When I decided I wanted to learn classical guitar back in the late 1970s, my teacher had me purchase a textbook that had a cover with a highly-pixelated graphic image of a red guitar on a black background. Its title, spread across that cover in a thin script typeface, was Volume I: Classic Guitar Technique. The author’s name, positioned at the top left-hand corner, was Aaron Shearer.
That music book, sitting amid a stack of others through the years, would catch my eye, and I would wonder, “Who is this guy, Aaron Shearer?” He wasn’t anyone from the world of performers that I’d ever heard of—a Segovia or a Parkening or a Bream, all of whom had books of their own available. My teacher was deep into classical guitar, periodically traveling to Spain to purchase a new instrument, or attending a master class led by one of the Romeros. So why on Earth did he choose this man’s book? Why was his particular approach any better than these others whose albums I played so often?
I regret not knowing more about Aaron Shearer back then, for he became one of the most important figures in American classical guitar, and truly, his is an inspiring story of amazing accomplishment—all the more relevant in this, the centenary of his birth.
Consider: He was born in the backwoods of eastern Washington state and raised during the Great Depression on a subsistence farm in western Idaho. He never attended college, and his relatively short performing career had been focused on jazz, rather than classical guitar; his worksite was a nightclub, rather than a classroom. In fact, his decision to go full-time into teaching came only after a car crash in the 1940s left him with an injured arm in a totaled car, a miraculously undamaged guitar at his feet. The pristine state of the instrument so surprised him that he took it as a sign, and decided to focus totally on educating others, rather than returning to the stage. That, plus the tendinitis that resulted from the wreck.
And it was the classical guitar (or “classic guitar” as he preferred to call it) that was always his first love. Aaron would tell the story of how, because his family was very poor, he was only able to acquire a first guitar by trading three of the ten or so white geese he’d raised in exchange for what would turn out to be a rather abused instrument.
A little later, some neighbors invited the Shearers over to listen to the Bing Crosby show on the radio, since Aaron’s family could not afford that “luxury” item. It was particularly exciting to Aaron, because Andrés Segovia was going to be a guest performer. “So Segovia played . . . I don’t know what he played,” Shearer would later recall. “I think he may have played the Sor Theme and Variations. And then I think he played some Bach, maybe a little D minor Prelude. I was blown away. . . .I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t understand how it was played. It was quite different. And I said, ‘That’s the guitar?’ I couldn’t stop raving about the sound of the guitar. I stood up at the end of the evening and said, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to learn to play the guitar like that.’ And that’s the end of the story. I never stopped trying to learn to play the guitar in that fashion.”
After that, young Aaron sought out guitars and guitar music wherever he could—not an easy task, given his rural location. “We lived 17 miles from the nearest little town that would have had a guitar,” he recalled. “That was Hirzel’s Music Store in Lewiston, Idaho.” He became a frequent visitor to the store, looking at music books and instruments, and he practiced at home for hours on end, often until his arms and hands ached. His breakthrough came when the store owner let him teach there. “I was 15 or 16 then. I had learned to play on my own, learned to read some music, and could teach a little.”
As he grew to maturity, Shearer became a jazz musician, playing a Fender Telecaster guitar with bands in clubs across the Northwest. Aaron was still teaching a bit, and then came the car crash that changed his career focus.
In the summer of 1953, Shearer and his family moved from Seattle to Washington, D.C. Sophocles Papas, a Greek immigrant, had established his Columbia School of Music there 30 years earlier. Papas was teaching virtually all instruments, but specializing in guitar, and the cross-country move was based on Aaron’s desire to study with him. Papas had developed a business relationship with Andrés Segovia, and the Columbia School was soon recognized as the only program in the country where one could obtain guitar instruction using Segovia’s approved techniques.
Shearer quickly evolved from a session student to a teacher at the school. After a couple of years, however, he began to have serious questions about Papas’ particular expertise in guitar instruction. Aaron approached Segovia about the situation, but the maestro insisted that Papas was his chosen one for teaching the Segovia techniques and musical approach. Shearer and Papas soon had a parting of the ways, but not before they collaborated on the first guitar degree program in the United States, at American University in Washington, D.C. Shearer would later institute a similar program at nearby Catholic University of America. He also periodically picked up local gigs in the area, backing up the likes of Harry Belafonte and Johnny Mathis.
On his own now, Shearer moved his family into a house previously owned by a dentist who saw patients in the basement office. That office space was soon converted into a warren of studios for teaching. According to Aaron’s son Walter, one of the other teachers in the studio taught flamenco, and periodically the house would be filled with the sounds of robust flamenco performances, complete with dancers, castanets, the works.
In 1964, Aaron interviewed for a job at the Peabody Conservatory, the then-100-year-old institute of music training in Baltimore, Maryland, a little north of Washington, D.C. A decade later, Peabody would become a part of Johns Hopkins University. Peabody was well-known for its training in several instruments, but it had no guitar program. As Aaron would discover, the job, if it were to be offered to him, would require him to start one up from scratch. By this time, he had been teaching guitar in several different venues—colleges, private schools, that music store back in Idaho, even in his own basement. He had published his first book on guitar five years earlier, and he knew the state-of-the-art for guitar education, especially when compared to that of other instruments.
“I told [the selection committee at Peabody] that the guitar didn’t deserve a program at Peabody,” he said. “It didn’t have the same high standards of instruction that are found in other instruments. Well, they thanked me for offering my thoughts, and I thought that was the end of it. But instead, they called me back and offered me the job. They told me I was the only one who told it like it was.”
Shearer later elaborated on his comments to the Peabody committee: “I questioned whether the guitar belonged in a conservatory at all, because it had not developed; the guitar had not been treated in a scholarly manner at all.” He added, “All our great [guitar] artists active in concerts are self-taught. Just the idea they are self-taught indicates the level of the guitar. There is no such thing as a self-taught concert pianist. Three centuries of study have produced a teaching system that, if not perfect, leaves few unanswered questions.
“The potential performance level of, say, the violin and the piano has been realized. They have such very high standards that it’s highly questionable whether they’ll advance much. There’s hardly anywhere to go with those instruments. All the instruments—flute, cello, violin—have traditions of the highest level of instruction. But sadly, not the guitar.”
“Even the great Andrés Segovia could have benefitted from a good teacher. He has had to invent technique that in effect is given to the virtuoso pianist. How many years has he given out of his life experimenting, just to reach where he is today? Without question, he’d be a far greater virtuoso performer than he is today.”
Finishing his point, Shearer noted that interest in playing guitar was quite high: “Maybe hundreds of thousands—we can say thousands anyway—are attempting to play classical guitar. They are dedicating their life to this thing and they have no way of learning it well.”
Shearer made those statements almost half a century ago, when he was just a few years into the development of the program at Peabody. What was it about this man that drove him to produce what one scholar described as, “a stream of methods and articles that arguably have had a greater impact on American guitar education than any other 20th-century
It was this: In appearance, Aaron Shearer might easily have been mistaken for a shopkeeper or a mailman or a watchmaker, but he had the discipline, the drive, and the intellectual imagination of what Plato called a philosopher king. In trying to put that notion into words, his son Walter said it succinctly: “He knew a lot. And he knew how to learn.”
Texas-based guitarist and teacher Matt Dunne said it this way: “Aaron 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 concentration and focus, and he did so with a remarkably simple set of directed activities.”
Shearer and some of his students (L to R): John Parris, Marshall Crutcher, Thomas Kikta, Michael Lorimer, Robert Klapp (kneeling), Shearer, Anibal Acosta, Pat Dixon (kneeling), Manuel Barrueco, Ricardo Cobo.
Shearer questioned every aspect of the guitar and the guitarist, and kept seeking ways of making them both better. To Shearer, the primary goal was to get the best sound from the instrument with the least discomfort or inconvenience to the player. He might even come up with what he felt at the time was the perfect solution to a particular problem, only to abandon it years later in favor of something even better.
Having suffered tendinitis himself, he took every opportunity to question doctors—whether students of his who happened to be physicians, or the doctors working at Johns Hopkins, or anywhere else he might encounter them—about the physiological impact of guitar playing on hands and fingers, and how best to position them.
He was an innovator in many ways. He invented and patented a collapsible footstool for guitarists called the “Port-A-Just Footstand,” which is still available today, long after the patent has expired. He also came up with a guitar strap that held the instrument at the ideal angle.
He taught his students about an aspect of performance missing from many music-training programs, even today:stage fright. Yet, according to his son Walter, “Dad would never use the term ‘stage fright’ because it has such negative connotations. He called it ‘performance excitement.’” And that, again, reflects on Shearer’s concern with the student’s mental approach to playing the instrument.
Kami Rowan, a longtime teacher who was one of the few women to have Shearer as her teacher throughout her college career, agrees. “It’s like when you’re standing in line to ride a rollercoaster. You’re excited, but you definitely want to go on the ride. That’s why you’re in line. It’s not fright as much as excitement, and that’s the sort of thing Aaron focused on—not so much training the hands in playing guitar, but training the mind.”
Through the years, as Shearer came up with new approaches, he would incorporate them into his four-year college degree program for guitar, the first in the United States. He would have his students perform together at local galleries and performance halls in the Baltimore area, as well as in televised performances.
There’s an oft-quoted line in Christian scripture that says you can identify a tree by looking at its fruit, the idea being that you can determine what kind of a person someone is by the things that come from him or her. In the case of a teacher, of course, it would be the students. So consider for a moment some of Shearer’s students:
In an interview in Classical Guitar’s Fall 2016 issue, Manuel Barrueco spoke of his relationship with Shearer, saying, “I had no interest in playing the guitar and I didn’t practice, and he kept insulting me and sometimes would tell me that I would never amount to anything.” Yet, such comments are invariably followed up with a sort of “however” statement. In Barrueco’s case, it was, “I must have been difficult, but some of the things he taught I believed in, and I think helped me become whatever it is that I am today.”
David Tanenbaum, head of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s guitar program, makes a similar comment: “Studying with Aaron Shearer wasn’t easy, as he demanded compliance. But what I saw then as stubbornness on his part, I see now as compassion.”
Guitarist David Starobin, in another interview, published in 2016: “I’ll be 65 in September, and . . . I try to do daily calisthenics. Some of the exercises date back to work with my teacher, Aaron Shearer.” Many other Shearer students went on to become famous, too, Ricardo Cobo (the first Hispanic player to win the Guitar Foundation of America competition, in 1987) and jazz fingerstyle master Charlie Byrd among them.
But it was always the teachers that Shearer most focused on—the ones who were never in the spotlight, but who used Shearer’s concepts to teach others. He was once asked whether the United States had any great classical guitarists, and his response was, “Right now, whether we produce great guitarists or not is beside the issue. I would rather teach fine teachers, and we have some. That’s the greatest void in the field of the guitar.”
Thomas Kikta, director of classical guitar at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and a former student of Shearer’s at Peabody, says, “I saw him as a light, a bundle of focused energy that was driven to move forward, to ask questions to help you make changes for the better.”
And it wasn’t only Shearer’s students that saw the importance of his teaching.Composer Alan Hirsh, who graduated from Peabody after Shearer left, became a collaborator on several of Shearer’s methods, including writing music for some of his works. He says, “He totally changed my approach to teaching, introducing me to techniques of visualization that can be applied in all areas of study—guitar, orchestra, chorus, chemistry, even life.”
Julian Gray, current chair of the guitar department at Peabody, says, “In a very real sense, Aaron helped other people’s dreams become reality. He helped his students physically manifest what began only as an inner vision, turning thought into deed, which is what all true teaching is.”
Guitarist and composer Andrew York is well known as an alumnus of the University of Southern California. Yet, he noted in an interview that, “when I was about eight, [my father] found me a classical teacher named Grete Dollitz in Richmond, Virginia. She was a great teacher and player and a former student of Aaron Shearer. She gave me the rudiments.”
Another of Shearer’s students who went on teach guitar at Vanderbilt University in Nashville is John Johns, whose journey to classical guitar echoes that of his mentor. Like Shearer, Johns grew up in a rural area, in a small town in Kentucky. And also like Shearer, as a child he heard a guitarist whose mastery of the instrument set him on his way. For Johns, that guitarist was Chet Atkins. Says Johns, “I had never heard anyone play fingerstyle guitar before, and I was captivated by the sound.” Johns wrote to Atkins, asking him about his playing style, and thus began a correspondence and friendship that lasted many years. After high school, Johns went to Peabody to study with Shearer. But then a problem came up: “Because of financial difficulties, it looked as if I would have to drop out of school before my senior year. Unknown to me, Mr. Shearer asked Chet to sponsor me so I could finish the degree program and graduate. My eyes welled with tears when I was shown the check signed by Chet.” It’s also noteworthy that after Shearer died, Atkins made a point of telephoning his widow to offer words of condolences.
In the 1980s, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts lured Shearer away from Baltimore, and he set up a new guitar program there in Winston-Salem. For 15 years or so, he taught at this new locale, all the while continuing to refine his teaching tools and methods. When he was set to retire from the school in 1996, Joseph Pecoraro was named to take up the mantle, and he still leads the program today. But Shearer made sure the succession was smooth.
“In fact,” says Pecoraro, “in my first year, we actually taught some of the same students, at the same time, in the same room! His legacy lives on strongly in our commitment to teaching pedagogy and carrying on his spirit of critical inquiry and reluctance to accept conventional solutions to age-old problems.”
Shearer’s concepts found their way to other schools, as well. Through the years, former students, now teachers themselves, would not only use his instruction books as texts, they would bring Shearer in as a guest lecturer or to attend a master class.
The aforementioned Thomas Kikta is an excellent example. After being one of Shearer’s students, Kikta became his protégé and a pedagogue himself, sharing teaching principles and working with Shearer on the revision of his now four-volume magnum opus, The Shearer Method, up to and even after Shearer’s death.
Aaron Shearer loved the guitar, but there was another side to the man: He had an equal love of the outdoors. His upbringing in the Northwest instilled in him a deep appreciation for hiking, fishing, camping, and the like. In later life, Aaron would spend the entire month of August outdoors, often in the western United States. On his 75th birthday, he climbed California’s Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, about a 22-mile trek. Later, he ran a marathon in North Carolina and won his age group. At 80, he climbed Grandfather Mountain in western North Carolina, spent the night, and returned the next morning.
Shearer brought together those two loves—guitar and the outdoors—gathering students with him in natural settings for hiking, fishing, camping, and, of course, guitar. Cobo, a Shearer student at both Peabody and the North Carolina School of the Arts, said, “He would take a handful of students for summer sessions to Lewiston, Idaho, where he grew up. Throughout the hot, dry summer, he would regularly ride his bike and teach daily lessons and performance development classes. Summers in Lewiston were a kind of ‘special ops’ guitar study.”
Shearer died in 2008, but his fire was far from extinguished. He had been trying to compile all his thinking on guitar pedagogy into a single great work, but as the end was drawing near, he passed it on to Kikta, entrusting him to see it through. Kikta, Shearer’s widow Lorraine, and son Walter established a nonprofit foundation in Aaron’s name, with the purpose of continuing his work. Soon, it expanded to include former students and their students; many of the people quoted above are passionately involved in the effort. The foundation offers publications—including the four-volume Shearer Method—networking, online video lessons, sheet music downloads, and support for schools through its “Guitars in the Schools” program.
The latter offers a classroom teacher’s manual for those starting up a new program, as well as an affordable student package of guitar, strings, and book, developed in partnership with Córdoba, D’Addario, and Alfred Music.
One of the foundation’s programs that Shearer would have particularly loved is its Summer Institute, a weeklong retreat at the gates of Zion National Park in Utah. In 2018, the event was held in July and August, with outdoor activities like hiking and swimming, as well as workshops, performances, and private lessons during the hotter portions of the day.
So, how do you sum up the life of someone who had such an impact on guitar-playing? Ricardo Cobo says, bluntly, “Aaron Shearer is the father of American classical guitar. Aaron didn’t just write about the guitar—he made it a formal discipline, backed by a lifetime of extensive research, and developed the gold standard by which players are judged today.”
But perhaps Gerald Klickstein summed it up best in a note in Soundboard magazine shortly after Shearer passed. I know I certainly identify with it. He said, “As you read this, guitarists on multiple continents have Aaron’s books perched on their music stands. They’re playing etudes from his methods, taking lessons from his protégés, and savoring recordings by his former students. His is a legacy that will renew itself for generations, whenever fingers touch nylon and guitar music takes flight.” CG
One of Shearer’s teaching pieces, played by Austin, Texas-based guitarist and teacher Ross Phillips: