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High School Guitarist Heads to the Grammys

Performing for Barbra Streisand doesn't leave much time for homework.

Aaron Shapiro hasn't wasted any time since he started considering a career in music. Currently in the middle of college applications, the jazz guitarist has already been invited to the Grammys.

The senior flew out to Los Angeles last Friday to join 29 other high school students from across the country for the 2011 Grammy Jazz Ensemble. The group rehearsed for a few days and then began performing at the week of events building up to Sunday's 53rd annual music awards ceremony. The ensemble performs Friday at the MusiCares Person of the Year tribute, honoring Barbra Streisand, and will perform at the Grammy Celebration after-party.

In short, it's a busy week.

"They said specifically I will not have anytime to do homework or anytime for anything aside from what they have planned," Shapiro said with a laugh.

Shapiro picked up his first guitar at age 4. The teen musician said as soon as he learned how to read, he started learning how to read music. He grew up with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and played rock and blues through middle school. 

When he was 12, Shapiro's parents started driving him to blues clubs in Chicago so that he could play in front of an audience.

"It's definitely intimidating, performing around people," Shapiro said, especially in front of "an older crowd." 

Eventually, Shapiro got his hands on some jazz albums and found his true calling. Wes Montgomery and Miles Davis, he said, "got me into loving songs and the art form." 

When high school started, Shapiro decided he wanted to pursue music more seriously. He took more lessons with more teachers, mixing jazz studies with classical. Shapiro sent a Facebook message to Jeff Parker, a guitarist in the Chicago-based post-rock band Tortoise, asking for guitar lessons. To his surprise, Parker agreed. 

Once they started, Parker introduced Shapiro to EveryPeople Workshop, a rotating group of musicians that play, compose and record jazz together. Shapiro had been listening to EveryPeople's albums for years before he started taking lessons with Parker, so he was ecstatic when the group invited him to join.

Shapiro started playing with EveryPeople last August, and currently performs with the musicians twice a week at A Delicious Cafe, a vegan restaurant in Chicago. Now that he's old enough to drive, the young musician can maintain a twice-a-week commitment more easily than when he relied on his parents.

"Once I got a car," he said, "that was it."

When he gets back from the Grammys on Monday, Shapiro will resume the application process to the music schools at Northwestern and DePaul universities. He hopes to stay in the Chicago area.

"I think Aaron, in my 35 years of teaching, is one of the finest musicians I have ever had the privilege of working with," said Mary Jo Papich, Shapiro's freshman year jazz teacher and president of Jazz Education Network. Papich said that when she wanted something demonstrated in class, she could always count on Shapiro to get it exactly right.

Before he returns to high school, college applications and guitar lessons, Shapiro will get treated to a red carpet, a seat at the Grammys and hopefully the chance to mingle with some of his favorite musicians.

"There are a couple of nominees I'm really excited about," Shapiro said. "Herbie Hancock, he's one of my idols."

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