Courtesy of J. Henry Fair

As a child, Sharon Isbin ’78 MUS ’79 — multiple Grammy Award winner and founding director of Juilliard’s guitar department — dreamed of becoming a rocket scientist.

But on Oct. 17, Isbin was named the 2020 Instrumentalist of the Year by Musical America Worldwide. She will be the first guitarist to receive the 59-year-old annual award.

Isbin described herself as an “accidental guitarist.” She noted that her father used to make her practice the guitar every time she wished to launch model rockets. This led to her winning a musical competition at the age of 14, upon which she was asked to perform before an audience of 10,000 people.

“There was something very thrilling about stepping out onto the stage with an entire orchestra behind me,” Isbin said. “As a person who seeks adventure, that seemed to me even more captivating than what was my real passion, rocketry. This was more visceral.”

Ben Verdery, Yale School of Music faculty guitarist and artistic director of the Yale Guitar Extravaganza, said that Isbin’s “years of brilliant performing, teaching and recording stand on their own as great artistic achievements.”

“Her playing continues to inspire us all as she breathes new life to the instrument’s magical existing repertoire and expands it through the numerous compositions that have been written for her,” Verdery said. “No other guitarist has commissioned, premiered and recorded so many brilliant concerti for the instrument.”

Isbin graduated from Yale College and the Yale School of Music. She described her time at Yale as a “powerful experience.” She said that studying musical theory and history under her professors gave her the “tools” that would go on to benefit both her career and her life.

Isbin first played the guitar in Italy, at the age of nine, and has always felt “drawn back” to the country and its musical traditions. She also grew up listening to flamenco music, which is based on the folklore music of southern Spain. Both of these have imbued her style with a sense of multiculturalism evident in her music and the composers she collaborates with.

Her latest album, recorded with the Pacifica Quartet, is titled “Souvenirs of Spain & Italy.” The album explores the music of Italian composers influenced by Spanish music. Yet her musical catalogue also crosses genres. Isbin said that the “sense of continuity and oneness of music is quite remarkable.”

Isbin has collaborated with artists such as the folk singer Joan Baez; rock guitarists Steve Vai and Steve Morse; saxophonist Paul Winter; country fiddler Mark O’Connor; jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan; and most recently, the Indian artist and sarod player, Amjad Ali Khan. She has worked with composers such as Chris Brubeck, John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse, as well as Howard Shore in his soundtrack score for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film “The Departed.” Isbin has commissioned over 80 works by various composers.

“That is part of what inspires me — the process of being part of our own time and creating something new,” Isbin said.

Professor of music Aaron Kernis, who collaborated with Isbin on “Double Concerto for Violin and Guitar,” said that Isbin has expanded the classical guitar repertoire through her collaborations. He also noted that she is a “visible and noticeable” artist in the field, more than a symbolic presence.

Isbin said that she has learned a lot about “spontaneity” by experimenting with different genres. “Not only my playing, but also my interest in a wide range of music has enabled me to create projects such as ‘Guitar Passions’ and others, and that wouldn’t have been possible if my eyes and ears hadn’t been opened,” Isbin said.

Isbin’s curriculum at the Juilliard guitar department reflects her explorative interests. She allows students to work with singers, wind players and string players in other departments and experiment with different styles of music such as contemporary and chamber music. She is also a director at the Aspen Music Festival, where she combines her love for nature and hiking with music.

Donna Yoo, director of admissions and alumni affairs at the School of Music, said that Isbin has set an example for other female guitarists.

“Especially because guitar is one of those areas where we have more males, it’s always important for women to have someone to look up to,” Yoo said.

As the only female classical guitarist to win a Grammy, Isbin said that growing up with two older brothers had made her accustomed to “fighting for a justice.” Having a majority of male colleagues in the guitar world has inspired her to work harder, so that there is “no question” of her gender.

Isbin’s music is deeply connected to her spiritual beliefs. Her latest collaboration with Khan called “Strings for Peace” — which will tour in the United States next year — aims to foster positivity and harmony. She also has recently finished an album called “Affinity,” which releases next year. According to her, the theme of the album is “unity with humanity.”

“One of the most profound experiences of my life was when I was invited to perform at Ground Zero at the first anniversary of 9/11,” said Isbin. “It was an instant of wanting to be a part of the healing process and understanding why I’m on the planet and why I’m an artist, because this is something that I can do that is meaningful.”

Isbin is the subject of a one-hour documentary titled “Troubadour.”

Freya Savla | freya.savla@yale.edu