The Roads We Travel

Every time a younger musician remarks about how much I’ve done or how much ‘success’ I have had, I always remind them that whatever we do and wherever we’re at, is just simply, a point in a journey. A journey with a starting point, traveling through sights & events that we experience, based on decisions we make along the way. As long as we’re still living and breathing, we’re all on some journey. To be even more precise, it’s actually more than just one journey, cos when you think of it, our life with our families, our schooling years, our romances, our career, our businesses, … they are all little journeys that make up this big ol’ journey we call life.

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to write about the things I’ve learnt from my own musical journey.

Starting Point

First thing I tell people is, to note how early you start a journey. For instance, I’ve been recording since my teenage years where I used to record my own versions of popular Top 40 songs, just for the fun of it. I remember doing my own versions of ‘Belaian Jiwa’ (Carefree), ‘Derita Cinta’ (Jamal Abdillah),  and ‘Endless Love’ (Diana Ross/Lionel Richie) etc on my double-deck cassette machine. That was actually my hobby during that time. As opposed to someone who may have had 45 years as a performer but only started to learn about recording during this Covid-19 imposed MCO (Movement Control Order), I would have 40 more years of experience than that person who started last month, right? So in this case, I could be seen as having spent a lot more time on this ‘recording’ journey. Of course, I would be better off now as a recording musician, because I probably picked up more stuff and gained a lot more experience during that time.

My advice? Start your journey now. Don’t wait for tomorrow, or when the ‘time is right’.

Destination, Designs, Decisions & Detours

Before you start off on your journey, I have learned that you need to have a design, or rough plan in your head regarding what you want to achieve at the end of it. A journey always has a destination, doesn’t it? Once the destination is determined, it’s best to have a ‘design’ or a plan on how you want to arrive at that destination. If your goal is to be a better player or performer, this could mean following a practice schedule, or an instructional book you might want to learn from etc.  In music, it helps to have an open-mind to the design, it doesn’t need to be ‘carved in stone’, because if the design, or plan isn’t working too well, then by all means, change or adjust the plan. This involves decisions and detours, taking different routes to get to your destination.

When I first started out, I already knew I had no $$ to go abroad for a music education. So the plan was to work in the Malaysian music industry and learn as much as I could from the people I work with. That was the initial plan. 5 years later, an opportunity arose (in the shape of a loan), so my plans changed. Off I went to the Berklee College of Music, and upon arriving back home after my studies there, I started work to pay off the loan. Cash was ‘tight’ for a while, but education is never a bad thing to sacrifice for.

Here’s another example. I have always wanted to work and contribute towards the local music scene. However, somewhere around 2001, I started getting a lot of arrangement work for the Hong Kong/Taiwan market and as a result I did almost nothing for the Malaysian market. So much for the plan of working locally! The music of the Chinese market was very, very different, and the required standard was so high, I experienced a really tough learning curve. I had to quickly learn how to adapt! If I thought I had finished my ‘learning’ in Berklee, man, I was wrong! But when I shifted my focus back to Malaysia in 2004, I realized my arrangement & production standards had improved a lot more than if I had I just done work within Malaysia. The first Malaysian project after my Chinese market stint? ‘Bukan Cinta Biasa’ (Dato’ Sri Siti Nurhaliza) which got awarded ‘Best Music Arrangement’ for that year.

My advice? Don’t be afraid of the challenge before you. What doesn’t break you will only make you stronger!

Determination Despite Disappointments

Speaking of journeys, every now and then, one is bound to make wrong turns that can lead to an apparent dead end. Every musician will have the ups and downs along with the moments of self-doubt, that’s just part and parcel of this life. I think the trick is just knowing when and how to get up, turn around and get going again. I guess remembering your original destination will help. [So will savoring the wins, whenever they happen.]  I remember early on in my career, when I was the so-called new kid in town. People had started to recognize that this ‘kid’ had some talent. I was working in a jingle house and was involved in making advertisements like “Paddle Pop, Wow!” and “Tivee Tigaaaa, untuk andaaaa”. And then one fine day I walked into a nearby jazz club called ‘All That Jazz’ (as a patron, not a performer) and came out that night so demoralized (the performers onstage were just so damn great!!) I gave up music for a while!  Long story short, this went on until an older musician friend took the time to encourage me and casually advised me to use that ‘level of excellence’ as a benchmark for myself. I think his advice still haunts me till today because I’m always measuring myself up to one benchmark or another. [Thank you, abang Tom!]

My advice: Get up and get going, the sooner the better! And if you’re in a position to encourage someone else, do it!!

Learning from Experience

Travel always builds experience. However, just merely experiencing new things won’t help you grow. Remember the ‘Chinese music industry’ experience I wrote about earlier? I learned so much from those 2-3 years! There needs to be some level of evaluation and learning from these experiences. Like in any journey you’ve had, ask yourself, “What did you like about that last country you visited? Did you like the food? The people? The music?” Similarly, I try to look back to see what I did well, what I didn’t do so well, and make the necessary adjustments for the next job, whatever it may be. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen too many people ‘do the same’ day after day, and wonder why they remained at the same place and the same level after so many years!

My advice: Take a bit of time to reflect on everything you do. Then move forward and do better.

Travel Mates

This last point is my favorite… ‘travel mates’. I’ve been blessed to have always had great travel mates along this musical journey. For starters, I have a wonderful co-pilot whose skill-sets are the perfect complement to mine. Aside from that, over the years, I have had the pleasure to create music with a fine group of musicians who often seem like an extended family. It’s not always smooth sailing, but the experiences have always been better with these guys and gals involved, never worse. [Hello, Cranky Music Fam!]

So my advice? Choose the right people for the job. They do not always have to be the best, or the ‘most skillful’, sometimes it is better to see how well they work with you. Barulah best! Thankfully, I have a team that are truly the ‘best of both worlds’.

So there you have it. Wherever you are in your life, your career, your music… it’s really just a point in your journey. It is YOU that decides where it all leads to! Of course some may need to take longer routes, make harder decisions, or work twice as hard as others, but if that is what it takes, then by all means… do it.

Side note, to the musicians who wish they were in my shoes… hey, know that I just started way before you guys, and I probably have more ‘travel miles’ than most! So, there’s really no reason that, given time, you could do the same, or even better. Just remember, to keep one eye on your destination, learn, make good decisions, and of course, always try to Keep the Music Real!