expanded the profile of her instrument in the world, bridging and enriching traditions by boundary crossing collaborations, including her work with renowned Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, who will join her for a concert at the Herbst on Oct. 13 for San Francisco Performances. “I’ve worked with him for many years,” she says of Romero, whom she calls, “the spirit of joy. We have a trio called guitar passions with [jazz guitarist] Stanley Jordan, and Romero and I do a lot of duo shows together. In our concert he’ll be playing both acoustic guitar and electric guitars, so you’re going to hear even more colors than you would hear from me alone.”

Isbin has accompanied singer Josh Groban doing a cover of a Billy Joel song, and her album Alma Española, which is a collaboration with Argentinian-American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, won a Grammy this year for its producer, David Frost. “The music is all Spanish, and interestingly enough, more than half the composers either fled from or were murdered by fascist governments, so it really holds a very poignant importance in our time right now. Working with a Spanish speaker on [pieces composed by] Rodrigo, de Falla, all that was a real treasure for me. I did a dozen transcriptions for the album myself of things that had not been done before.” 

Her work with Joan Baez and bluegrass musician Mark O’Connor also won a Grammy, and her trailblazing work with Bach scholar and keyboardist Rosalyn Tureck led to transcriptions of the Bach lute suites for guitar, which she recorded for EMI. “It was a wonderful way to take and extend the whole concept of baroque performance practice, which includes embellishment, phrasing, articulation, and dynamics, and bring that and its understanding of structure to guitar.”

Busy Hands

Since 1989, Isbin has fulfilled a dream of Segovia’s by overseeing a guitar department for Juilliard. She is also director of the guitar department at the Aspen Music Festival. She finds her scientific rigor in her approach to the instrument comes in handy in teaching as well. “One of the advantages of having to work as a kid and have to figure things out myself, when I’m working with my students I can explain to them what they’re doing, how to listen, how to solve the problem. I need to teach them how to do it for themselves, so that when I’m not there, they can go through that whole process of refining their listening to hear what they’re doing, identify what the issues are, figure out the cause, and figure out the solution. That’s what I had to do as a kid, and it’s a great way to problem solve and move forward.”

While some classical artists are finding themselves with time on their hands as the recording industry flounders to a degree, that has not been the case for Isbin. “It has affected me positively in that it’s liberated me to do the projects I want to do without any restrictions and pressures.” Isbin explained that she usually needs to raise funds for each project, as she did for Alma Española. “I executive-directed the album, raised the funds for it, brought it to the label, which was Bridge Records, they listened to it, and within 20 minutes they said, ‘we want to release this.’ And that’s kind of how I work now. I go after a project that is close to my heart. The Brubeck concerto will be a world-premiere recording of wonderful, jazz-inflected work written by one of the sons of Dave Brubeck and will be released for the 100th anniversary of Dave Brubeck[‘s birth] in 2020. I’m also making an album in January with the Pacifica Quartet, which they expect to come out in 2019. I’ve been collaborating with them for a couple of years and they asked if I would make a recording for their label, so that one I didn’t have to raise funds for. It’s a very freeing experience not to be tied to a label and their expectations.

"I also feel very fortunate that many of the huge, expensive projects I’ve already recorded, with labels like Sony and Warner classics, so you can buy my recording with the New York Philharmonic and hear the Villa-Lobos that I’m going to play in November, or the Rodrigo concerto. It’s the only recording of classical guitar soloist out of more than 2,000 they’ve made on the Warner label. I’m certainly grateful to the old approach, when you were signed to a label to do big projects that they would front, but having done all that, with 30 albums to date, I’m enjoying the freedom of exploring projects in a different way.”

Staying Centered

If it seems Isbin is fitting a lot into one lifetime, she is. She attributes her productivity to a longstanding practice of Transcendental Meditation. “It’s been an amazing gift that my parents gave me when I was 17. I actually started with them. We all took lessons, and it’s very simple. It’s five, two-hour lessons and you’re set for life, can you imagine? That’s the easiest, simplest technique to give yourself focus, releasing stress, and accessing your inner creativity so your mental stamina and openness to the world is really without boundaries. It’s helped me in so many ways to become the player I am and the person that I am. It connects you with the oneness of the universe and that key thought holds all kinds of opportunities and possibilities. It’s 20 minutes in the morning before breakfast and 20 minutes in the late afternoon and I can honestly say not only does the morning launch you for the day, but the afternoon, if I’m feeling tired and stressed out, I do my meditation and I feel like I have twice as much life as a result of TM. That’s a big statement, but I really mean it.”

Isbin makes her home in New York City, and plays a double-top cedar guitar from Antonius Müller, which she keeps in a special Styrofoam case (both sturdy and light, which saves her arm from fatigue.) The practicalities of a guitarist’s life require some clever strategies [to protect her hands]. “I have all kinds of repair kits and things if anything should happen. Part of it is just preventative. Not opening doors with my hands. Not rock climbing. I’ll do lots of hiking in the mountains but I won’t be grabbing on to those rocks. Using lotion after washing, all kinds of things that are just preventative. Then if something does break it’s the crazy glue, the silk, and the fake nails that come to the rescue. And the reason it’s important is it’s what creates the sound and the tone. I don’t use a pick, I use my actual fingers and fingernails, so depending on the angle of the nails, and the nail the position on the string relative to the bridge, how much flesh I add, that changes the color. Classical guitar on a nylon-string instrument has more possibility of colors and timbres than any other instrument and part of that is the immediate direct contact that I — as a color — have with the instrument.”

Remarkable Success

Isbin is somewhat of a unicorn. The words “successful classical guitarist” are not often heard in the same sentence, and Isbin has taken success a step further to stardom, by endorsing a brand of travel guitar, inspiring the “Sharon Isbin Signature Model” [guitar] tuner by Graf, and becoming the focus of a documentary film which airs on PBS, Sharon Isbin: Troubadour.

Isbin recognizes guitar’s special challenges. “There is much less demand for the instrument. If you’re a violinist, you can do solo, or play in an orchestra, or do chamber music. There are so many more opportunities. For me I was very lucky because I had a tremendous curiosity about music, about people, and the world, which made me very open to all kinds of new projects that happened to cross my path, whether it was being approached to do music with a jazz guitarist, Larry Coryell, and Brazilian bossa nova great Laurindo Almeida, to join them in a trio — which turned out to be very successful and lasted five years, and led to a recording — or to work with somebody like Tom [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, the Brazilian pop music icon, and to later collaborate with people like Steve Vai, who is a legend in the rock guitar world, Stanley Jordan in jazz, and now Romero Lubambo, who is considered one of the great Brazilian guitarists.

“I really kept an open mind, and even if approached about an idea that I didn’t imagine how it would take form, I was open to experiencing it, and if I fell in love with the music, I would fall in love with the project and want to pursue it. I think part of that is really my nature, but of course the hard work part is having done a lot of competitions when I was younger that I was fortunate enough to win, from Munich to Toronto, and a lot of student competitions when I was a kid in high school. All these gave me opportunities and I would fly with those opportunities. I think one of the most important things, back to the curiosity part, was being fascinated by contemporary composers and pursuing them, whether it was somebody who said yes right off the bat, like Chris Rouse, or somebody who took eight years like John Corigliano.

“Those opened a lot of doors because it meant doing something no one had ever done before, and creating something people wanted to hear with mainstream, very-popular composers. I did it because I wanted to enrich the literature of the instrument, and I loved their music. If it comes from a genuine and real place, it does have much greater potential of taking root and flourishing. I’ve never done anything simply to be commercial. Fortunately, many of the things I’ve done ended up being popular, but it was always from an admiration of my musical collaborators.”

Staying Committed

Isbin is what one might call a socially engaged person, outspoken about global political issues. “We’re all citizens of the world and we have to participate in that process. To be silent in the face of injustice is an injustice itself. I feel if there’s anything I can do in terms of making the world a little better place, not just through music, but by being outspoken about things that are wrong and need to change, I will do that.” She tries to maintain certain boundaries to make the best use of modern tools. “I’ve sort of divided it up. Twitter I feel free to do everything that I want politically and about music, whereas Facebook I keep focused to music, because I’ve learned that people want a little refuge there. It’s so important for us to participate in the world any way that we can to make it better.”

Isbin, who has been out as a lesbian since she was 18, came out to the world in 1994. “I’d been approached by Out Magazine to do a feature interview. I was game. I felt I had to ask two people, my press agent and my manager. My press agent said ‘Fine, go for it,’ and my manager said, ‘Well, I’m not sure, that might not affect our ability to book you between California and New York.’ In other words, the whole country! So I put it on ice for a year but interestingly enough, that was the year Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang came out and they were selling platinum. I was approached the next year by the same writer and said, ‘let me try another tack.’ I went to the same manager and said, ‘You could actually benefit from this. Look at them. They’re selling triple platinum. And I really want to be open about who I am, and I think it’s the right time.’ It just shows the domino effect when people are open and are courageous about things that are important in the world, that it will benefit other people as well.”

As for her long-lost galactic aspirations, it seems they have been realized. “Astronaut Chris Hadfield took one of my CDs and a travel guitar [SolEtte] that I endorse up into space and sent back photos with it floating weightless in the Atlantis space shuttle with earth out the window, and I thought ‘I guess I did make it into space.’”

Here on earth, it still is a rare thing to see a classical guitarist onstage, much less one of this caliber, so Bay Area audiences may want to remember Oct. 13 at the Herbst, and Nov. 3–5 at the Green at the Green Music Center in Santa Rosa.

Correction: As originally published, this story misspelled Romero Lubambo's last name in the caption of his photo.

Lisa Houston is a soprano and writer from Berkeley. This season she will sing Beethoven’s “Ah Perfido!” with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra.