Dog Days of Summer

DSCN1314 (2)

That dog looks pretty cute, right?  You might want to reach over and give him a little pet behind the ears.  But that would be a VERY bad idea.  He will bite you and he’s crawling with disease.  He’s a stray dog and there are about 50,000 of them in Bhopal, India.

Yep, you read that right.  50,000. The newspaper had an article about the stray dogs the other day.  Every day in Bhopal about 40 people are bitten by stray dogs, and most of the bites result in rabies.  It’s rarely fatal, but the treatment is painful and for the very poor it’s prohibitively costly. It is against the law to exterminate the dogs, but the city does have a sterilization team that goes around and tries to spay and neuter every dog they see.  The problem is that the team is only a few people and they only have one vehicle.  They are completely overwhelmed with work.

Dogs here are a nuisance and they are everywhere.  You literally can’t walk more than a few meters without seeing several stray dogs.  And they don’t look good.  Their fur is mangy, they’re underfed, their teeth are rotting and yellow, and many of them are lame in at least one leg.  The rich often have nice dogs as pets, but the ones on the streets are a different manner.  They yowl and scream all night long, even in our gated colony (they get in from the sides, which aren’t sealed off yet), they carry rabies and anthrax and other diseases, they wander around the streets and cause traffic problems, they urinate and defecate everywhere, and they stink.

I actually like dogs, though since I’m allergic to them I have to keep my distance, but here it’s a matter of survival.  And we have to constantly remind the girls not to get too close to them.  The LAST thing I want to do is deal with a rabies case with Madeline or Maia!  One more reminder of how very far from home we are . . .

Process versus Product

Today wasn’t my best day.  I slept poorly last night and woke up exhausted.  The motorcycle commute to Gurukul was wet and sloppy.  I was happy to see my friends at Gurukul, but I didn’t sing very well for Ramakantji and I left the lesson feeling like I had stepped back several months.


I had to ask: why am I here?  Why am I doing this?  I already have a busy and successful life as a Western musician.  The possibility of becoming a first-rate Dhrupad singer is pretty slim given how difficult this art form is.  Yes, I have a good raw voice and natural aptitude for it, but can I really commit the time necessary? 

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  I’ve derailed again.  This happens a few times a month, here in India and at home too.  The reason?  I’ve started focusing on the PRODUCT rather than the PROCESS.  It’s easy to do as a professional musician.  After all, I am in the business of selling my creative work to people.  I can’t completely ignore the marketplace if I want to continue working.

But Dhrupad (or Western classical music, or any great classical music) is an endless ocean.  One lifetime isn’t enough for even a 1/10th of this music.  It’s so deep and so complex that the only way one can cope with the overwhelming difficulty of it is to simply give oneself up to it.  Release the ego.  Don’t worry about the product, just enjoy the process. 

Once I remembered these feelings I felt that familiar glow come back.  I felt a purpose, a higher calling.  I was in a groove.  I can’t wait to get up tomorrow and start practicing and composing again.  I’m back in the game.

Teaching in India!

I recently taught my first class here in India.  My primary work here is to improve as a Dhrupad singer, but I’m also doing a bit of teaching.  I was SUPER nervous about the class.  I didn’t know how the Indian students would react to learning about Western classical music, but they loved it.  They even clapped at the end of the class!  The Indian students are much more reserved than my American students.  It’s nice not to be challenged on every single point, though I wouldn’t mind if they shared their thoughts a little more.  I’m not sure if that’s a general cultural difference or something specific to this population.Image

I teach the class about every other week, just for an hour or so.  Eventually we’ll look at musicians like Terry Riley, Rudresh Mahanthappa, etc, who are working with one foot in India and one foot in the West (which is also much of my work).  But to get there I need to give them an overview of Western music, including some basic theory and notation.

So the first class we looked at chant and early polyphony.  Gorgeous stuff.  Next week we’ll get into some Renaissance polyphony and start discussing harmony a bit.

It’s a little weird being the teacher when Gurujis are sitting there.  I’m in a bit of a limbo here since I’m a professional musician and expert on Western music, but still a beginner/intermediate Dhrupad singer and very much a student.  But it’s working out okay.  The other students are already asking me about the next class.  I’m excited to work with them again.  The cultural exchange is really happening now.


I enjoy practicing. I always have. Ever since I was 10 years old I’ve loved nothing more than getting behind my instruments and working things out.


Practicing is my main job here in India. I start first thing in the morning, at about 6:00 a.m. I make a cup of Indian coffee, start up the drone box, and begin singing a raga. This first practice we call “Kharaj” and it focuses on the low register. I do this for about 30 minutes. Then I usually compose at the computer for at least an hour.

Then to the gym for a workout, shower, breakfast, and then the motorcycle ride to Gurukul. Once I’m there I warm up for another 30 minutes or so, then I have a lesson with Ramakantji, then Umakantji. Each lesson is about 30 minutes.

Then I go home and play my drumming practice pad for an hour. (It’s important that I keep my Western percussion chops in shape so I can resume my performing career when I get back home.)

Then I do another 30–45 minutes of raga singing, this time on “aakaar” or “ah”, as well as palta (scalar variations). This segment is done with full voice, very strong and loud. It’s like the weight lifting of singing. I rest for a bit, then sing for about two more hours. I focus on the material I learned in the lessons. All told it’s about four to five hours of singing, an hour of composing, and an hour of drumming. I also spend time listening to Guruji’s various recordings and transcribing phrases and analyzing their performances. It’s a full day. I’m working hard and making good progress. It’s fabulous.

Lessons continue . . .

Every other day I ride my scooter down to the Gurukul and have my vocal lessons.  I take two lessons: one with Ramakantji and one with Umakantji.  This is unusual.  Most of the students work with one or the other for a while and then switch, but because I’m living “off campus” they agreed to this arrangement.  It’s working really well.  I do a different raga with each of them.


Their styles are different.  Ramakantji tends to favor a softer, mellower tone color for the voice.  His own voice is like golden silk.  It’s unbelievably smooth and elegant.  Trying to match his tone and pitch precision is nearly impossible.  I feel like a lumbering elephant next to him.

Umakantji has a huskier, deeper voice.  He is one of the few singers in the world who can consistently reach the low “Sa”, and powerfully so.  His voice is incredibly powerful and deep.  It is like the voice of God.  His pitch precision is also frighteningly consistent and precise.  My natural vocal color is closer to Umakantji’s, and it is fun to work on the low register with him.

The lessons are one-on-one and typically last about 20 minutes each.  However, there are other students in the room, sometimes as many seven or eight.  This is great because I’m constantly singing with other people around.  It naturally builds my confidence as a singer and I’m also able to learn things from listening to the other lessons.  The community of students is quite friendly.  We’re all on a never-ending path to musical bliss.


 Let’s talk about this for a moment.  This is my fourth trip to India, so it’s not the first time I’ve felt the sting of inequality.  But I have more time to absorb it now since I’ll be here for a while.  The fact is that I live in a fantasy world in America: working roads, clean water, clean air, reliable electricity, public education, and above all: opportunities.

Of course, I know that not all is perfect.  Many of our public schools are a disgrace, we have serious pollution problems (e.g., the Mississippi is one of the most polluted rivers in the world), violent crime is high, the recession has been real and many people are struggling to pay the rent, etc.  But despite all those issues, the fact is that it is still POSSIBLE for someone to succeed in our country.  Even the poorest of the poor can put together a good education from public schools and libraries, and then get government loans to community colleges or institutions like William Paterson University, and from there build a successful life.  People do it; I’ve seen it at WP.  And the poor in our country still typically own at least a few pairs of clothes, a TV, a cell phone, some basic kitchen items, etc.  And we have amazing people out there like my brother-in-law Eric Bender who works with kids from poor and dysfunctional families to show them how to take advantage of the resources available to them.

Not so in India.  I’ve been complaining and grumpy about various things the last few days, but this morning I woke up and said “Dude, get some freakin perspective.”  Yeah, our roof is leaking badly.  Yeah, I’ve been sick constantly.  Yeah, we had some tough weeks getting things working.  But the fact is that we are living like royalty over here. 

What do the people in the slums have?  Virtually nothing.  Their “roofs” are pieces of scrap tin, canvas, and plastic sheets salvaged from dumpsters.  Propping them up is a hodge podge of old bricks and sticks and random metal poles or discarded rebar from construction sites.  These huts house as many as six or seven people.  Their floors are dirt of course and cooking is done over open cow-dung fires, with various scavenged detritus for utensils.  They urinate and defecate in the fields or the sides of the roads.  They own maybe one pair of clothes.  If they’re lucky they have a bicycle or a few cows.  School is out of reach.  If they are able to find work it is of the most menial sort and pays about 30 rupees a day (about 80 cents USD).  There is virtually zero chance any of them will escape this life. 

Monsoon has been hard this year.  In Bhopal there’s been over 85% more rain than usual, a record in over ten years.  Yes, our house is leaking severely, but complaining about that makes me the most cold-hearted and selfish jerk in the world.  I’ve seen the insides of the slum dwellers houses and the “roads” of their areas and at this time of year it is all a mess of running mud, excrement, and garbage.  Disease is rampant.  The water is foul.  They have nothing.  It is a living hell for them.

Okay, so here’s the crux of this post: what have I done to deserve this fantasy life of mine?  The answer: NOTHING.  I was simply born lucky.  I was born into a good family that resides in a rich, functional country.  Yes, I work hard.  80-hour weeks are nothing for me.  But it’s EASY for me to work hard.  I have the materials and infrastructure to do so, and the work is rewarding.  It was all given to me.

So how do I feel when I see these heart-breaking slums?    I feel like a scoundrel.  A cheat.  An aristocratic jerk.

But I enjoy my nice life and I believe in my life’s work as a musician.  And I want to raise my kids well so they can go out and do important things in their lives, which might include helping people in slums. 

I know I can give to the poor (which I do) and I also understand that there are much smarter people than me working to solve the issues of global poverty.  But none of that erases the fact that so much of our individual fortunes are a result of pure, dumb, blind luck.  It’s terribly unfair and brings me to tears.  If you have an answer to this difficulty I am willing to listen and learn.  (And by the way, “It is all part of God’s plan” is not a reasonable answer.  That’s just a glib justification from the rich that maintains the status quo.  I’m not ruling out a religious answer, but that isn’t it.)  If you’re reading, kindly share your thoughts.






Integration . . .

How does one integrate into a society?  Through the kindness of people who are first helpful strangers, then quickly friends.  Our neighbors in our colony have been exceptionally friendly and helpful.  When we had water problems they gave us clean water to drink.  When our electricity wasn’t working they made us food.  They made phone calls on our behalf, negotiated rickshaw fees for us, and just gave us someone to talk to.

Our neighborhood is pretty evenly divided between Hindus and Muslims.  I don’t sense any animosity from either side towards the other, but they seem to keep their distance from one another.  Since we are the white foreigners we’re in a sort of neutral position.  (And we’ll only be here for nine months.)  Members of both parties have been exceptionally helpful.

My Muslim neighbor Ghofran works for an electronics firm and helped us with a circuit breaker problem tonight.  He also negotiated a good price for us for a backup battery for when the power goes out.  We have three Hindu families in the row behind us who have all been wonderful.  One of them owns the Bhopal Girls School, where our girls now go to school.  They have a 14-year old named Hershi and a 3-year old named Mehta (who is in Maia’s class).  Our girls regularly go there or they come here.  Just next door to them is the Sharma family.  Sanjeev is the father and he is a professor at a university in Bhopal.  He holds a prestigious position coordinating research for ad hoc mobile technology uses.  We had a stimulating conversation about his research the other night.  His wife is Anita and she stays at home and has been amazingly welcoming and helpful to us.  The have two boys.  The younger one is Drew and he comes over every day for a few hours.  He’s become like a son of sorts to me.  His English is very good and on more than one occasion he has served as a translator for us when workers are fixing something at our house.  Just down the street from them is another nice family.  They have a teenaged daughter who really likes my Super Marimba music and has several Western instruments in her house.  She wants to study biology, but she’s passionate about music.  Her father is an engineer for Air India.

So, we’re really doing this!  We’re in India, meeting people, making friends, and slowly but surely getting over the shocks and difficulties of moving here.  If you haven’t already, check out Jessica’s blog  She has some great photos up.

I promise I’ll get some photos up soon!


India Week 3

This has been a trying week. We moved into our house on Monday, but we had numerous problems with the electricity and water that were only resolved yesterday.  For four days straight I had to haul buckets of water back to our house just so we could flush our toilets.  Dishes and laundry were piling up and Jessica was getting understandably upset.

Part of this had to do with the fact that it’s a brand new house, but part of it is that getting people to come to the house and fix stuff is an uphill battle.  There’s a language barrier, which is entirely my fault.  Although I’ve studied some Hindi, I’m still a beginner and the Hindi I’ve studied is of a more formal style, much different than the street Hindi that most of the laborers speak.  I feel badly about this.  Although English is the official language of India, Hindi is much more widely spoken in the north.  The burden is on me to get my language skills in better shape.  But I’m working on it by myself and planning to hire a tutor soon.  I can’t reasonably expect to be fluent in nine months, but I do want to be able to read the newspaper and converse with our milk man, who is really a sweet soul.

But the other problem with getting stuff fixed is partly a cultural issue.  Akhilesh complains about this constantly.  The work ethic here is often just not as intense as it is in first-world countries.  (Although in some areas like with my teachers it is incredibly intense.) There are a lot reasons for this, and it’s a complex problem.  I try not to get frustrated.  The key is to just flow with things and smile.

Despite the setbacks with getting the house settled, it was a productive week artistically.  I had several voice lessons with Umakantji and Ramakantji and I’m making good progress.  I’m working on Ragas Todi and Gauweri right now.

I’ve also learned how to ride a motorcycle in India!  We’re living about 18 kilometers (about 11 miles I think) from the Gurukul.  Rickshaws are too expensive to take every time I want to commute for lessons (which I do every other day), so Akhilesh is renting me his Honda motorbike.  It’s easy to ride since there are no gears to shift, but riding in India is TOTALLY different than the U.S.  Cows, goats, dogs, rickshaws, pedestrians, motorcycles, large trucks, buffalo, vegetable stalls, pedal bikes, and other things all jostle for space on the roads.  The main road I take is pretty smooth, but still it’s a whole other level.  It’s a lot like a video game.  I can see it now: India Commute!

One interesting thing I’ve noticed culturally is that people on the road aren’t exactly polite as everyone is madly tooting their horns and trying to get ahead of one another, but they are very calm.  I haven’t seen one single instance of road rage.  There’s much more smiling and flowing.  That being said, I wear a helmet and ride very carefully!

I’ve had to adjust my expectations with my endurance sports.  I thought maybe I could do the commute by pedal bike and keep up my cycling passion, but that just isn’t a reality here.  The roads are too crazy and the sidewalks are not functional.  Fortunately the secure campus we live in has a decent gym, so I’ll just do that for the year.  It will be a year of extended rest from the training, and I’ll focus on my family and my music.


India Week 2

Still very transitional, but settling in a bit.  Today we move to a new hotel just down the street while we wait for our house to get ready.  Another five days . . .

I’ve had two vocal lessons with Umakantji.  They were superb.  I was incredibly nervous for the first one and my singing was awful.  I was out of tune and I even slipped out of the raga a few times, but I sang much better in the second lesson.  He was really pressing me on intonation.  The tuning precision of Dhrupad is just astonishing.

We have found a house and the good news is that it’s brand new and there’s an amazing pool and workout center/health club literally two doors down.  That will be important for our family as physical fitness is a major part of our lives.  The bad news is that the house is 18 kilometers from my teacher’s school.  That means I’ll have to hire a driver.  (No way am I driving here; too dangerous!)  The commute isn’t ideal, but it’s a pretty smooth road, so only about a half hour.  But we couldn’t find anything closer.  At any rate, I’m looking forward to having an office space so I can get back to composing.  I’m also looking forward to a more civilized practice space.  I’ve been singing in the hotel bathroom for the past week.  It’s clean, but still . . .

But other than the expected stomach troubles, we’re basically doing okay.  The girls have been amazingly patient with all the shuffling around, etc.  The general filth of the public spaces of much of India is still hard for me to take, even though this is my fourth visit.  The private spaces are typically very clean, but the streets are just disgusting.  It’s a complex problem, but living in a new, clean house in a nice neighborhood will help a lot in terms of dealing with it.

In India now

Here we are in India.  My dream of getting a grant to spend an extended period of time working with the great Gundecha Brothers has come true and here I am with my wife and two daughters.

We are doing pretty well, though jet lagged of course.  The first few nights we were all up by 3:00 a.m., though last night we slept over twelve hours.  We were tired!

India is India.  Intense, colorful, dynamic, inspiring, dirty, and exhausting.  The language barrier is a constant issue and I miss my autonomy back home.  We’re in a hotel now (Hotel Sarthak), where we’ll be for about a week.  We may have a house worked out by then, but more likely we’ll move over to the Gurukul (my teacher’s school/hostel) for yet another week.  Tomorrow we’re going to start looking at schools for the girls and will also try to find a good house in a secure campus near the school.  Everything should work out, but it will take a little time.  Fortunately, Akhilesh Gundecha is helping us and he is very kind and helpful.  Without him we’d be lost for sure.

The girls are okay, but I can tell they are a bit confused and scared at times.  I’m doing my best to put on a brave face and be the “strong Daddy” but the fact is that I’m confused and scared too.  Questions abound.  Should I have really dragged my family half way around the world?  Can I keep them safe?  Will they grow and learn and be happy?  I also have doubts about my own life as a musician.  Should I really put this much energy into singing Dhrupad?  Where will this take me?  Shouldn’t I just stick to what I know and try to keep improving that?  Do I really need 10 months of this?  Wouldn’t the Skype lessons have sufficed?

My mind is filled with constant doubt and worry, but I also know that the only way to grow (in anything) is to push out of one’s comfort zone and try new things.  That usually means being uncomfortable for a while.  Like in endurance sports or contemporary classical music, the trick is to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I’m grateful for the grant, of course, despite how unsettling it all is.  All the people I’ve talked with who have spent a year overseas with their families have all said that despite the difficulties it was one of the best times of their lives and a deep bonding experience for the family.

I suspect many of these doubts will be erased once we are settled with a house and school and I’m immersed in my lessons, but until then I’m in a very transitional state.