Classical Guitarist Sharon Isbin

The world’s best classical guitarist shares her technique and discusses the new documentary about her life and music, Sharon Isbin: Troubadour.

Widely recognized as the world’s best classical guitarist, multiple GRAMMY winner Sharon Isbin has had an extraordinary career that has produced a catalogue of over two dozen albums. Strangely enough, she aspired to be a rocket scientist before pursuing a musical career. She chose to channel her genius in another direction, however, and began studying guitar in Italy at age 9, and later learned under the tutelage of the great guitarists Andres Segovia and Oscar Ghiglia. By age 17, she was already touring Europe, and has been playing in shows around the globe ever since. In 1989, Sharon created the guitar department at the prestigious Juilliard School, and continues to serve as the program's director. Among her many standout performances include one at ground zero in New York City on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and she also performed for President and Mrs. Obama at the White House in 2009. She recently released a 5-CD box set titled "Sharon Isbin - 5 Classic Albums," and is the subject of a new documentary titled Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, which is airing on public stations across the country, and is available for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Sharon Isbin is widely regarded as the best classical guitarist in the whole world. It is no surprise then that she should be the founder and chair of the guitar program at Juilliard. She is the subject of a new documentary entitled “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” and has released a five-CD box set. It’s called “Sharon Isbin – 5 Classic Albums”. Let’s take a look at a clip from “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour”.

[Clip]

Tavis: As beautiful and as wonderful as that sounds, I think it’s still the case where most people think about that instrument, they think of classical music.

Sharon Isbin: That’s true. It’s got roots in pop music and folk and rock and jazz, but it’s the ideal traveling instrument. You bring your own rhythm section, your own harmony, your own melody. It’s your singer, it’s everything.

Tavis: Tell me the story. I mean, there’s a whole backstory, of course, here, but the short story of how you have basically changed what I just said a moment ago, that when people do think of you, they certainly think of classical music on this instrument.

Isbin: Well, I got lucky. I started really by accident. Our family was living in Italy when I was nine years old. And when an older brother said he wanted guitar lessons and my parents learned there was a famous teacher who commuted to our village from Milan, was touring all over Italy, had studied with Segovia, they brought my brother for the interview.

And he said, “What? Classical? No, no, no. I want to be Elvis Presley.” So he bowed out before the first lesson, and out of family duty, I volunteered to take his place.

Tavis: And the rest is history.

Isbin: It just unfolded in strange ways. I almost got derailed and became a scientist, a rocket scientist, and my dad used to say, “You can only launch your rockets if you put an hour in on the guitar.” So they bribed me to keep going and eventually I got serious about it.

Tavis: It’s one thing to, for the sake of family honor, to make sure that somebody would take the lesson when your brother decided he wanted to be Elvis, but when did you know that you were in love with this instrument?

Isbin: I think the turning point for me was I was 14 years old and I entered a competition. And when I won, the award was to perform for 10,000 people with the Minnesota Orchestra as my backup band, and that was really exciting. I thought, you know, this is even more fun than sending up my little worms and grasshoppers up into space. I think I’ll be a guitarist.

Tavis: I mentioned earlier because you’re the best in the world at doing this, it’s not a surprise then that you should be the one that started the guitar program at Juilliard. Tell me the backstory of how that happened.

Isbin: Well, it was really a long time coming. I think Segovia had wanted to create a program and when there was finally an administration of President Joe Polisi and the dean who invited me and said, “Would you be interested in doing this?” I said, “Of course, I’d be thrilled” because I could fashion it after what I believed in.

Tavis: Working with Segovia, learning from him, is like what?

Isbin: It’s really in touch with the Grand Master of the instrument, the one we’re all responsible for, the grandfather of classical guitar. If you ask what lessons with him meant to me, it was really hearing the beauty of his sound. It’s like a magic diamond.

Tavis: Tell me about this. We saw a piece of it to start our conversation, the DVD. Tell me about this performance.

Isbin: This is a documentary. It was actually, believe it or not, five years of filming and a year in post-production called “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour”. The producer is Susan Dangel. The editor is a national Emmy Award-winning editor, Dick Bartlett.

And it really is a chance to capture what would have been a year in the life, but it became five years in the life of a guitarist and they were able to get fillage from the White House and playing at the Grammies.

And I was able to invite a lot of friends to be part of this, people I collaborate with like Joan Baez and Mark O’Connor and Stanley Jordan, and it was very exciting to put this together. Even non-musicians, people like Martina Navratilova, Michelle Obama gives an introduction at the White House, even David Hyde Pierce makes a cameo.

Tavis: He’s a great guy.

Isbin: He really is.

Tavis: Yeah, he’s a funny guy. And this five-CD box set, which is beautiful, by the way, the inspiration behind this is?

Isbin: This is a selection of five albums among the ones that I had done for Warner Classics, so it’s quite an unusual variety. There is music from the Amazon. It’s called “Journey to the Amazon” and I’m joined by a Brazilian organic percussionist who grew up in the Maui tribe outside of Manaus and he joins me by playing instruments, most of which he’s created himself.

So you’ve got everything from the dried out cocoon shells that you can shake and rattle, a turtle shell that his family hollowed out and ate for dinner, and even the toenails of a tapir. I bet you don’t know what that sounds like.

Tavis: No, I do not [laugh].

Isbin: You’ll have to hear it to find out.

Tavis: Yeah, I do not.

Isbin: And there’s more music on there for solo guitar, folk-inspired music from eight different countries called “Journey to the New World” and “Dreams of a World” and there’s a work that has the New York Philharmonic and works from Latin America, from Spain, Brazil and even Mexico.

And a couple of new pieces written for me by Chris Rouse and Tan Dun and, of course, baroque music, music of Bach and Vivaldi.

Tavis: I mean, it’s obvious–you know, we started with something a moment ago that when you do this thing solo, you’re the best at it. But what do you get from these collaborations? And I ask that because you have collaborated with so many different kinds of people in so many different genres. What do these collaborations do for you artistically?

Isbin: Well, it gives me a chance to journey into a world that really is very different from what I would normally do. So if I’m playing with a bluegrass artist like Mark O’Connor, I get to experience the vicarious pleasure of what would that be like if I were and I’m not.

And he’s made arrangements and written works for us that we can do together and it’s really fascinating. The “Strings and Threads” piece that he did is really a journey through 13 different styles of folk music for violin leading up to bluegrass.

Working with Joan Baez was a dream come true. I mean, you share that passion with me. I can see it by your face.

Tavis: I do, yeah.

Isbin: And really one of my idols in the folk music world and a wonderful human being as well. In fact, that whole project started when a British composer wrote a work for me called “The Joan Baez Suite” and she heard it and offered to sing on the album.

Tavis: Don’t get much better than that, yeah. So I assume that by the time students get to you at Juilliard, they are pretty good at this instrument already.

Isbin: They’re some amazing people, really remarkable talent.

Tavis: I was going to ask, if I were in your class at Juilliard, what you would start teaching me. But, you know, you can’t get into your class at Juilliard unless you’ve been doing this for a while anyway.

Isbin: Well, I can give you a little hint. I mean, one of the things that is so special about this instrument is the colors that you can create. So I don’t use a pick. I use my fingernails and by how much flesh or how much angle, that’ll determine the sound. So, for example, if I go…

[Plays guitar]

Isbin: It’s really quite amazing that you can change that color. So if you add that to a piece like, for example, if I do a…

[Plays guitar]

Isbin: Now if I change that and get it to be very bright metallic, I’m moving my nails to this end.

[Plays guitar]

Isbin: Or very dolce like I’m caressing you.

[Plays guitar]

Isbin: And you can’t really do that on other instruments because there’s this direct contact thing going on. It’s very organic. It’s really part of you. Another thing, if I were giving you a guitar lesson here, you probably wonder how do you put the soul into the music, right?

So let’s take the slow movement, the famous Rodrigo “Concierto de Aranjuez”, one of the ones on that five-CD set. So if I start that, listen for vibrato and listen for that beautiful cry that connects in between the notes.

[Plays guitar]

Isbin: Now if I didn’t do that, listen to how it would sound.

[Plays guitar]

Tavis: That does not have it, yeah.

Isbin: Not like this.

Tavis: This thing can mirror the human voice.

Isbin: That’s right, and the vibrato is like breathing into the note as opposed to that.

Tavis: What are you trying to get–we just had Marcus Roberts here, the great jazz pianist, not too long ago. He teaches at Florida State, his alma mater. You, of course, at Juilliard, as I said earlier. By asking this question, that’s why I raise his name.

What are you trying to get out of your students? I mean, obviously, your style is your style and every artist has to develop his or her own style. So you’re not trying to create a bunch of Sharon Isbins, but you’re teaching them what you know. What are you hoping to get out of them?

Isbin: I’m trying to find what is their unique voice, something that no one else has done before. If they come from a foreign country, to try to get them to either have composers write for them from that country or make arrangements of the music that will make really an impact on the whole literature for the instrument.

I try to get them to play in a very legato singing-like way like you just heard with that little short clip. You know, if I were doing, for example…

[Plays guitar]

Isbin: That cry, that kind of thing, those are the nuances like if you’re making a magnificent dinner and you forgot to add the spices. Those are the spices that make it really taste special and make a listener drawn in.

Tavis: I mean, it is Juilliard, but I can still ask this question, I think, and that is whether or not you’re hopeful about the future of this instrument–it’s been around forever, obviously–based on what you hear and see in class every day.

Isbin: Oh, my goodness. I mean, I’ve had students from over 20 different countries. Some of them have gone back to become the major players in their country and I’m inspired by them.

Sometimes they bring music to me that I’ve never heard before. It’s really a mutual admiration society. I love and respect what they do and my job is just make path easier and clearer for them.

Tavis: I’ll close where I began. She is the best classical guitarist in the world and there’s all kind of proof of that. A little bit of taste to that, you got tonight. This new DVD which you’ll want to get and add to your collection is called “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour”, all kinds of notables on this project. And you’ll want to get that and this five-CD box set, five classic albums all in one place.

Sharon Isbin, we are honored to have had you on this program. Thanks for bringing your guitar. It wouldn’t have been the same without it. Thank you for coming on. Good to see you.

Isbin: Thank you. A real pleasure and honor to meet you.

Tavis: Thank you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: February 18, 2015 at 10:14 am