Classical Corner: Sharon Isbin

One of today’s top concert guitarists, Sharon Isbin is known for her emotional expressiveness and stunning virtuosity. On her latest disc, Baroque Favorites for Guitar [Warner Classics], Isbin performs music by Bach and Vivaldi over the soaring strings of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Four of the pieces are world premiere recordings, and all of them shimmer with a compelling blend of verve and grace. In addition to being a skilled performer, Isbin is also a gifted teacher. We asked the two-time Grammy winner to share an insight—something that would help all GP readers, regardless of musical persuasion, to become better players.
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“If you watch guitarists perform, you’ll notice that many play while staring at their left hand,” says Isbin. “I find it quite distracting, because it puts the focus on ‘look where my fingers are going,’ as opposed to ‘let’s make music.’ Unless I’m reading a score, I keep my eyes shut 90 percent of the time. I’ll look when I have to make a shift—I don’t want to miss it any more than the next person—but, otherwise, I’m not focusing on the fretboard. Playing with my eyes closed lets me immerse myself in the music. I’m relaxed because my head isn’t twisted in one direction. I can breathe with the phrasing, and my body can move freely with the sound. The benefits aren’t merely subjective, either. I’ve been told by people who know my playing very well that there’s a huge difference between when I play with my eyes shut and when I’m looking at my hands. When I close my eyes, these listeners suddenly feel a wave of energy and emotion that doesn’t happen in those places where I might be more focused on my fretwork.

“This approach works for others, too. For example, last summer at the Aspen Music Festival, I had a brilliant 16-year-old boy in my master class. While he was playing, I noticed he was fixated on his left hand. I said, ‘Let’s try an experiment. Shut your eyes, don’t look at your fretting fingers, and see what happens.’ There were about 30 people in the audience, and the difference was so stunning that they all gasped. It was the same piece and the same player, but the transformation was utterly magical. The emotion was so palpable that we all got goosebumps.

“If you feel hypnotized by the fretboard, there’s a simple solution. With your eyes shut, play something you know and enjoy, and see how far you can go with it. Do this in private, so if you make a mistake with a position shift, there’s no harm done—you’re experimenting and exploring. I think you’ll be surprised at how much you can play with your eyes shut, and still have it come out accurately. You’ll learn where you need to glance at the fretboard, and, in the process, you’ll discover that you mostly stare at your fingers out of habit.

“The true benefit is that you’ll be free to focus on what music is really about—communicating emotion. We tend to forget this as guitarists. We become hypnotized by our hands and our technique. But the goal is to move people, and to do this you have to shift your attention away from yourself and into the sound.”