Category Archives: Musicians’ Life

The MUSIC DIRECTOR’s Job – Part 1

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.

Envisioning the Kris Dayanti concert

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 with the MPO” show took about 9 months to prepare for. The CD is now available here.

2017 In Review

The Highlights

So many in 2017!

  1. My ‘Aubrey Suwito and Friends’ concert with the MPO… which we released as an album only recently.
  2. Kris Dayanti’s ‘Romansa’ concert. Loved the artiste, loved the band, loved the music we made together!
  3. 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?

  1. Re-start my exercise program
  2. Watch my younger son ‘graduate’ Primary School.
  3. 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!
  4. 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!)

Aubrey Suwito & Friends with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra

(To order the CD, click here)

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.

And so we now present to you… Aubrey Suwito & Friends with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. Featuring (in order of appearance) Dayang Nurfaizah, Sean Ghazi, Jaclyn Victor and Faizal Tahir, all of whom performed so magnificently on those nights and also wonderful people whom I am proud to call my friends.

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.


(To order the CD, click here)

The Judging Process for AIM (Malaysian Music Industry Awards)

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.

AIM LogoFor 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.

One of us didn't really do any judging. Guess who?
With the judges for one of the ‘Rooms’. One of us didn’t really do any judging. Guess who?

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.

Let’s continue to Make Music Real.

To Do, or Not to Do; That is the Question

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

Tough choice?

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?


To do or not to do...
To do or not to do… Source:

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!


Can You Play?!

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:

Singers' Showcase. Not your ordinary 'college' production!
Singers’ Showcase. Not your ordinary ‘college’ production!

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.

Here’s to keeping the music REAL!


* dengki: envy, jealousy, spiteful

Learning From The Best

Writing this in my Jakarta hotel room, just after my first rehearsal for our 2nd leg of the David Foster & Friends (DFF) Asia Tour. It was quite a long rehearsal (6 hours), but we covered almost everything in one session. That’s a tough feat for anyone but here’s what I observed about the way things get done with a top international act like this.

The band (L-R): Boh Cooper, Andy Peterson, John ‘JR’ Robinson, me & Jamie Wilson.

The first thing that struck me when I first played with these guys last year (for the 1st leg) was their attention to detail. Everything is performed in the right place, with the correct tempo, with the exact note-lengths (nothing held too long or too short), with the proper insinuations, and at the required dynamic volume. So although it was a relatively small band, it sounded big and tight!

Your ‘sound’ plays such an important part in a gig like this. No keyboard ‘factory’ patches, please! You make sure your sound is accurate, fat and impressive. I guess that’s the secret ingredient that makes a small band sound big.

Another key was preparation, right from the person who prepared all the charts to the musicians who all did their homework BEFORE coming in to rehearsal. With everyone knowing (roughly) what they were supposed to play, rehearsal became a ‘sharpening tool’ rather than a time to ‘learn stuff’.

Common courtesy is also very apparent in the way everyone always has a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ before and after every request made. There’s never a show of egos or tempers flaring although some of the band are certified music legends. Believe me, the number of local upstarts I’ve seen ‘losing it’ only prove that empty vessels DO make the most noise!

I talked about dynamics earlier but let me share something that happened during rehearsal. We were rehearsing a famous ballad right in the midst of a long grueling session, right about the time where it’s not closer to the beginning then it is to the end. Kind of like when you’re in the middle of a marathon where the adrenalin has worn off, and the finish line is nowhere in sight. Autopilot takes over and you’d be forgiven for going thru the motions, and this is a song that ‘everybody knew’. All of a sudden Mr. Hitman himself stops the music, and coolly says, “play with some dynamics, you m#&$*$!*”. Now, this had his Canadian dry humor dripping all over it, but the message was clear, and we never went into autopilot again. Not even during rehearsal!

Time! Now there’s another commodity that’s so treasured with these international acts. A 1pm rehearsal means we start playing at 1pm. I often wonder how come they can do this and yet most Malaysians just can’t? Is it really in our culture to be late for everything? Plus, there is hardly any time wasting. I found this next phrase quite amusing,

Mr. Foster displaying his Bill Evans chops during one of our ‘long’ breaks.

“OK guys, let’s take a long 10 minute break”.

10 minutes? Long??!

Here’s another interesting story. Before one of our shows in Genting last year, we were talking & joking about mistakes that happen during shows and how some bandleaders impose a fine on mistakes. So I casually mention how some of our local musicians offer to pay ‘up front’ for their ‘mistakes’ even before the show started. The buoyant mood quickly shifted into annoyance, as these 3 phrases quickly followed:

  • “Obviously they didn’t prepare hard enough!”
  • “How can anyone do a show with an attitude like that?”
  • “I hate musicians like that, cos it makes us ALL look bad!”.

Talk about a change of perspective!

So that was a little glimpse of what happens behind the scenes at a DFF show. The funny thing is, it’s not just your playing skills that determines if you did a good job. Of course it helps that you have some skill on you, but it’s the other stuff I write about above that possibly earns you that second call. I guess that’s what differentiates the ‘1st call’ guys from all the others.

Maybe that’s what they call ‘professionalism’?!

Someone in the band commented, “If musicians came to the show, they would probably think this was an easy gig; but I think there are only a handful who would be able to pull it off.”

I’d certainly like to think so. 🙂


* Pic on top of page is me with keyboardist Boh Cooper, who is also MD to Peter Cetera. Top man, top musician!


David Foster & Friends has 2 shows in the Java Jazz Festival and another 2 days in the Motion Blue Club in Jakarta. We then move on to do shows in Bangkok & Tokyo.

Ready To Play?

Over the last few years, we have consciously made an effort to include new, young talented musicians and singers into the projects we do here at Cranky Music. Some have done extremely well while there have been a few who, shall I say, failed to impress.

Fortunately (or unfortunately?) a lot of the projects we do, whether they be studio or ‘live’ productions, are often rather ‘high profile’ with very little room for errors. For example, two of the live concerts we did last year were recorded for album release and another two were for international Heads of States. So as you would imagine the pressure can be a little intimidating even if you’ve been in the industry for some time. But since one of our goals here at Cranky Music is to develop and introduce new blood into the music scene, we go ahead and do it anyway albeit with a dose of caution thrown in. In this industry you are only as good as your last project.

Here’s what I’ve observed about the ones who thrive and do well.

They Come Prepared

3 of the 4 ladies of Crinkle Cut.
3 of the 4 ladies of Crinkle Cut. Came well prepared for their recording

Without exception, this is probably the one quality that all who did well possessed. They all did their homework prior to the very first recording/rehearsal. All of them already worked out their parts, prepared to the best of their ability and performed what was expected of them. When people do their homework, all that was needed was to tweak it here and there to make the music a little better. I even know of a few musicians who called their older friends who had worked with us to find out what rehearsal was like; so they knew beforehand what to expect in terms of pace, communication and our customary style of work.

They Learn the Material

This one’s almost the same as the point above except that it pertains more to the music at hand. As much as most of these young musicians are skilled, some of them might not be too familiar with a particular artiste’s repertoire or music genre. You would then really need to know the songs and the melodies beforehand. Contrary to what many might think, rehearsal is NOT the place where you learn the music. It’s where we polish what we already know. You learn your parts at home! Nuff said!!

They Mark Their Music

Another good practice of competent young musicians is the habit of marking whatever changes we work out during rehearsals. Stuff like changed chords, transpositions, added repeats, deleted bars and ‘where not to play’ are better noted on the music. With all the things that go on during a live concert, one would be hard-pressed to recall every single change that was made at rehearsal. Plus the fact that often we have up to thirty songs to do in a span of 3 days, so unless you have an elephant’s memory…

18-yr-old Marcus Leong (2nd from left), playing with the 'big boys'.
18-yr-old Marcus Leong (2nd from left), playing with the ‘big boys’.

Personality Matters. Get Along or Learn How to Play Nice

When a band works on a project, we spend quite a bit of time together… more so if we’re rehearsing for TV shows or going on tour. A typical TV shoot would involve more offstage waiting time than actually playing music. So everyone has really got to get along with each other. I recall an instance when we had a 2-week TV recording stint and by the 2nd or 3rd day, this ‘new guy’ was already getting on the nerves of the rest of the band. Certainly not a nice situation to be in!



I suppose all these ‘tips’ would come to naught if you never got ‘the call’ in the first place, right? Well the best way to get noticed is to work on your craft. Period! I’ll say one thing about all the young musicians and singers who have walked through the doors of our studio… they have ALL paid (and still paying) their dues. They have been practicing a lot, and it shows. I don’t think we’ve hired anyone based on anything but hearing them play. So to all you young musicians, get out there and PLAY.

One last thing! Forget what people say about it being a monopoly among the ‘established musicians’. If you’re good enough, you will be heard soon enough. However, the opposite also applies! So if you haven’t got ‘the call’, just work harder!



[Pic at the top (from left to right): Jae Sern, Fly, Joel, Aubrey, Derrick & Steve. This was Derrick & Joel’s first gig with the Cranky Music band]