On the Path of Music Rediscovery

Story by Neethu Ramchandar

Photos by Lindsay Minar

Video by Luke Harris

Climbing the stairs, the student’s pace quickens. Rhythm pulses through the body in anticipation of the session to come. Outside his office, the student pauses. Quietly, as though any movement may interrupt the creative energy, the door is nudged open. Even with the slightest crack of the door, the beats of the tabla spill into the hallway.

Inside the small classroom sits Doug Scheuerell. There he is perched upon a stack of blankets and mats just high enough to keep his back straight and legs comfortable during hours of music. Across from Scheurell, his students slip off their shoes in accordance to Indian tradition, and take their place on their own brightly-colored Indian rug. Scheuerell inquires sincerely about his students’ week as they unpack the tabla waiting for them. Students at the University of Oregon are privileged to use a school set of drums during their classes and practice. After the tablas are set in their stands, two sturdy rings for each half, class begins.

The tabla is a North Indian drum consisting of two parts: a larger drum that provides deep rhythmic sounds and a smaller right hand drum that produces tight cycles of beats.

“Even those well-versed in Western classical music come into my classes at ground zero,” Scheuerell explains. “It’s a journey for them to be exposed to Hindustani [North Indian] music. I have to explain to them the systems of notes and cycles. It’s a difficult process,” he says. “Many of my students take lessons for near three years. However, even one term of tabla starts a student on an eye opening journey.”

For Scheuerell, music has always come naturally. As a vocal artist he was often described as “gifted.”

My first grade teacher once told my principal to come listen to me sing,” Scheuerell recalls. “I was taken to the eight[h] grade chorus to be used as a model of how they should sing. That was quite an honor, although it was quite scary singing in front of all those much older kids.”

His fourth grade music teacher had him lead the other students in simple songs. “We would listen to the radio and then mimic what was sung,” Scheuerell says. “I was always really good at that.”

At the age of nine, Scheuerell sang “Beautiful Dreamer” at a nurse’s conference as his first paid gig. From fourth to sixth grade Scheuerell was the lead soloist and occasional director of the boy’s chorus.

After high school, Scheuerell made his way to the University of Wisconsin. As only the second person in his family to go to college, he found college to be a shocking experience. He was not used to the amount of work and dedication required of a student. Previously, he had devoted so much time and energy to music that school had been a lesser priority.

At first, Scheuerell was afraid of declaring a major in music. Since he had only taken private singing lessons, he did not feel learned enough to pursue a full major in music.

“I had to practice piano for hours a day in order to catch up with my peers,” Scheuerell says. “However, once I started my music major, everything fit into place. Before that, I was just sort of drifting.”

In addition to his time-consuming music classes, Scheuerell threw himself into the various music groups that the University of Wisconsin had to offer.

“At some point, I sang in every men’s group that we had,” Scheuerell says. “These included the top vocal group called Tudor Singers. That one was special because out of 200 people there to audition, I was chosen to be one of 22.”

Scheuerell’s musical ventures led him to partake in an opera, various musicals and the Men’s Glee Club.

While at the University of Wisconsin, Scheuerell’s opera professor helped finish Haydn’s “Land of the Moon.” Scheuerell and his peers then traveled to Chicago to perform the finished version. “I played the part of a fool. It was a lot of fun.”

As the end of his time as a college student came near, Scheuerell was offered a position as a director. However, he turned it down to be a musician. About six months later, Scheuerell joined the band Shane Todd and the Shane Gang, and traveled throughout the state to perform. In addition, he composed freelance music for PBS and wrote music for the film Wisconsin We Care.

After three-and-a-half years of pursuing anything and everything musical, Scheuerell felt he had begun to lose himself.

“I had always liked the idea of music being spiritually connected,” Scheuerell says. “However, when I was moving so fast, my musical identity was fading. That was my sign to move on to a new adventure.”

In 1974, at the age of 26, Scheuerell hitchhiked his way to California from Wisconsin and fell in love with the musical culture bursting out of San Francisco. A few months later, he packed up his amps and guitars and moved to the West Coast.

However, after a short while, he decided to pick up again. This time he packed only the essentials, leaving behind his instruments and deciding to see the world.

The tabla is a North Indian drum consisting of two parts: a larger drum that provides deep rhythmic sounds and a smaller right hand drum that produces tight cycles of beats.

This global journey took Scheuerell through most of Europe and Asia, including India.

“It was during this year of traveling that I really got in tune with the different kinds of music,” Scheuerell says. “And from it all, Indian music seemed to be so closely linked to spirituality that I was inspired.”

Returning to San Francisco a year later, Scheuerell found himself disoriented. He had been so far from Western culture that fitting back into the mold was difficult. “Home,” he recalls, “no longer felt like home.”

Eventually, Scheuerell left San Francisco. The intention was to test himself; setting out to create music in an environment less bustling than California. This journey led him to New Mexico where he lived in a bare room, meditating and practicing his guitar.

“It had to cook in my mind, heart and soul before I could devote to the tabla and the practice it would take,” Scheuerell says. “It came to me in a meditative state. I couldn’t ignore the signs. It was like a hammer hitting my head. I knew it at that moment, I had to become a tabla player.”

Soon thereafter, a newly-inspired Scheuerell sold his car, bought a van, into which he packed all that he owned, and began his search for a teacher.

“I had read about the Ali Akbar College of Music, but I wasn’t ready to commit so much to the tabla,” Scheuerell says. “It took me three trips to California before I registered. Meanwhile, I found a few teachers who really helped me along my journey.”

He traveled to Eugene where Gregory Stout, his first tabla teacher, offered him eight lessons. “That was nice, and I really respected him,” Scheuerell says. “But I really wanted more. So I went to California where I knew there would be a more abundance of teachers.”

Scheuerell found Swami Nada Brahmananda, a spiritual teacher, to teach him tabla. However, after three lessons Scheuerell realized that this style was lacking the classical training he desired. “I was really close to my teacher,” Scheuerell says with teary eyes. “It was only after I received his blessings that I went on to look for another teacher.”

In 1981, Scheuerell enrolled in the famous Ali Akbar College of Music. Although he had already been admitted, the school offered many levels of class, and enrolling in each level required a separate audition.

When Scheuerell first arrived at the school, he was asked to play for the Maestro Ali Akbar Khan. The piece that he chose to play impressed the instructors and so he was allowed to skip a series of beginning classes to go straight to the more advanced classes.

“I guess he like what I played,” Scheuerell recalls. “I think I really just surprised him when I told him that I had learned the piece from a record called Playing Tabla in 42 Lessons.”

Upon admission, Scheuerell began taking classes with Khan, who is internationally known for his work on Sarode, and later on with Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, a famous percussionist and tabla teacher.

At the music school, Scheuerell focused on tabla, but spent so much time in classes that he picked up skills on many areas of Hindustani music.

“I spent the majority of my time doing simple tasks to earn my keep,” Scheuerell explains. “I feel so very fortunate that I was allowed to spend so much time at the school. I learned the most sitting in the back of classes simply following along.”

The tabla is a North Indian drum consisting of two parts: a larger drum that provides deep rhythmic sounds and a smaller right hand drum that produces tight cycles of beats.

These tasks included everything from taking care of the instruments to sweeping the parking lot. Scheuerell did everything he could to be allowed his six to eight hours of practice a day. This routine went on for years before practice shrank to just two hours daily.

“It was never what my teachers said to me that made me good,” he says, “but rather I was affected by the looks and pleased gestures that molded by own ability to make music. By dedicating myself to music, I created special bonds with my teachers. I loved them and they really loved me as well.”

As Scheuerell grew more attracted to the tabla, he began lessons with Chaudhuri. During classes, Chaudhuri passed on the teachings of tabla from Hindustani schools of music dating far into India’s history.

Thinking back to his very first accompanying performance, Scheuerell allowed the tears to flow.

“My first accompanying experience was with Don Willis,” Scheuerell says. “He was an amazing musician and I didn’t feel ready at all. However, he gave me confidence and the concert was nothing but magical. There was a satisfaction that I felt afterwards that reaches beyond anything material. This feeling is one that I have after every and any concert, no matter the size.”

“My mind was getting crowded with music,” he explains, “Not just the music, but all the commotion and business that my life was holding. I needed to get back in touch with the music and myself.”

Eugene served as a sort of escape for him. He would camp in the woods for months at a time. “I was able to meditate and be a part of the environment,” he says, “but at the same time I could practice my tabla alone for hours a day. I didn’t realize it then, but I was living the life. It was as if I was singing to my own tune, letting the world pass me by. I was as free as a butterfly, and I got to be with my music.”

Scheuerell eventually made his way to Eugene in a permanent move, and in 1994 began teaching at the University of Oregon, where he started with only two students.

“I was assigned a closet with no door somewhere in the GTF department,” Scheuerell recalls of his first office. “Eventually I got my own door and a few more students.”

Now Scheuerell has an office and a classroom in the music building, although, this term, he continues to have only two students.

After beginning teaching at the University of Oregon, Scheuerell continued to be a musician. In January 2008 he released his CD, titled Communion. The album contains Hindustani music as well as many others, including jazz. The pieces are solo features as well as collaborations with musicians such as Paul McCandless, Glenn Moore, Glen Velez, Colin Farish, Ben Kunin, and Jeff Defty.

In addition to releasing his CD, Scheuerell has given many concerts.

“I have played solo tabla in concerts many times over the years from small venues to large, most at the U of O School of Music,” Scheuerell says. “The largest venue was opening for Grateful Dead’s guitarist Bob Weir at the Eugene Hilton, which was stuffed with over 1,200 people.”

While this picturesque music career includes traveling around the world and living in perfect harmony with one’s self and the music he loves, it’s a livelihood that has had its ups and downs as well.

While at the University of Oregon, Scheuerell struggled with cancer. It was a physical and musical mountain to climb that set his recording schedule back. However, now that he is doing better, Scheurell says the important thing is to move on and be thankful for his current health.

Throughout his music career, Scheuerell always knew that he wanted to be a music teacher. Specifically he felt as though sharing music with college students would be rewarding. If he could simply expose them to a piece of Indian music, his job would be successfully putting his music gifts to use. And so, despite the wavering numbers of students he has had over the years, Scheuerell continues to share his music with students.

“Many of my students have graduated or are on tour so this term I have very few students,” Scheuerell says. “However, I hope to get more students next term. I’m here to teach students, no matter their level, who are passionate about learning tabla.”

Scheuerell’s classes are open to all, and allow students to explore Hindustani music along with the tabla.

“Some say it takes 20 years to become a good tabla player,” Scheuerell says. “I’ve been playing for much longer and I still have much to learn. And as long as my body will let me, I’ll keep playing. There’s something about the tabla that can be matched by nothing else in this world.”

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