Warren's Blog

Warren Senders is a talented composer/musician who has studied and rendered Hindustani music for over 20 years. The leader of the indo-jazz ensemble Anti-Gravity, Senders is a member of the New England Conservatory faculty and a Learning Through Music specialist who applies a rich background in Indian, African, and Western music toward cross-cultural aspects of learning through music programs in public elementary schools.

What was your first notable musical experience?

I think all of us have some of these things that go back probably to before we were fully conscious, before we had words to think about the things we heard. So the first musical encounters were notable in that they helped form an experiential base for thinking about music later on. When I was growing up I had lots of opportunities to hear different sounds and experience them, not necessarily with a particular repertoire or technique, but with the kind of openness to their independent existence as sounds which many of us re-encountered much later in the thinking of John Cage.

There were records, of course. My dad played records of Bach and Mozart; he enjoyed singing Gilbert and Sullivan. We all listened to Tom Lehrer records more or less constantly, and I can truthfully say that my conception of comic inflection and timing owe almost everything to Lehrer, who is immaculate in this regard.

But just as important were those experiences that were more individuated; the once-or-twice only things that made huge impressions. For example, there was a guy who lived down the street from us, an expatriate Scotsman. And very occasionally he'd take out his highland pipes and walk up and down the road we lived on (this was in a pretty rural suburb, so there were a lot of trees and fields), playing these old Scottish melodies. And I heard them, and it was really magic, and I think it laid the ground for being a drone-fascinated kid!

There was a lot of folk music in the air when I was growing up. I went to a summer camp run by members of the Seeger family, and at Killooleet there was folk music everywhere. So I was steeped in that whole conception of music as a community phenomenon, of music as something everybody could and should do, of music as something that was responsive to people.

On the other hand, somewhere around third or fourth grade some school music teacher told me I couldn't sing. It had already been established in third grade that I couldn't play recorder, and I was relegated to the farthest corner of the third-grade recorder ensemble for our rendition of "America The Beautiful." So it must have been right around then that somebody tried "testing" my voice, and I guess I couldn't follow their instructions properly for some reason, and they decreed that I couldn't sing. It took me a long time to get over that!

But on the other hand, there were always different sounds. Once I found drone sources, it was an unending source of fascination for me. Then I had a very memorable experience. I was a little kid in the 60s, remember, and I first really became conscious of anything right around 1970 or so. Both my parents were (and are) psychologists, and it was a regular feature of our lives that my brother and I would spend some of our vacation time in whatever city was holding the APA convention that year. At the conventions there were a lot of grown-up activities which we didn't really understand, but they'd often show films (like a documentary on Stanley Milgram's work, which was pretty amazing for an eleven-year-old!). One was a movie on the "communal" movement - lots of hippies living off the land. There was a segment in this film, perhaps twenty-five or thirty seconds long, of a group of people doing an "om" chant. And that absolutely captured me. I'd never heard anything like it, and I wanted it, had to have it. I tried to get my family to do Om chanting (not very successfully)! So probably those sounds were what created a foundation for a later musical life that brought me to India.

What was your first formal training?

I had two years of ineffective guitar lessons starting when I was seven. The first music instruction that really made a difference was about a year of training on the electric bass when I was a teenager and had begun playing in a garage band. A bedroom band, actually; the leader's house didn't have a garage, so we practiced in his bedroom. Philip Moss, the music teacher from my junior high school, gave me lessons on bass and helped me get started. A wonderful man, very generous and musically knowledgeable.

The bedroom band didn't last too long; the leader moved to another town, and I was left alone with my electric bass. That was okay, because I'd just discovered Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, and I didn't feel like playing Allman Brothers tunes anymore!

How does your pre-Hindustani vocal life affect your current repertoire?

Well, I can't say that I had much of a pre-Hindustani vocal life. I sang at summer camp, but remember that some elementary school teacher told me I couldn't sing somewhere back there. I'd internalized that -- it's a terrible shame how many people get messages of this sort from music teachers, who should be liberating them from fear instead.

Anyway, I enjoyed singing folk songs and I liked the sound and the freedom of jazz...but I'd never had a vocal lesson of any kind before I began Hindustani training. I doubt that my other musical interests affect my repertoire particularly, but I would certainly say that my background in jazz makes me very interested in taking chances, in using my imagination and creativity. So that certainly comes out in my singing, or I hope it does, anyway.

I was introduced through a friend who had a source for free records. Among other things, he was able to supply me with many lps of what was then called "ethnic music," and among them was a record with a short bit of Hindustani style singing. I was captivated and made up my mind that I wanted to learn to do THAT! Very fortunately I met my first teacher, Kalpana Mazumder, shortly after that. I studied with her for the next eight years, gradually working out all the kinks and problems with my voice, and laying the foundation for a deeper musical study once I went to India.

Many western adherents of Hindustani music were drawn in by instrumental music and much later found an appreciation for vocals. For me it was the vocal music from the very beginning, and as I gradually got better, I heard more and more in the music I listened to. It became incredibly fascinating; it's still fascinating, actually -- more so every day.

Could you tell me about your formal training with your guru?

I first went to India as the result of receiving a fellowship to learn under the tutelage of the well-known khyal singer Bhimsen Joshi. So I went to Pune, where Pt. Joshi lived, and set up housekeeping there. But while Bhimsenji was (and still is) a wonderful performer, his interest in teaching was not that strong. He had many "disciples" who were basically hangers-on; they'd play tamboura at his concerts, occasionally sing support vocals, spend a lot of time at his house...but while they were very conscious Bhimsen Joshi imitators, for the most part they didn't sing in a way that moved me -- certainly they didn't sing in the way he did! So I became less interested in a musical path of stylistic replication, but the problem in Hindustani tradition is that if you want to be an innovator, you need a really deep traditional grounding, or the listeners won't accept you.

It was my great good fortune that I met Pandit Shreeram Devasthali in the second half of 1986. From there I guess you can say that my life as a Hindustani musician, as a khyal singer, really began. He took me on as a student and began devoting all his spare time to teaching me. And when I say "all his spare time," I mean about four hours a day, every day. No vacations or weekends. He had a most extraordinary focus of attention, so spending that long a time with him was a totally life-changing experience. It was not a group class; it started with just the two of us. After a little while my then-fiancee (now my wife) Vijaya joined us. She had a firm musical knowledge base, which meant that a lot of the stuff I was struggling with she was able to parse relatively quickly. This was deeply helpful.

Pt. Devasthali was one of the most generous people I've ever met, and one of the most demanding. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But the thing was, he'd spend all this time singing with me -- hours and hours and hours. If I brought up the subject of money, he would refuse to talk about it. He would get very upset if I wanted to pay him, and for several years it was very hard even to get him to accept the ritually mandated gifts which a disciple is expected to give his or her guru on certain auspicious days. So his teaching was not measured on a scale that had any points in common with a set of fiscal values, and he never rationed his time in any way. In that sense he was deeply generous.

But his demands were very severe. If I wanted the musical knowledge and experience he had to give, he would give it unstintingly, but I had to practice incredibly hard. If he taught me for four hours, that meant eight hours of practice in order to stay on top of the material! So basically it was a situation where khyal singing completely took over my life most of the time. I'd get up at six am, make and drink an entire pot of espresso, and sit down to practice until ten or eleven. Then get up, have lunch, take a walk, and then practice some more in the afternoon, and go out and run my errands, come home, practice some more, go off to a seven o'clock lesson and return at around eleven, with my head completely spinning, full of music.

To keep my voice from fraying completely, I also used to practice the same exercises on bass or guitar; I found some instruments in Pune, and I was able to borrow them so that I had a good instrumentarium in my apartment. Instrumental practice was very important for developing a sound musical understanding of the material. You can't see your vocal apparatus, so it's easier to visualize the relationships of the notes when you have something you can hold in your hands. By the same token, it's crucial for instrumentalists to sing as much as they can!

Over the years Pt. Devasthali (whom I started out calling "Mr. Devasthali" and who then became "Guruji" as I came to understand his true position in my life) was able to convey more and more information in less and less time. As Vijaya and I learned how to learn, it became less crucial to work for hours at a stretch. But the deep-level consistency of our sessions remained. We'd be in America for eighteen or twenty months, then back in India for a year or so, and this pattern repeated several times. So we were able to spend a number of years in a very intense learning environment with someone who completely dedicated himself to teaching us. It was a totally transformative experience; a relationship that changed everything about my understanding of music, about my understanding of structure, about my understanding of the ways in which a culture communicates meaning, form, and aesthetic values.

More to come...


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