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Artistic Achievement Award - Aaron Shearer
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Aaron Shearer was born in a modest cabin in rural Washington State on September 6, 1919. He delighted in telling exactly how he began playing classical guitar: as an eleven year old boy, he first heard Andres Segovia performing on a neighbor’s radio and decided at that moment that the classical guitar would be his life’s focus. Many guitarists can recall a similar benchmark event in their lives, but in Mr. Shearer’s case this began a seventy seven year journey that led him in directions he never anticipated. His fascination with the learning process of the guitar, and skepticism of existing methods, were evident fairly early in his life. He remarked as a young man that he was not particularly interested in what Segovia did, but instead how he had learned to do it. He became dissatisfied with his own development as a player while studying in Washington, D.C., and strove to devise a method of learning the classical guitar that would not only help him to become a better guitarist, but would result in a deeper, more practical understanding of the learning process that could be used to further the development of classical guitar for all students of the instrument. He continued this effort without pause until he passed on April 21, 2008. Along the way he instituted the first university degree program in classical guitar in the United States, and developed internationally renowned guitar programs at the Peabody Conservatory and the North Carolina School of the Arts. He published a landmark series of classical guitar methods beginning in 1959 with Classic Guitar Technique, following with several supplementary books, and in 1990 published the three volume series Learning the Classic Guitar. These books are the most widely used classical guitar methods in the world, and form the foundation for a true comprehensive system of guitar pedagogy, which the modern classical guitar had lacked. Among Mr. Shearer’s students are some of the world’s leading concert guitarists, including Manuel Barrueco, Ricardo Cobo, Norbert Kraft, David Starobin, and David Tanenbaum, and many others. Many of the leading college guitar programs in the United States were modeled after his, and an astonishing number of the teachers at these programs either studied with Mr. Shearer or have adopted his principles. This accomplishment is all the more remarkable considering the fact that Mr. Shearer never had a career as a concert guitarist, nor did he record concert guitar music. Students flocked to him for the simple reason that he had a proven ability to help them succeed.

Mr. Shearer’s teaching method grew from a simple yet profound set of assertions. One was that the mind and body work together to form habits of thought and actions, and that those habits would be formed through directed activities. Whatever a student practiced would become the foundation for his or her performance. Consequently, effective training involved increasing the student’s awareness of his or her thought process as well as habitual activities. Mr. Shearer was keenly interested in his students’ state of mind while practicing and performing, and built his method on the training of the mind. It is rather ironic that a commonly held assumption about Mr. Shearer was that he was primarily interested in the details of guitar technique and focused his teaching on the training of the hands. While he did develop a detailed understand of technique that was unprecedented in his lifetime, his technical information is not the primary focus of his pedagogy. Another of Mr. Shearer’s assertions was that the student’s goal in learning the guitar is to share music with others, and as such, no task is complete until it can be confidently performed for others. Each learning activity, even the most basic technique or music reading skill, is in fact designed to increase the student’s immediate ability to perform music securely. While most teachers would agree with these assertions in principle, for Mr. Shearer they had a profound effect on the activities he required of his students right from the beginning of their study. His book, Learning the Classic Guitar, contains the following quotation from Albert Einstein:

Strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why but somehow seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily living, however, there is one thing we know, that we are here for the sake of others-especially for those upon whose smile and well being our own happiness depends-but also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are attached by a bond of sympathy.

That a guitar method book would begin with such a quotation is a clear indicator that Mr. Shearer found it crucial that students understand why they are pursuing guitar study, and immediately highlights his strongest beliefs about music and its role in connecting people on a deep level.

Mr. Shearer was a great believer in the power of rational thought to illuminate aspects of learning that he felt were often not explored in a productive manner. Recognizing the importance and complexity of emotional responses that are commonly experienced by performers, he taught students to develop the ability to manage these responses through sustained concentration and focus, and he did so with a remarkably simple set of directed activities. For Mr. Shearer, there was almost no aspect of classical guitar training that could not be explained in a rational manner, and almost no skill that could not be developed through a series of simple steps, each one built on the successful completion of the previous. While he was respectful of the Segovia tradition and keenly aware of Segovia’s genius and contribution, he was not afraid to question some of Segovia’s basic pedagogical practices he had encountered early in his life, as well as his own practices throughout his six decade career as a teacher. He had an unusual combination of passionate dedication to his pedagogical principles and constant refinement, sometimes even rejection, of those same principles as he discovered more about the learning process. That he was able to continually grow and develop as a pedagogue over his entire life was yet another reflection of his belief in the power of rational thought, and provided his students with an effective demonstration of this power.

Given Mr. Shearer’s enormous impact on the classical guitar, it is easy to consider his passing to be a great loss. Mr. Shearer’s legacy to the classical guitar is all around us, and it will continue to grow throughout future generations of guitarists.

Written by Matthew Dunne, adapted from his contribution to the Shearer Memorial in Soundboard, Vol. 34, No.3.

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