Interview: Guitarist Sean Shibe on his rollercoaster year of studying and performing

Clasasical guitarist Sean Shibe
Clasasical guitarist Sean Shibe
Have your say

Talented, young and outspoken, Sean Shibe has a busy schedule, which doesn’t seem to faze him at all, and a very bright future

FOR guitarist Sean Shibe, the past 12 months have been a rollercoaster ride and a half. A year ago, aged only 19, he was a final year student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – its youngest ever undergraduate – preparing for his final exams and a passage into the professional world.

He had already scooped a Royal Overseas League Award and been nominated for a Borletti-Buitoni Award, which he formally received in February of this year, and he began to appear with persistent regularity in such key summer platforms as the East Neuk, Brighton and Lammermuir Festivals, the last as featured artist-in-residence and concerto soloist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

He sat his final degree exam in June, graduating from the RCS with first class honours, only to trump that with news he would be continuing his studies at Graz in Austria with top Italian guitar teacher Paolo Pegoraro. To top it all, he was recently awarded a place on the mightily prestigious BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists (NGA) scheme.

It’s in that last capacity that Shibe returns to Scotland next week as soloist in Rodrigo’s popular Concierto de Aranjuez with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the same piece he performed with the SCO a couple of months ago.

“There was a lot going on, maybe too much,” he says. But if anyone was born to cope with what good fortune has thrown at him in shovel loads, it is Sean Shibe. Never one to mince his words, he is, even at 21, very much his own man, and admits to “causing trouble” with the honest opinions he regularly vents on his straight-talking blogs.

His current burning issue? “Brown-nosers,” he says. “I get really irritated by bad musicians who just brown-nose the whole time in a bid to get on. It really gets to me. I don’t think anyone that’s any good should have to be scared of giving an opinion. If you really think something you should say it, and if people are going to judge you for it, or say you’re wrong, well I don’t care. There are so many people that brown-nose in music I just want to vomit all over them.”

Nor is he completely uncritical of Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire, least of all its controversial name change last year from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. “Yeah, I think I have my qualms with the Academy – the way certain things are done, why it’s not called the Academy any more. But despite all the niggles I have with the place, if I were to go back five years, and still know all the stuff that was going to happen, I would probably still have gone there.”

The reason is Allan Neave, chief guitar tutor at the RCS, and someone who Shibe rates as “the only guitar teacher to study with in Scotland, and one of the finest in the UK”. It was the opportunity of working with Neave that first lured Shibe away to the City of Aberdeen Music School at the age of 14 from his native Edinburgh.

Up until that point, he had been learning on a “20-quid guitar” that his mother had picked up from a music shop on Newington Road, near The Meadows Pottery she and her husband run in Edinburgh’s Southside. “She saw it in the window, asked me if I wanted to take up the guitar, and I said yes.”

It helped that his local Edinburgh primary school was running extra classes in guitar at the time. “A letter went home from the school saying they had extra money to teach your child folk tunes on the guitar. It was as simple as that.”

Nowadays he plays on a £6,000 instrument he bought with help from the Donald Dewar Arts Award Scheme. But with the recent surge in his career, Shibe is already sensing the limits of even that instrument. “You play an instrument and you get used to it, but it’s now becoming more necessary for me to find one that really feels right for me. I was discussing it with my teacher here in Graz last week, and he was being the typical Italian Romantic: ‘Searching for your instrument is like searching for your true love in life.’”

Even if that doesn’t happen immediately, Shibe is at a moment in his life where things are moving extremely fast. There’s student life in Austria for a start, and a learning environment that he describes as “truly international”. “That’s something the Academy in Glasgow hoped to be, but I really don’t think that can never happen, simply because it’s Glasgow, not New York.”

“Most of the guitarists in the Academy were Scottish, but here in Austria nobody is Austrian. I’m the guy from the UK; the others are from places like Portugal, Mexico, Italy and Czechoslovakia. There’s a massive mix, so I’m getting a much better idea of what the guitar world is about, and what the wider world of music is about as well.”

If rave reviews and major growing exposure are anything to go by, Shibe is destined to make waves in the global guitar world. And as a BBC New Generation Artist, he has the kind of leg up most aspiring soloists can only dream of.

Every six months, for instance, he is expected to record 45 minutes of new repertoire for Radio 3. “You have to do that four times over the two-year course of the scheme, in addition to which you have to play a Wigmore Hall lunchtime recital, as well as festival engagements in the City of London Festival, Cheltenham, Lichfield, Aldeburgh. All these are recorded and broadcast, and you cannot repeat any repertoire you do,” says Shibe. “So it’s a massive amount of work, and that’s before you take into account doing chamber music and concerto appearances.”

There are plans to record Britten’s Nocturnal. Lennox Berkeley’s Guitar Sonatina and Takemitsu’s To the Edge of Dream, which he plays shortly with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, are also in the pipeline.

And still he must find time to balance a burgeoning concert calendar with his studies in Austria. “It’s easy to be too busy, but the two feed off each other in terms of building a career. If you don’t develop one with the other you come out with nothing. I find it to be a very symbiotic relationship.”

Only someone with bags of talent and a mind of their own would say that, and make it happen.

• Sean Shibe plays Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the City Halls, Glasgow on 29 November and Ayr Town Hall on 1 December.