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.
Just thought I’d share with you guys how the AIM judging system works, and also the role that the Head Judge (Ketua Juri) plays.
For every category there are about 6 to 8 ‘judges’ who sit in a room to listen to all the submissions. These judges are experts in that given field. For example, the ‘Best Pop Song’ category might have people who are composers, lyricists, producers, artistes and Radio DJs; while the ‘Best Engineered’ award will basically be judged by sound engineers and possibly a few music producers too.
As you can imagine there are a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds, level of experience, and way of thinking… all sitting in the various rooms judging different AIM Award categories.
To add to the complexity of AIM judging, every Award has a different set of judging criteria that the judges have to give marks to.
So before the judging starts in every room the Head Judge will briefly explain every criteria to all the judges in that room. The Head Judge then leaves the room and stays out until or unless there is a problem or a point that needs clarification. For example, there was a query from the ‘Best Hip Hop Song’ room that a certain song was in the ‘wrong’ criteria because it was a Nasyid song. The Head Judge will then have to check if that was a mistake, and if not, to deliberate whether or not the Nasyid song qualified to be in the Hip Hop category.
Sometimes the Head Judge would also have to clarify and elaborate the various criteria used in some Awards. Example, what would ‘Effectiveness’ mean in the ‘Best Music Arrangement’ context. Or whether or not the suspected use of Autotune should affect the judging on ‘Best Vocal Performance’?!
I hope this clears up some misconceptions some may have about the AIM system and the role of the Head Judge. Do realize that AIM judging is different from other awards like AJL. It is a lot more tedious, technical and thorough.
Hence the very different role of the Head Judge which I personally think should be called ‘Keeper of the Rules’ , or something like that.
And no, the Head Judge aka ‘Keeper of the Rules’ does not give any marks for any AIM award. The role is a purely technical one.
If you took the time to read till the very end, thank you. In moving forward, I believe whoever is picked to be the AIM Head Judge aka ‘Keeper of the Rules’ should be someone who is still actively involved in the music industry (if you’re active you would probably have some nominated work, wouldn’t you?) and have the respect of all the judges involved.
When I was in music college, an instructor once talked about the importance of getting the ‘matters of the heart’ in order. The ‘heart’ being both the physical and the emotional sides. In his analogy, our music skills are like a well-tuned racing car, capable of amazing feats that can astound millions with its speed, dexterity and beauty; but then a car is only as good as its driver, and an incompetent driver can never take full advantage of the true potential of a race car.
Now this man wasn’t a spiritual man by any means, but he brought up a very salient point that there is a need for musicians to take care of the physical, emotional & spiritual aspects of our lives.
Being a young man myself at the time, I heard him… but I never really HEARD him.
Many years later I came across this chart while studying Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People that rekindled that notion again. Yes, yes… some musicians actually read useful stuff! Sometimes.
Briefly, these are 4 boxes that one would use to classify and prioritize all our tasks at hand. We only have 24 hours a day after all.
The easy one to figure out would be Box 1 – Urgent & Important. That’s a no brainer. Preparation for tomorrow’s show just cannot be avoided, can it? So that goes into Box 1.
The blurred lines appear when we’re trying to decide what to put in Box 2 – Not Urgent & Important and Box 3 – Urgent & Not Important. Which box would you put these in:
Going out with after a gig for late night/early morning supper
Getting some good night’s sleep
Doing something for a friend’s ‘urgent’ deadline
Some people would do stuff in Box 3 first, on the basis that these things are ‘urgent’. In musician-lingo, these would include ‘showing up for everybody else’s show’, ‘updating social media every ten minutes’ & ‘taking every possible booking’, among others. And then we leave no time for important (but not necessarily urgent) stuff like practicing our craft, exercising, taking care of spiritual & family matters, and taking a step back every now and then to see where our career is going.
While Box 3 can be ‘urgent’, I have learned that Box 2, if left unattended for too long can wield devastating side effects on my own music. On a personal basis, I find that time and again I am useless as a musician & songwriter when things are not in order. Without exercise, I am often just too tired/lazy/uninspired to do any work of great quality. And really, who can really be creative when they just had a stupid quarrel with the wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend? On a deeper note… if music is supposed to be a reflection of your soul, what music are you putting out when your spiritual self is a barren wasteland?
Those who know me well will know that I am not a ‘preacher’ type. I do, however, see a lot of my friends in this music industry who are just filled with busy-ness… and truth be told, I sometimes worry for them. We are all traveling down the same path after all!
Hey, I’m not asking you guys to do a 180 degree change! (Altho’ for some of you that might do wonders, hehe!) But I am hoping that those who read this can take a step back, prioritize, learn to say ‘no’ every once in a while, and get the ‘soul’ back in order again.
Then maybe we will get to see more musical ‘racing cars’ driven at full potential on our industry roads.
So from both the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’, we can keep the Music Real!
I remember the first day I set my eyes on the Berklee College Of Music in Boston. It had been a dream of mine for some time already and to finally be walking towards the music college of my dreams was certainly a surreal experience.
The picture above kind of depicts the first ‘scene’ that greeted me when I walked up to the college entrance.
It was towards the early part of Fall, so the weather outside was nice and cool. Students were ‘hangin’ along the corridors, presumably between classes. Some of them looked like genuine rock stars and some others looked like real jazz fraternity, complete with all the right swagger, attitude and lingo. Being a typical Malaysian I was quickly rather intimidated by all these ‘musicians’. I was thinking, “Man, they must be really good!” despite myself having raked up about 5 years as a working musician already.
The one thing I learnt from that experience? Turns out most of the characters I saw on that day were never the cream of the Berklee crop. Na, the good ones were inside, quietly practicing and honing their craft. They didn’t even wear the ‘correct’ clothes. ☺ But some of them were already amazing musicians.
Here’s another story that happened later on in my Berklee years.
I was selected to be part of the annual Singers’ Showcase concert. During that time, this was a showcase of the best singers and musicians that Berklee had to offer. And I was hand-picked to be the piano player! So on the first day of rehearsal I excitedly walked into the rehearsal studio only to find I was a little early, and there was only an African-American guy already sitting by the piano. As I walk towards the piano and start putting my things down, this was how the conversation went:
Me: “Hey, Wassup?!” Other dude: “All good. (Pause, and then in a condescending tone) YOU the piano player?” Me: “Yeah” Other dude: “Can you play??”
Now, how many of you know how to answer that calmly without getting intimidated? BTW, turns out he was one of the better singers that year! Rude as hell, but good nonetheless!
My point is this. As polite Malaysians we are often bowled over by ‘foreign acts’. Yes I’ll be first to admit there are amazing, more talented artistes and musicians from abroad; and we should really grab the chance to learn from them and get better ourselves. I myself am so thankful that I got a chance to learn from the best over the last one year. However, I have also seen the ugly side of Malaysians who have put some of the ‘less talented’ foreigners on a pedestal only because they come from the ‘other side’ of the world without even checking out the work these people have (or rather, have not) done. Sadly, from what I understand, this is not confined to only the music industry. What does that say about us?
Anyway, lest anybody start the ‘sour grapes’ chant, let me be clear. This is NOT about protecting the ‘rice bowl’. This is NOT about protecting local rights. If you suck, you suck! Too bad! Strive to get better. This is certainly NOT about jealousy or ‘dengki*’. I write this only to remind ourselves, to always try to look at one’s talent & ability first and not be too easily swayed by skin color, or even the charismatic jargon that some use to hide their inabilities. The ones who have put in their dues and are good at what they do, and they are the ones who deserve respect.
So why not hire the ones that CAN, because only then would you be getting your money’s worth.