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.
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
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
How does your pre-Hindustani vocal life affect your current
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.
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.