Sharon Isbin On Classical Guitar Today, Teaching, and New Music

September 10, 2015
Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin

Courtecy of Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin is one of the foremost classical guitar musicians in the world. The multi-Grammy winner is in town now to play during the Ellnora Guitar Festival. She stopped by our studios and shared that she feel into classical guitar a bit by accident when she was nine and her family moved to Italy for a year.

Her brother had asked for guitar lessons, and her parents were excited when they found a teacher who had studied with Andrés Segovia, who is considered the grandfather of classical guitar.

Sharon Isbin
Photo Credit: Courtecy of Sharon Isbin

When her brother heard the lessons would be for classical and not rock guitar, “he said ‘Classical? Oh no, not that, not for me.’ So I volunteered to take his place, that’s what happened,” Isbin said.

Back home a year later in Minnesota, though, Isbin was a bit more interested in building and launching model rockets than guitar.

“My father used to say, 'You can’t launch them until you put an hour in on your guitar,' so that’s how they bribed me to practice. Eventually, when I won a completion and the award was to be a soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra and I decided that was more exciting and fun than sending my worms and grasshoppers into space so I shifted gears and decided to practice hours a day doing guitar instead,” said Isbin.

She kept her interest in space, and years later she met NASA astronaut Chris Hatfield. He gave her a tour of the space center and brought one of her CDs and the travel guitar she endorses up to the space station with him.

I have a natural curiosity about others and their work and their art… [Advocating for new music] for me, it’s part of being current and contributing something that will last beyond. Sharon Isbin

“I think it’s really amazing that I had this whole fascination with rockets, NASA and planets and space travel and then to meet, many years later, Chris Hatfield. So somehow there’s synchronicity in life to think that I did make it up in space on a CD,” said Isbin. 

From there, Isbin has only reached higher and gained more acclaim. She has collaborated with numerous artists from many different genres and had more pieces written for her than any other classical guitarist playing today.

Isbin says her desire to collaborate comes from a genuine interest in other people’s work. “For me it’s a way of exploring different types of music that I wouldn’t be able to do if I were strictly on my own.” 

A number of her collaborations are depicted in a new documentary from American Public Television called Sharon Isbin: Troubadour that includes the likes of Garrison Keillor and Joan Baez and many others. It’s narrated by Susan Stamberg. “It’s been very exciting to see that take off,” said Isbin.  


Isbin was also asked to create the guitar program at Juilliard in 1989 and still serves as the director of the program. “It’s really thriving. I’ve had students from over 20 different countries and it’s really great to see them go back often to become the premier players where they are from originally and I just really enjoy working with such talented people."

In addition to her work with students at Juilliard, she also is the director of guitar programs for the Aspen Music Festival and teaches master classes there. 

Isbin says she thinks classical guitar is experiencing a heyday and the future looks bright. “I think it’s wonderful to see so many different styles of players, different ensembles, and so many composers who are writing for the instrument. … It’s a way of expanding the horizons of the instrument.”  

During the Ellnora Guitar Festival, Isbin will be playing with former student Colin Davin in the Foellinger Great Hall on Saturday, September 12th. Tickets cost between $10-$39. She will also be participating in a keynote talk where she will be interviewed by Davin. The talk will also take place in the Foellinger Great Hall, and it is free. 

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