Brooklyn vocalist and folk-music artiste Brenda Rudzinski to teach at Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music
For Brenda Rudzinski, coming to India was never part of her plans. In the country for the first time, she is in Chennai to teach an array of voice lessons at Swarnabhoomi Music Academy. Bringing with her a unique combination of American folk music with contemporary jazz, the singer-songwriter is presently based in Brooklyn and is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music (dual degree of voice performance and songwriting). Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, she already has some hit songs under her belt. In fact, her collaboration with Japanese musician Senri Oe — a song called Intellectual Lover — was featured in the latter’s album Spooky Hotel, which was also a top Billboard entry. All set to conduct a busy itinerary of classes at SAM, for its ongoing trimester, Brenda talked to us about her journey from America to Chennai and shared her expectations from a city that she is only just getting to know. Excerpts:
Let’s start with the early days of your career. How were you initiated into music professionally?
I became interested in music and singing at a very young age. Actually, I remember being so captivated by what I heard on the radio. It was this whole world of rhythms and sounds and instruments and voices; one where, thankfully, I felt very much at home. I give credit for that to my parents. They were always singing around the house while driving in the car, so my sister and I would join in. Singing, for me, became an instant connection to them and other people.
For me, music did not become my profession until much later in life. While I had always kept a very strong connection to music, I ‘responsibly’ chose to pursue a degree in business the first time around in college. Looking back, I was probably feeling that a business degree would be a safer bet than pursuing a career in music. While I had many great learning experiences in the business world, after 12 years, it became clear that I had to make my way back to music and pursue it professionally.
What fascinates you most about American folk music? How do you experiment with its sounds and blend it with contemporary music?
The storytelling aspect fascinates me the most about American folk music. I sometimes wonder if I was a prairie or farm girl in a past life! I just love how stories were preserved and passed down in music through the generations. For me, it’s again about human experience and connection to others.
I incorporate folk styles into my music in several ways; through instrumentation choice, lyrical structure, and definitely through melody and harmonic choices. For me, it’s really a matter of what has moved me musically and what I’m hoping to create using that inspiration.
How did the association with the SAM happen? What convinced you to join here as a faculty?
The opportunity to work at SAM was completely unexpected. A singer friend was originally recommended to the position I’m working in now. She, however, couldn’t pursue the opportunity due to other musical obligations. So she gave me a call one day. I’ll never forget the phone call! I was in the middle of shopping, getting ready for a family that was going to be visiting me in New York. The next thing I knew, she was asking if I’d be interested in teaching voice in India! It took me totally by surprise. A very unexpected and very happy surprise.
What have you heard about the musical sensibilities of the people in Chennai?
I’m learning so much about that from the students, Indian faculty and administration at SAM about South Indian Carnatic music and Konnakol. As a Western vocalist, it’s humbling to listen to and watch musicians and vocalists perform this music. It’s so incredibly different from what I’m used to; the scales, the rhythms and the vocal syllables that are used. Right now, I’m just sitting back and taking it all in and looking forward to exploring it further. I’m looking forward to attending a concert in Chennai or elsewhere in southern India.
Take us through the kind of research that you did before signing up for teaching music at SAM.
I said yes to the position at SAM very quickly. Faculty members Setu Sharma and Siddharth Alphonse, and the Head of Academics Siddhartha Ramanathan were so gracious and knowledgeable that I felt very comfortable during the hiring process. My research actually happened after I said yes. I watched a lot of documentaries on India (there are a ton of great ones on Netflix right now) and I read a lot of articles online. I’m still reading and watching actually. I just finished watching Daughters of Destiny on Netflix.
Describe for us what you will be teaching at SAM and what are the various workshops and classes that you will be conducting.
My schedule is full at SAM and I couldn’t be happier. I give one-hour private vocal lessons to the vocal principles, and also teach ear training, sight singing, ensemble class, music notation, music theory, singing techniques, lyric writing, and composition and arranging.
In June, I will be doing a performance workshop along with the other music faculty at SAM, where I’ll be giving classes on stage and studio performance technique, singing styles and band ensembles, amongst various others.
Who are your favourite or inspirational Indian musicians? What do you like the most about Indian music?
Right now I’m listening to Anoushka Shankar whom I find very inspirational. I just stumbled upon her collaboration with Norah Jones (a Brooklyn resident, like me), and her collaboration with Alev Lenz that are both fantastic. I also love what Sandunes (Mumbai-based electronic music producer Sanaya Ardeshir ) is doing, as well as finger-style guitarist Manan Gupta from Mumbai. I just watched him on YouTube and he is just amazing. I love what everyone else loves about Indian music; the rhythms and the scales used. It feels like freedom with a tinge of mystery to me.
What are the other things that you would love to do in Chennai?
I’d love to visit the Madras High Court as well as the marketplace in T Nagar. One must-do on my list is experiencing as much South Indian food as possible. I’m on the hunt for a great dosa place!