Portrait of a Quiet Musician

An Interview with Leland Isley

Back when I was single and child-free, I was passionate about live music. Rarely a weekend passed without my visiting a smoky bar, listening to great rock, R&B, blues, or funk.

I grew close with many local musicians; one in particular intrigued me. Leland was a gifted guitarist, and he was fun to watch on stage: he’d get so lost in the music, I sometimes wondered if he forgot he was surrounded by fans. Off-stage, he seemed shy but warm and kind. I liked him immediately.

Years passed. Bands broke up, and members went their separate ways. I heard rumors that Leland was now touring with some popular musicians in another state. I married and became a parent; my family life became a bigger priority than following local groups.

But a few months ago, I posted an Instagram photograph of my daughter Alex, messing around with my old guitar, and mentioned that she was interested in taking lessons. And then I received the following comment:

I’ve got some open slots for students this fall. Hit me up if you haven’t found a teacher yet.”

It was Leland. No longer touring with bands, he’s now a very busy (and popular) private guitar instructor.

Alex has been taking lessons from Leland for three months now, and she loves them.  She’s drawn to Leland’s quiet, introspective nature, and she admires him deeply.


Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Leland. I wanted to learn more about how someone who seemed to be an introvert derived such passion from careers that, I thought, were generally extrovert-only.

KW:  Have you been a musician all your life? Did you start with guitar?

LI:  No, my first instrument was clarinet, in school. I guess I was 10? The funny thing is that I wanted to be a trumpet player. I saw the trumpet player get up at the end-of-year PTA meeting and thought, “Man I want to do that. I want to be a trumpet player.” But the next year, when it came time to pick instruments at school, it turned out that I couldn’t buzz my lips. I was devastated, of course. They stuck me on clarinet, and I was a pretty decent player, but I got a bit bored with it. When I got to high school, there was a guitar lying around the house—it belonged to an aunt who had visited and left it behind—and I started messing around with it.

KW:  How did you know what to do?

LI:  Well, you know, guitar players, for years, just kind of figured it out. I mean, you figure out the correct tuning, and some people didn’t even do that—they would just tune the guitar in something other than standard tuning and figure out how to play the notes in different ways.

The cool thing about guitar is that it’s a new instrument. There haven’t been 400 years of, you know, “This is how you play guitar.”


KW:  So when did you decide, “You know what? I’m going to go up on stage!”

LI:  It’s funny, because I knew I was going to be a medical researcher when I was in high school, and that’s why I went to college. But by the time I was in college, I had really started to make progress on this, and I was playing in clubs around town.

KW:  I think of you as such an introvert. How did you get to the point where you were okay being up on stage?

LI:  Huh. Well, I’ll have to think about that for a minute … there was my first band, and it started out in our buddy’s bedroom in college, just jamming. Eventually, we thought we should go play some songs. I think we did a small festival, and we started playing in clubs around town. It wasn’t something I really thought about—it was just a natural progression. And some of the band members were extroverts, and it’s a lot easier to be on stage when all you have to do is play guitar. You don’t necessarily have to perform.

KW:  Tell me more about what you mean by that.

LI:  Think about your favorite bands. You know what the vocalist and the lead guy looks like, but you might not recognize the drummer or the bass player. Those guys could very easily be introverted personalities: able to do what they love, and get on stage, because they don’t have to go to level 10, you know?

KW:  You once mentioned to me that you were always the guy that, after the gig, while everyone else was amped up to go party, you were the one who was like, “Nah, it’s cool, I’m gonna head back to the hotel.”

LI:  That’s me today. I had to learn how to smile and perform and engage the audience. That’s a skill for me. For other people, it comes naturally. But I had to learn that as part of the business. And you know, at least appear to enjoy it. But when I’m done, I’m not interested in hanging out or chit-chatting—I want to go home if I’m doing a local gig. If I’m on the road, I go back to my hotel.


KW:  Do you find that being an introvert aids you as a musician in ways that other people wouldn’t think? Do you ever think that retreating and absorbing what the audience is giving you has helped?

LI:  Well, the routine that I developed before playing shows was to be in the corner and concentrate on the task at hand, whereas a lot of band members would be chatting with people or having drinks or coffee. I always found a place by myself where I could go over what I had to do in the next few minutes. So I think, as an introvert, I’m more mentally prepared when I go on stage.

On the other hand, the business requires that you network, and I’m not good at that. And it requires a certain level of showmanship to get noticed and a willingness to put yourself out there. Even in the studio, where there’s nobody watching you, you have to be able to let go. So I had to learn to do those things in spite of my natural inclination.

KW:  Nowadays, you mostly teach. You seem to love it, and my daughter certainly loves being taught by you. I have to think, especially because she’s a kid, she would be able to sense if you hated it. This is clearly something you love. But as a teacher, you have to put yourself out there to get students and meet with them. Or is your teaching one-on-one something that feels more natural?

LI:  I don’t think I would do as well in a large classroom. One-on-one, I can move at the student’s pace, and we have a personal relationship. I like to think that the best learning comes from your friends, and not necessarily a formal teacher/student relationship. That’s the way I approach it.

It’s very comfortable for me. I can be silly, and childlike, and a bit goofy, and I think that comes across to kids. I’m very laid back. My personality isn’t all over the place, which could make it difficult for a student to concentrate. I let kids give as much energy as they’re comfortable with, and I’m not overbearing. I think that allows us to communicate easily at whatever level the kid chooses.

KW:  In this case, it sounds like introversion is an asset.

LI: Definitely.

KW:  Do you think most musicians are extroverts, or are most musicians introverts who have managed to learn the skill of extroversion?

LI:  I’d actually say the latter. There’s a small percentage of people who have the personality to naturally be a front man. A very small percentage of people. And the rest have learned how to do it. Some musicians never do. Take The Cars, for instance. You listen to the music, and it’s wonderful and lively, but you go see them in person, and all of the guys stand in one place …

KW:  … and the only person you remember is Ric Ocasek?

LI:  Right. But you know what? They made great music, nonetheless.