People who know me well will tell you that I spent a big chunk of my secondary school years making music on my own. No, I didn’t have fancy recording equipment nor did I have access to a studio in my hometown Melaka. I did have a double-deck cassette mini compo, so I would make my own instrumental tracks or often some ‘minus one’ for my sister who was always singing! I did this by first recording a piano track onto one cassette, and then while playing the recorded piano track off the cassette A, I would play along and record a bass track into Cassette B instead. Then drums, strings, bells, lead… all this played ‘live’ with a Casiotone!! Ah, early days!!
As you would imagine, the quality of the end product wasn’t pristine, but it was good enough for me. When I look back, this mini compo stage was my very first stage of my music journey, but what made it grow was the process that followed soon after, copying songs from albums that I bought.
Which leads me to my next point.
There’s a theory that (even for the average Joe) the music you listen to reflects your personality. I, for one, cannot deny how much some of my favourite albums and songs have influenced the way I make music and in a big way, thus shaping the direction of my music career. It is, essentially, the road map of my journey towards being a musician, a composer, and a music producer.
So for the curious and possibly for some interested musicians who have previously asked me about ‘my secret sauce’, I’m gonna be writing about how some of my favourite albums impacted my own music and what I learned from the music over the years.
As a music producer, I oftentimes get asked this question “what does it take to be a successful artiste?”
Many expect me to say ‘talent’ alone, but a lot are surprised when I say that it often takes more than that… a combination of talent, good looks, likeability, a certain uniqueness, the ability to work hard and a huge dose of good fortune. Personally, I used to think that if you were destined for greatness, greatness would find you. However, the follow up question of “how do artistes stand the test of time?” is a lot harder to answer.
Here’s my theory.
Over the last few years I have been extremely blessed to have worked with both local and international artistes who have not just had a good measure of success but have managed to sustain a long lasting career so much so that each time these artistes’ names are mentioned, the word RESPECT inadvertently pops up.
When you think of Dato’ Sri Siti Nurhaliza, Dayang Nurfaizah, Faizal Tahir, Jaclyn Victor, Brian McKnight, Chaka Khan, Ceelo Green, Afgan, Judika & Kris Dayanti what comes to mind? All of them have had careers that span more than a decade… and the word RESPECT comes to mind too, right?
[OK, spoiler alert! Name Drop coming up]
In the past year I’ve worked with ALL of the above (warned u, didn’t I?), and I have had the privilege of observing them closely during rehearsals and shows. It struck me that all of them have one thing in common; they are all brilliant live performers who can sing ‘live’ almost flawlessly. ‘Pitch’ is hardly a concern… they deliver either an ‘Above-average’ performance, or a ‘Great’ performance most of the time. It’s like they just ‘know’ what to sing, and how to sing it. These artistes have obviously worked hard polishing the talent they already naturally possess. For them, ‘the mechanics of singing’ has become part of their arsenal, so much so they can just concentrate on the other aspects of their performance.
Meanwhile, especially on the local front, I have seen many young ‘stars’ struggle to put on decent performances during the big shows, and then wonder why they get ‘forgotten’ when the next flavor arrives on the scene. So I wonder, why don’t these ‘stars’ work on their craft a little bit more? After all they already conquered the tough part of getting to a place where they have a decent following, a decent fan base… what’s wrong with taking some vocal lessons and improving on the ‘live’ delivery? Then maybe, when they land a performance slot on a show like *AIM or **AJL, they won’t sound like a kids at their first school concert! (Thankfully, this year’s AJL has quite a few young singers who can hold their own!)
Here’s my ‘two-cents’ to these young acts: If u lack power, build it. If you lack breath control, improve your breathing technique. Go find a good vocal teacher who can teach you these things. If you can’t sing in tune, develop your ears, invest in some proper ear training, maybe learn to play some basic chords on the piano or guitar. Learn to write your own songs. Do all that for a year and you’re definitely going to be a better artiste in 12 months time. You might even survive the onslaught of the emergence of ‘next big thing’. And then, go improve yourself some more!
I didn’t write this piece to put down the new kids. I write this with the hope to see them get better and better, so that, instead of just having overnight YouTube viral stars and reality show ‘graduates’ with short-lived careers, we actually have a generation of great young artistes who last, a generation of artistes that genuinely command … (and here’s that word again)… RESPECT!
Keep the Music Real!
* AIM: Anugerah Industri Muzik (Malaysian Music Industry Awards)
** AJL: Anugerah Juara Lagu (TV3’s Annual Song Competition). This year’s AJL will be on February 11th, 2018
With music charts in hand, we go into the rehearsals. This part is akin to the ‘construction’ phase, except that it doesn’t take quite as long. Personally it’s my favorite part of the job, especially when you have a band like mine! (Shout-out to all the Cranky musicians… you all know who you are!)
During rehearsals, all the musicians gather in a rehearsal space or studio to play through the written arrangements. In some cases elsewhere, sometimes there are no written charts at all, but having them just makes things a lot quicker and time-efficient. It must be pointed out that often times, the Cranky musicians make changes as we go along, so the ‘written’ parts aren’t always ‘carved in stone’… but we think of it as a suggested road map. If a musical detour offers a better route, we take it. I suppose the reason why better musicians make better music together is the fact that they always have great ideas that contribute to an exciting journey.
And on the rare occasions when things don’t work out, it’s up to the MD to steer things back to its intended course. Make sense?
At some point the Artiste joins in the fun, depending on the preference of the individual. Some like to be involved from the very beginning, others prefer to come in when the music is just about done and some will just come in during the final stages.
This rehearsal phase takes about a week or so. I think there’s a fine line between under-practicing (not practicing enough) and over-practicing (practicing too much). Under-practicing results in everyone being unsure of their parts and prone to mistakes during showtime; while over-practicing on the other hand can be just as problematic when musicians get overconfident, or worse, jaded with the music. This leads to what I would call ‘sterile’ music, when musicians (me included) just go through the motions. A sweet spot is when everybody knows their part well enough that it still has room for some creative spark that can add to the final product.
The Furnishing Phase – Putting the Final Touches
A couple of days before the concert days, the team ‘bumps in’ to the venue. After a few hours of making sure the equipment and sound is in order, we try to run through the whole show a few times more. This is our last opportunity to make any improvements, so as much as I need to play my parts (I play piano!), there’s also a need to keep an attentive ear to the music and of course, what the artiste is doing too. On top of this, we also try to ensure the artiste is completely comfortable on stage. This are also the time when the stage and lights crew get busy, so as you can see there’s a whole lot of stuff going on. Here’s where having a great production team is invaluable, because a less competent team always results in time-consuming hiccups.
Once the venue rehearsals are completed, we are now ready for Showtime. Here’s where the MD pretty much sits back and enjoys the performing part, unless, God-forbid, something goes awry. When it does, it’s again up to the MD to steer the band back to where we ought to be, or at least minimize the damage. As they say, ‘shit happens’ (especially on show day!) but if the MD does his job properly, only the very sharp ears would notice anything amiss.
So there it is… a quick run-down of what a Music Director of Music does. In essence, being a Music Director is so much more than just ‘playing the music’. It does look like fun, but it takes time and skill to do it right.
The picture above? That’s been me for the past two weeks or so, preparing for a concert* next month. A lot of us see the end product of a concert and go ‘Wow, that was Awesome!’, but oftentimes never realize the work that goes into making it awesome. Maybe that’s why I still get ‘clients’ who have proposed to put up a concert or show ‘in two weeks time’. Of course, they never quite end up being my clients after that.
I’m sure it’s possible to put up a show in such a tight timeline, but as someone once said, “Quality takes time but excellence takes a little longer.” And I hate putting up ‘so-so’ shows!!
So what exactly does my job as a Music Director (MD) entail?
To make things easier to understand let’s take parallels from the construction industry.
The Architect Phase 1 – Envisioning
Well before anything is built, we have an architect who envisions, and then draws up the plans for the new building. The ‘architect’ phase of the MD can take months** before rehearsals start.
Armed with the ‘big picture’ concept of the show (this is normally worked out with the artist and the whole concert production team), this where I literally lock myself in the studio going through every one of the songs to see how best to present it in a ‘live’ concert setting. Obviously we need the songs to be more exciting, more explosive, more heartfelt, basically… more everything! Think about it, if the live versions weren’t better than the recorded version, why would anyone bother to come out to the concerts in the first place? Listening to the album in the comforts of home will suit that purpose, right? So I comb through every song one by one and come up with what is called the ‘music arrangement’.
In music, an arrangement is a musical reconceptualization of a previously composed work. It may differ from the original work by means of reharmonization, melodic paraphrasing, orchestration, or development of the formal structure. Wikipedia
The Architect Phase 2 – Drawing the plans
With the envisioning (arrangement) done, I then proceed to write the music charts so that every musician knows exactly what to play. Sort of like when the building plans get drawn up so the construction guys know what to do. Speaking of music charts, you know how the movies always portray someone just walking up on the stage and goes on to flawlessly perform with the band/orchestra? Let me tell you, that NEVER happens in real life! Imagine having everyone in the 40-piece orchestra play any NOTE they wanted, at any TIME they wanted? Nah, I don’t think so. That’s why music charts are written… and music charts are probably the most tedious part of the MD’s job. Thankfully this is something we can outsource sometimes.
With music charts in hand, we go into the rehearsals. I’ll write about rehearsals in my next piece. For now, I’ve got to go and finish some music arrangements.
Till next time, KEEP MUSIC REAL!
*I will be the MD for this year’s Anugerah Juara Lagu (AJL), an annual TV3 Song competition
My ‘Aubrey Suwito and Friends’ concert with the MPO… which we released as an album only recently.
Kris Dayanti’s ‘Romansa’ concert. Loved the artiste, loved the band, loved the music we made together!
The Kuala Lumpur SEA Games Closing Ceremony. It was a LOT of work, but it was an honor to have gotten the job.
Things that you’re glad you got to do?
Re-start my exercise program
Watch my younger son ‘graduate’ Primary School.
Perform with Chaka Khan, Brian McKnight, Ceelo Green and Eric Benet. I was pinching myself when I realized I was playing ‘Thru the Fire’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody’ with the legend herself. Not going to forget that anytime soon!
Discovering an amazing steak restaurant, ‘Meat Point’. (Hint in case anyone wants to take me out for dinner!)
What do u wish you had done, but didn’t?
Gone for a vacation. Maybe in 2018!
Things you wish you had done more of?
Play more tennis, but on some days there just wasn’t enough time or energy.
The SEA Games Closing Ceremony
Biggest challenge you faced?
Juggling the Nova Concert (Judika, Cakra Khan, Faizal Tahir, and many others) workload with the SEA Games deadlines. Both happened in August, and the deadlines were just 10 days apart! We had confirmed Nova only a few days before the SEA Games job landed, so it was pure madness in the months of July/August!
Biggest disappointment of the year?
Arsenal FC. Nuff said.
What did 2017 teach you?
To be a little bit more calm during stressful times.
What made 2017 unique?
I think 2017 was unique cos I never had a day that I wasn’t supposed to be working. It was one project after another and my ‘breaks’ were more like, “Hang it, work can wait for a day, I’m going out for a movie!” Normally in other years I would have at least a week’s breather in between projects.
Any lessons learned?
The same as always, to take care of my spiritual and emotional self, cos I see too many musicians out there just neglecting this part of their lives. Sometimes, it’s not all about the music.
Also, to love the people that love you too.
If your 2017 had a theme, what would it be?
The year that passed by too quickly! (But it was a good year, nonetheless!)
There’s an English saying that goes something like, ‘If you’re not improving you’re falling behind.’ This saying rings especially true to those of us who are in the creative field. Grow, or fade away!
So from the ‘early days’ of me hanging around studios as an ‘assistant’, right up to these ‘more successful’ days working on choice projects, two things have always anchored the way I produce music. One, to make positive music that touches people, and two, to always be conscious of my production values so that my music gets better over time.
Speaking of growth, I have been blessed with an ever-expanding work portfolio. In the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to work with the Malaysian National Symphony Orchestra and the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Working with full-fledged orchestras has had such a steep learning curve that it sometimes felt like I was sitting for a tough exam paper. Certainly a far cry from the duos, and the 4-piece bands that I started my early career with! So when the offer came from the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas management to be the first Malaysian ‘non-artiste’ to be featured with the Malaysian Philharmornic Orchestra, my wife and I saw it as an opportunity to showcase our songs, our work and our musical influences into a once-in-a-lifetime performance. We also decided to record the proceedings, if only to have an archive of such a precious moment.
I recall listening to the raw recordings some time after the ‘live’ show had ended, and remember feeling overawed by the emotion, the grandeur, the intimacy and the sheer virtuosity on show. This recording simply had to be released as an album because of the amazing performances put in by all the artistes and musicians.
Let me be the first to tell you that this is NOT an album for everyone, but it is targeted for Malaysian music lovers who still appreciate good songs, good music and good musicianship. My hope is that this album will serve as OUR archive of good Malaysian-made music. Furthermore, I also hope that this album can serve as a reminder that if we do things right, we will always have a fighting chance of staying the course of our intended destination.
To all the music fans in Malaysia, please do all you can to support our local music industry. We have a unique pool of talent that is bred from our equally unique cultural melting pot. Every other country supports local music, and we should too!
This album is a celebration of 30 years in music. I trust that it can also be a celebration of a constantly growing local music industry.
Taken from our upcoming album, ‘Aubrey Suwito & Friends with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra‘, we are pleased to announce that the ‘Awan Yang Terpilu‘ single is now available for download on iTunes.
Caller Ring Tones also available:
Maxis Caller Ringtones: Dial *131*579863# and press CALL/SEND
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Written by Lin Li Zhen and Loloq, this classic (AIM Song Of the Year, 2005) has been given a fresh remake by the sultry vocals of Dayang Nurfaizah and the 70-piece orchestra, led by music producer Aubrey Suwito.
Watch the sneak peak:
Here is another clip:
The complete ‘Aubrey Suwito & Friends with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’ album is slated for a December 2017 release. It will be available in CD format as well as Digital Downloads.