The Passion Of Sharon Isbin

Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin talks to Pollstar about her new one-hour documentary, “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour,” airing now on public television stations.  

The film gives a look at how the Grammy Award-winning musician, who has been called the “pre-eminent guitarist of our time” and “the Monet of the classical guitar,” broke into the world of classical music as well as the male-dominated field of guitarists.

The documentary includes Isbin’s recent performances on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and The Grammys as well as her 2009 appearance at the White House.

Additional career highlights range from creating the guitar department at The Juilliard School to appearing as a soloist with more than 170 orchestras to convincing composer John Corigliano to write a concerto for her – after eight years of requests. The trailer for the documentary points out that Isbin has commissioned more new concertos than any living guitarist.  

Her catalog boasts more than 25 recordings, covering genres including Baroque, Spanish/Latin and jazz fusion. Her most recent LP, Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions, features collaboration with Steve Vai, Stanley Jordan, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Steve Morse, Paul Winter, Romero Lubambo and more.

Isbin chatted with Pollstar about a full-circle moment she experienced from being a preteen amateur model rocketeer to getting her album American Landscapes launched in the space shuttle Atlantis in 1995. Up next for Isbin is a concerto in tribute to Dave Brubeck and the “Guitar Passions” tour she’s doing with Stanley Jordan and Romero Lubambo.

Photo: J. Henry Fair

When did you first start working on the documentary?  

It actually has been six years in the making – five years of filming and a year of post-production. So it’s wonderful to finally see it be born.

I bet a lot of people don’t realize that it’s such a long process to get something like this made.

I don’t think either [producer Susan Dangel or I] thought it would be that long. And what happened was that remarkable opportunities kept coming up. And Susan would say, “Oh my goodness, you’re playing at the White House; we have to film that. Oh, you have just been invited to play the Grammys; we have to film that. Oh, you’ll be on the Garrison Keillor show; we have to film that.” So it was really a positive thing that so many great filming experiences were evolving and that’s really why it took so long.

And the thing about a documentary, when you start, you never really know what you’re going to end up with. It’s life and life unfolds in the most unexpected ways.

The documentary opened at the Minneapolis International Film Festival in April and it’s since screened at other film festivals. How have the screenings gone and what did you think of the final product?    

It’s been exciting for me to watch the audience response. And one of things that I’m very happy about is that it’s got a lot of humor in it. And there are many places for the audience to really enjoy themselves and laugh out loud. And that was something that was important to me, when we started, that it should be fun. It should be enjoyable and not only something that you learn from, but something that really inspires you in other ways.

And there are cameo appearances by people like David Hyde Pierce, which never fails to crack up the audience. And it’s not only musical guests – of course we have many of those like Joan Baez and Steve Vai and Stanley Jordan, and composers like John Corigliano and Chris Rouse and Tan Dun – but also non-musical people like Martina Navratilova and as I mentioned, David Hyde Piece, who gets great laughs. And these are all people with whom I have friendships with and collaborations, so it’s wonderful to bring them all together as a big family in a way nobody could have imagined before.

That must be so neat to see all these people in your life, along with all these special events, in one package.

And even to have Michelle Obama introducing me at the White House. That’s pretty extraordinary. 

That doesn’t happen to everyone.

Really! (laughs) I always pinch myself, “Did that really happen?” She’s talking about me launching my rockets as a child. (laughs). It’s pretty funny. And it’s supplemented with a lot of home family footage. So what people are also moved by is it’s very personal and it’s very open. And even people who I’ve known a long time are able to explore a part of me that they never imagined before. I think that’s fun and it makes the experience for the audience one that is very intimate.

Photo: J. Henry Fair

When Michelle Obama introduced you at your 2009 performance at the White House, she told the story about how your father said that if you practiced guitar for an hour that you could launch your rockets. Do you remember if there was a certain moment where you fell in love with playing the guitar and it was no longer …

I no longer had to be bribed? (laughs)

When I was 14 I won a completion and the award was to perform with the Minnesota Orchestra. And walking out on stage and performing for 10,000 people suddenly felt more exciting than seeing my worms and grasshoppers go up into space. And I decided to switch gears, literally overnight, and put my energy into music. I discovered the more I practiced, the better I got. So instead of an hour on the guitar, it became five. And the rockets disappeared.

But not for long. They came back years later. … This is one of the remarkable things about the synchronicity of life. I received a phone call in 1995 from an astronaut, Chris Hadfield, who’s since become quite famous. He was on one of the recent space shuttle launches, singing with Barenaked Ladies, doing a live broadcast from space, because he’s an amateur guitarist. And he called me up to say he was going to be taking up the SoloEtte Travel Guitar, that I endorse, and he wanted to just give me an update on a CD of mine that he was bringing into space. He ended up calling me every day for a week before his launch and finally, the day before the launch, he said, “I’ve got great news. NASA has given approval to everything” – because everything has to be weighed to the ounce. He was really delighted, and so was I. One of the things you can see in the film is a picture of the CD floating weightless in the space shuttle with Earth outside the window. Not bad for an amateur model rocketeer, who at 12 just dreamed of perhaps going to work at the jet propulsion lab.

That must have been another surreal moment.

And I love the way they portrayed that in the film. So I made it up into space somehow (laughs).

Are you working on commissioning any concertos right now?

Actually, I’m excited about the next concerto, which will be one I premiere in April. And it’s by the jazz composer and musician Chris Brubeck in tribute to his late father, Dave Brubeck. I’ll be premiering it with the Maryland Symphony in April 2015. And it has certainly jazz influences and some great Middle Eastern grooves and some beautiful ballad quotes from this father, Dave.

And then another new work that I’ll be premiering in a year from now, in November 2015, is by Richard Danielpour. He’s writing a song cycle for me and the Met Opera star Isabel Leonard. This is a commission by Carnegie Hall and the Harris Theater in Chicago.

The trailer ends with this great quote where you said, “In the guitar world I had to fight as a woman and in the music world I had to fight as a guitarist.” Can you expand on that a little bit?

Well, it was interesting because as a guitarist I would often find myself playing with orchestras that had never had a guitarist before and I’m still the only guitarist to have recorded with the New York Philharmonic. When I was asked to create a guitar department at Juilliard, this was the first time in their history. So there’s been a real pioneering spirit about playing this instrument but it’s also a bit of an anomaly as a woman in that most of the figures in this world have been men. And certainly, when I was a student, if I showed up at a master class in the summertime in Aspen and there were 50 students, there were only two of us that were female. I think this inspired me to put forward my very best effort and be on my best game, to eliminate any questions of gender and to become really the best player and artist that I could be.

I think I gravitate to difficult challenges because they inspire me and they make me grow and that’s exciting. And musically, working with artists from very different genres in the rock world and the bluegrass world and the jazz world, folk music, all of this is something that also required me to just to take the leap and trust that I would figure out a way to do it. And some of the most gratifying collaborations have been with these extraordinary artists from non-classical worlds such as Joan Baez or Steve Vai or Stanley Jordan, Mark O’Connor, Paul Winter, the list really goes on. And I begin to do a lot of this so-called crossover music back when it was still considered unacceptable in the classical world, so I don’t really see any boundaries.

I was looking at your most recent album, which includes special guests Steve Vai and Stanley Jordan and Nancy Wilson and a number of other artists. Are there are other artists that you haven’t gotten a chance to work with that you’re working forward to collaborating with?

Well, if Eric Clapton called me up and said, “Hey, let’s do a tune together,” I would say yes right away.

Photo: J. Henry Fair

Do you have any plans for your next album that you can talk about at all?

I certainly hope to be able to record the new works that have been written for me and the collaboration that I have with Isabel [Leonard], the Brubeck concerto, those would be top of my list.

And I’m excited that Warner Classic has just released a five-CD boxset, which represents a wide variety of work that I’ve done, from “Journey to the Amazon,” in which I collaborated with an extraordinary, organic percussionist and composer, who came from a tribe in the middle of the Amazon, Thiago de Mello. Paul Winters is a guest on that as well. There’s an album that shows the contemporary side of things, which won a Grammy, a concerto by Chris Rouse and Tan Dun, he’s the fellow who wrote “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” There’s also a Latin album that I did with the New York Philharmonic and a solo album called “Dreams of a World” that has music with eight different countries, all in a folk influenced style and there’s another one called Baroque Favorites, which is music of Vivaldi and Bach and Albinoni. So it’s a great way to get an introduction to the eclectic tastes that I have. And you get all five CDs for the price of one.

You have a mix of solo recitals, master classes, appearances as a soloist and the “Guitar Passions” shows coming up. What do you enjoy most about the master classes?

Well, it’s an opportunity for me to interact with people who are still learning their skills on the instrument. And it’s a great chance to be able to, even for a moment, impact their lives. Of course, I have the program at Juilliard so I have a regular group of people that I work with, but when I do classes in conjunction with concerts, it gives me a chance to visit people I wouldn’t otherwise see.

They asked me to create [the program] back in 1989, so I’ve been directing that since that time and I’ve had students from 20 different countries. But I take very few [at a time] – you can count them on one hand. Because I tour so much I really want to focus on those that I have the time to commit to and who have extraordinary talent.

What can you tell us about the “Guitar Passions” shows?

The “Guitar Passions” show that I have been touring with [features] Stanley Jordan, the great jazz player and Romero Lubambo, also a jazz player from Brazil. We did 18 cities in February. And we are reconvening again to perform in New York. We open at B.B. King’s on Nov. 20 and then travel upstate to Terrytown and Washington, D.C., at the Strathmore Music Center. Romero and I continue with performances in Minneapolis and Phoenix.

I think the “Guitar Passions” shows are really special because it’s something that nobody would have heard before. You’re taking three people from different genres and mixing them in a way that is very creative and exciting. Audiences have really responded to it in remarkable ways. I would encourage you to check us out.  

In terms of touring, I guess I would consider the documentary showing in all these different places an extended virtual tour. People can get information about where these dates will be by going to my website or asking their local public television station.

Photo: J. Henry Fair

Upcoming dates for Sharon Isbin:

Nov. 20 – New York, N.Y., B.B. King Blues Club (with Stanley Jordan & Romero Lubambo)
Nov. 21 – Tarrytown, N.Y., The Tarrytown Music Hall (with Stanley Jordan & Romero Lubambo)         
Nov. 23 – North Bethesda, Md., Music Center At Strathmore (with Stanley Jordan & Romero Lubambo)          
Nov. 24 – Phoenix, Ariz., MIM Music Theater (with Romero Lubambo)   
Nov. 25 – Minneapolis, Minn., Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant (with Romero Lubambo) 
Jan. 22 – Boston, Mass., New England Conservatory (master class)
Jan. 23 – Boston, Mass., First Lutheran Church of Boston (solo recital)
Feb. 15 – New York, N.Y., Manhattan School of Music Greenfield Hall (master class)
March 21 – Madison, Wis., University of Wisconsin Shannon Hall (recital with Isabel Leonard)
March 24 – Washington, D.C., The Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre (recital with Isabel Leonard)
April 4 – Atlanta, Ga., Emory University Emerson Concert Hall (recital with Isabel Leonard)
April 11 – Hagerstown, Md., Maryland Theatre (soloist with Maryland Symphony)
April 12 – Hagerstown, MD., Maryland Theatre (soloist with Maryland Symphony)
May 19 – Winnipeg, Manitoba, Westminster United Church (soloist with Manitoba Chamber Orchestra)
May 24 – Istanbul, Turkey, Cemal Resit Rey Concert Hall (soloist with CRR Symphony Orchestra at Cemal Resit Rey Istanbul Guitar Festival)
June 5 – Belgrade, Serbia, Kolarach Hall (soloist with Belgrade Philharmonic)

For more information please visit and click here to check out the public television broadcast schedule for “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour.”