Every parent who’s raised kids in the last half-century must have at some point braced themselves for the day when their preteens would ask for a drum kit or an electric guitar. So you can imagine how surprised PBS senior director of children’s programming Linda Simensky’s folks must have been when their middle-grade daughter – a huge fan of The Beatles and particularly the song ‘Norwegian Wood’ – expressed her desire to take up the sitar. They said no at the time, but destiny stepped in a few years later, and Simensky has been plucking away ever since.
It just so happens that she attended the University of Pennsylvania, one of three US colleges that offer an Indian Music Theory course as part of a larger Southeast Asian Studies program. So for three years, she and a handful of other students formally learned to play the sitar, developing the thick callouses and black fingertip grooves that are worn like a badge of honor amongst serious disciples of the instrument. Outside of class, she even remembers hunkering down and jamming with a group of friends on the campus green, which would have been groovy in the ’70s, but didn’t go over so well in the Reagan era.
After graduation, Simensky moved to New York and got involved in the burgeoning performance arts scene. Trolling the city’s many music shops, she finally found and bought a dilapidated sitar from the ’60s whose base (sitars are made out of gourds) was decaying rapidly. ‘It sounded like a maraca, there were so many loose bits in it,’ she remembers. Nevertheless, Simensky kept herself busy with gigs – as there weren’t many sitar savants around in those days, anyone looking to infuse their band or act with a different sound came knocking on her door.
Dressed as a beatnik, she spent some time playing back-up while Sheep in the Big City creator Mo Willems read poetry on the Monotony Variety Show. And she also had regular bookings – some of which paid a little cash – with a band rounded out by four sax players and a Brazilian drummer.
One fan who always came to see Simensky play was John Dillworth. And when he was developing Courage the Cowardly Dog a few years later for her at Cartoon Network, Dillworth dropped in a character named Muriel who played the sitar to relax when she was nervous. There’s even an episode in which Muriel wins a sitar contest and gets to perform at Radio City Music Hall. Naturally, Dillworth strong-armed Simensky into recording bits of soundtrack for these Muriel segments, and she still gets residual cheques from time to time for her contributions as a composer. ‘They used to be US$20, but now they’re more like US$3,’ she says, laughing.
Between keeping PBS Kids’ air fresh and fun and raising two active children of her own, Simensky doesn’t play that much these days, although she did an impromptu concert for her son Ethan’s yoga class last year and was quite well-received: ‘That’s really mysterious-sounding,’ said one wee fan. Simensky still collects sitar music, and is particularly into covers of hits from the ’60s like ‘Whiter Shade of Pale.’
Her musical hobby still creeps into the workplace from time to time, too. In an episode of Postcards From Buster that recently aired, Buster visits an Indian family in Philadelphia, and one of the characters plays a little sitar for him. Needless to say, Simensky gave a lot of notes on that scene.