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Who the F Is … Classical Guitarist Sharon Isbin?

Who the F Is … Classical Guitarist Sharon Isbin?

Who the F Is … Classical Guitarist Sharon Isbin?

This week, the woman you should know is a performer who's been called 'the Monet of the classical guitar.'

Who she is: She’s been called “the preeminent guitarist of our time” and “the Monet of the classical guitar” — and she’s also an out and proud lesbian.

What she’s accomplished: Sharon Isbin has recorded more than 25 albums, performed at the White House, founded a guitar department at the Juilliard School, had her music featured on The L Word, and even sent one of her CDs into outer space. A native of Minneapolis, she began studying guitar at age 9 in Italy, where her father, a University of Minnesota engineering professor, had taken the family on sabbatical. Her oldest brother was initially supposed to study with the teacher, a protégé of Andres Segovia’s. “When he realized this was classical guitar, not Elvis Presley or the Beatles, he bowed out and I volunteered, not having any idea of what the classical guitar was,” Isbin said in a Chicago Tribune interview. But she took to the instrument well, and she eventually studied with Segovia himself.

Isbin didn’t dream of being a professional musician, though; she was more interested in science and space travel. “I was an avid model rocketeer and busy launching grasshoppers up into space,” she told California’s Orange County Register. At 14, however, she appeared with the Minnesota Orchestra. “That’s when I decided that performing in front of 5,000 people was more exciting than sending up these spaceships,” she told the Register.
She continued her music studies at Yale University and has gone on to a stellar career. She has toured Europe annually since age 17; has collaborated with artists including jazzman Stanley Jordan, folk legend Joan Baez, and rockers such as Melissa Etheridge and Heart’s Nancy Wilson; and has won two Grammys. While much of her work is classical, she often incorporates jazz, folk, and pop influences. “I no longer think of music in terms of categories, just wonderful pieces that excite and touch me,” she told Town & Country magazine in 2001.

Her music has touched many. In addition to performing in concert halls throughout the world, she has played for President and Mrs. Obama at the White House and appeared on TV and radio programs including The L Word, All Things Considered, and A Prairie Home Companion. She was featured in a September 11, 2002, concert in New York City memorializing those lost in the terrorist attacks a year earlier. And she hasn’t sent up a spaceship, but she sent her music on one — in 1995, astronaut Chris Hadfield took her American Landscape CD along on the space shuttle Atlantis and presented it to a Russian cosmonaut at the Mir space station.

Also in 1995, Isbin came out, in an interview with Out magazine. “I had wanted to come out a year earlier but my manager said no,” she recalled to the Washington Blade last year. “In the meantime, both Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang came out and sold platinum, so the following year they said yes. Sometimes it takes some time to convince others. … The only repercussions I got were positive.”

Now Isbin is the subject of a new documentary, Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, which is having its world premiere this weekend. It will be shown at the Minneapolis International Film Festival Friday and Sunday, then will screen at New York’s Lincoln Center April 10. Produced by Susan Dangel and narrated by Susan Stamberg of NPR fame, it features Isbin performances as well as guests including Martina Navratilova, Lesley Gore, Janis Ian, Joan Baez, Stanley Jordan, Garrison Keillor, David Hyde Pierce, and many others, all while documenting Isbin’s rise to the top of her profession. There’s a trailer at the bottom of this page.

Choice quote: “I didn’t set out to conquer the world. I just wanted to become the best player I could be, myself, and a lot of things happened that I could never have predicted.” — Isbin to The Boston Globe in 2004

For more information: Isbin has an extensive website, with a biography, music samples, tour dates, news articles, and more.

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Trudy Ring