Ever wondered what it is like to work with celebrities like Jennifer Lopez AND direct a live band performance at the U.S. presidential inauguration ceremony at the same time? We speak to Singaporean Music Director Lenny Wee, the man behind Jennifer Lopez’s showstopping medley performance at Joe Biden’s Inauguration earlier this year.
In this edition of our Unusual Jobs series, we catch up with Lenny to learn about his professional experiences in the music industry thus far and get his astute advice for budding musicians on what they can do to get ahead.
15 March 2021 / By SGN
Few people in the world can count celebrity musicians like Stevie Wonder, Adam Lambert, Natalie Cole, Kanye West, and Jennifer Lopez as both their idols and people they know personally. Lenny Wee, a Singaporean multi-hyphenate in the music industry counts himself lucky to be part of this group.
“I once shared the bench with Stevie Wonder to notate a song he decided to compose on the spot at rehearsal and then arranged in within an hour for the band to play. That was an exciting moment for me as it felt like Stevie was challenging me. It was great.”
But the artist that takes the prize for being Lenny’s most unforgettable during his 12-year career in Los Angeles? “The late Natalie Cole. I was lucky to have worked with her early on in my career, which was especially memorable for me as she was an idol of mine.”
Yet Lenny’s most recent brush with a celebrity was his efforts in producing, arranging, orchestrating, and directing the medley of patriotic songs performed by Jennifer Lopez at American President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. “It was very humbling to be a part of that event, just coming from someone who didn’t grow up in the States – to be asked to work on it was a major honour.”
He gushed about the pop star: “She’s the consummate professional, and the hardest working star in show biz. She’s got a great sense of what she wants to deliver in a performance and works hard and expects all of us on the team to work that hard as well to accomplish it.”
The stellar performance occurred against the backdrop of health and safety restrictions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This meant a lot of the preparation and eventual performance had to be done with fewer performers.
So how did Lenny go from the sunny shores of Singapore to Los Angeles to make a name for himself in the music industry?
Why Music? It’s My Calling
While it’s a privilege to work with big names in the music industry, Lenny’s reason for working in music was more visceral. Music spoke to him at a much deeper level — it spoke to his soul.
He notes, “I was probably around 14- to 15-years-old when I realised that nothing made me feel the way music did. It really was a calling, almost like I didn’t have a choice.”
During his adolescence, the variety of music education courses in Singapore were limited. Most students, Lenny included, had been taught to master the basics in classical music — the only type of music taught in public schools. Lenny states: “Looking back, the training in classical music did provide a good foundation to learn other aspect of music making.”
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Lenny was always in touch with music — listening to pop and classical music on the radio along with his dad’s collection of albums. He would also periodically burn special CD mixes for his friends in school. “It always fascinated me that music could convey so many emotions across so many different genres just by manipulating the same set of pitches differently.”
His teachers also helped to feed that passion for music, providing words of affirmation even on occasions when Lenny may have been disappointed in himself.
He vividly recalls the reassurances from his music teacher in Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC) after he wasn’t selected to play the piano at a recital. “He told me: Someone has to write the music that people play. Performing may be the most glamourous aspect of making music but your gifts might be best served in creating the music that others play.”
Find out how other overseas Singaporeans stay connected to family in Singapore. Here’s our feature with Lyon Liew, Simulation Technical Director at Pixar Animation Studios.
Local musicians like Dick Lee who rose to fame had already become proof that anyone can make a career out of making music.
That said, Lenny still couldn’t shake the feeling that he may have disappointed his family for choosing to make a career out of music. “Because I did pretty well academically in secondary school and JC in the sciences, they had high hopes of having a doctor in the family.”
But his family eventually warmed up to the idea, supporting his decision to study music at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I believe they realised that there was really no use forcing me into something I wasn’t going to enjoy just for their sake. I really admire them for being so forward thinking and supporting me all the way to university.”
A Day in The Life of a Multi-Hyphenate in The Music Industry
Lenny’s extensive musical credentials have enabled him to wear many hats in the music industry. As such, his tasks and deliverables differ greatly from day-to-day.
He could go from playing the role of an arranger to orchestrator or music director depending on the project he lands. That said, Lenny reveals that there are overlaps in terms of responsibilities between these roles.
He explains that an arranger’s responsibility is to make a song fit a particular singer or performance such that it showcases the best of the artist’s voice while ensuring that the music is stylistically suitable. “An arranger would also try to ensure that the song fits the time limit or create segues between songs, for instance in a medley.”
An orchestrator looks at the arrangement of a certain piece of music, and decides which instruments get to play what. “This involves making a making a score and parts for each of the hired players. Often arranging and orchestration are done at the same time.”
As a music director, Lenny oversees all aspects of the musical performance, including suggesting which songs to sing at a performance. “Music directors also decides which musicians to hire and determine the direction and arrangement should take.”
Being able to play these different roles, Lenny shares, helps to keep things interesting. He believes that having this broad base of skills have also enabled him to excel in each specific role, too. “For example, if I get hired to engineer on a project, my arranging background will help me make mix decisions and figure out what parts sound good in the song. It allows me to communicate with other arrangers or music directors well, as I know what they are trying to accomplish.”
As an arranger — a role Lenny takes on most of the time — he listens to the existing song to familiarise himself with it before editing it. Sometimes, Lenny finds that listening to the other performances of the artist also helps him to get a taste of their style. Lenny shares, “After reviewing the scope of the project, sometimes writing new material for the introduction or taking out sections of the song may be required.”
Interested to learn what goes into composing a piece of music? Then read our feature on Russian Composer Vladimir Martynov to learn how he composed a symphony in 2003 inspired by Singapore’s culture and identity.
Besides creating music for live performances, Lenny has also worked on recording albums and singles which tend to be a more drawn-out process. Of the two, Lenny prefers working on live performances. “I thrive on the adrenaline and am used to the crazy hours to deliver these. Usually, the scope of the work is more defined and there are specific goals to accomplish for each performance.”
How to Take the Music World by Storm?
As for budding musicians, Lenny advises, “Being a musician is VERY hard work and you have to prepare to put your work first — even if it means you’ll have to sacrifice family time and sleep.”
You should also be sure to lean into your own distinctive style and voice even though this may mean that there will be certain jobs that are meant for you and some that may not suit you stylistically.
Remember to go with the flow but grab opportunities when they come knocking. Lenny explains, “It’s impossible to direct which way your path will take in music and we’re all just along for the ride as long as you are ready to take those opportunities.”
When quizzed about what advice he’d like to give his 20-year-old self, Lenny said upon deeper reflection: Don’t worry too much about career progression, just work hard because your efforts will be noticed.
If the buzz Lenny has created due to his involvement in the Biden Inauguration — an event watched by at least 33.8 million people in the U.S. alone — is anything to go by, young music careerists looking to follow in his footsteps may do well to heed his advice indeed.
Lenny is a Singaporean Music Director who has been based in Los Angeles since 2009 for the past 12 years. During his career, Lenny has amassed an impressive list of music credits, working on crafting, directing, or arranging music for TV programmes like American Idol and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He has also worked with the biggest names in the music industry like Stevie Wonder, Kanye West and even Jennifer Lopez.
Follow him on Instagram and connect with him here.