An Interview with a Master: Ustad Narinder Singh Sandhu

Ustad Narinder Singh Sandhu, affectionately called Ustad-ji, is a masterful teacher of raag, a style of classical Indian music. Ragis [the singers of raag] bring the sacred Sikh shabads, or hymns, to life. Ustad-ji’s velvety singing voice and his expansive love for God and all God’s creations makes studying with him a unique experience.  He has taught many of the professional Kirtan artists in the west today with his unique style, one-half singing scales and one-half divine transmission.

The following interview took place over several conversations during the spring of 2010 in Amritsar, India…

RK: “What is the shabad guru?”

Ustad-ji: “The shabad guru is a way to get to God.  You do not have to use this way. You can call it God or Allah or Ram or Buddha or whatever you want and get to him.  But the shabad guru is a powerful way to get to God.  It is an energy in a sacred song, a very sacred energy.”

RK: “What is the difference between the Guru and God?”

Ustad-ji: “There is no difference.  Guru is God.  God is guru.  There is no difference between God and anything, and if you meditate you experience thatEk ong kar. God and everything are one thing.”

RK: “What is raag?”

Ustad-ji: “How can I answer that question?  Maybe I say it is a series of notes used to make a melody, each having different emotions.  But that is not what it is.  A raag must be experienced.  It cannot be talked about.”

RK: “You have worked with many of the great singers in the west that Spirit Voyage readers might be familiar with.  Do you have any favorites?”

Ustad-ji: “I have worked with so many students from the west.  Hari Bhajan Kaur, Ram Dass Singh, Snatam Kaur, Nirinjan Kaur, Chardi Kalaa Jatha…  Everyone. But every student is my favorite student.  Some study for a short time, some for a long time.  But God is in every heart.  Sometimes a student does not have such a musical voice, but they work patiently and have the desire within them to sing and then suddenly a beautiful sound comes out and the words open up all their senses.  Very beautiful.”

RK: “You talk about the students who don’t have such musical voices.  Have you ever had a student come to you with a “bad” voice who wasn’t able to learn to sing?”

Ustad-ji: “No student fails at singing, it has never happened.  A student can fail themselves, can get impatient or not do the work.  But if a student practices and is patient, they always succeed in singing well.  It is science.  God is in you.  You are an instrument.  You have to learn how to play you, but in the end, you are the instrument and God is making the music.  That is why everyone can sing in the end.  God has many notes to play and many different instruments.”

RK: “How can someone improve their voice for singing?”

Ustad-ji: “The voice has three ranges, low, middle and high.  To practice the low range is very important.  Here is where all the sweetness comes into the voice.  If you want a voice with beautiful sweetness, then you must practice the low notes.  But if you over practice and push too much, you can ruin your voice here too.  Be moderate.  Practice just enough.  Do not think oh, so and so practices three hours a day.  No.  You will ruin your voice.  Start with 20 minutes, for 5 days.  Then go to 30 minutes.  After a few weeks, go up to 45 then after a bit up to an hour.  Slowly, slowly. And do not sing each note so hard like the western scale, Da Da Da!  No.  Slide up and down the notes.  Gently slide.  That will bring more control.  But this is just one part of the work.  The real job, your real job, if you want to be a singer is to clean your inside.  Clean your body, clean your mind, clean your heart.  Clean, clean, clean.  Fear is toxic.  Anger is toxic.  Bad behavior is toxic.  Purify your thoughts and your body. You must meditate, there is no other way, and clean yourself.  Then you will be able to sing.”

RK: “So often in your classes, we learn to play musical instruments.  There are those of us playing harmonium, tabla, tampura, dilruba, and others.  What is the role of an instrument in raag?”

Ustad-ji: “Playing an instrument is a way to remember God.  You can say God’s name 100,000 times and still not remember him.  He is within.  Through meditation we open our sense so we can feel him again.  The stages of anand [joy] work through them! That is why we sing God’s name; that is why we play instruments.  We hope that one day God’s name pierces our insides and we remember him, we feel him.  The shabads are diamonds.  If you play them, diamonds are in your hands.  If you sing them, diamonds are in your mouth.  Playing an instrument for God is like putting a diamond in your heart.”

RK: “Are there any recordings of classical raag that you recommend for someone to have an experience of the shabad guru?”

Ustad-ji: “Ragis — inside we have so many different colors.  You cannot fully capture us on a recording.  It depends on what color we are using, whether we are feeling red or green.  Every raag has its own emotion, then there is the emotion of the crowd listening, there is the emotion of what I am feeling that day and the emotion that I am trying to convey.  Each has its own color and when you put it together then you have a painting.  But you cannot record all those colors in a studio.  So much is lost.  The shabad guru is in the colors, in the painting, not in the print.”



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Ramdesh Kaur, MA, is an IKYTA Certified Kundalini Yoga teacher trained by Gurmukh. She writes extensively on yoga, spirituality and mantra. She hosts the show "Spirit Voyage Radio with Ramdesh" on Unity FM, one of the Top 100 Itunes Podcasts, and leads Spirit Voyage's 40 Day Global Sadhanas, which bring together 20,000 meditators from 65 countries. Before working with Spirit Voyage, she was the residential Kundalini yoga teacher at Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh, India in the Himalyan foothills, and has a Master's Degree from the Courtauld Institute in London. She is the author of "Yoga and Mantras for a Whole Heart" with Karan Khalsa and has three best selling guided meditation CDs "Journey into Stillness", "Relaxation Meditations", and "Stress Relief Meditations" (with crystal singing bowl master Ashana) all available on Spirit Voyage, ITunes and Amazon. She teaches at festivals internationally and leads powerful personal creativity retreats in Mexico with her partner Harnam Singh, an accomplished mantra musician. www.ramdesh.com

4 Comments

  1. thanks for sharing such thoughts and telling us to how to sing better..ustad ji..!!

    Reply
  2. i’m trying to learn harmonium and i have question what is best time to practice (reaaz) morning or evening and how much you time should I do it for… please email me the answer..

    Reply
  3. Sat Nam,

    EXCELLENT article Ramdesh Kaur.

    Gives me hope that I too one day will be able to sing. Perhaps Ustad Narinder Singh Sandhu will be at Summer Solstice this year.

    peace to ALL,

    Reply

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