Every success story begins with the first step. This rings especially true for Alex Oh, who was recently awarded the SkillsFuture Fellowship by President Halimah Yacob. He shares with City News how little steps amounted to a significant musical journey.
What do these local movies have in common: The Maid, 1965, Taxi! Taxi! and It’s A Great, Great World? Their soundtracks were all scored by CityWorship keyboardist, Alex Oh.
Alex, 46, has been with City Harvest Church as a member and a volunteer with the worship team since the early days of the church, which would explain why he is affectionately known as “The Grandmaster” to generations of CityWorship volunteers. He is a renowned film scorer in Singapore’s movie industry who won Top Local Soundtrack for the 2012 Australian- Singaporean movie, Bait, at the Compass Awards.
In December 2021, he was awarded the SkillsFuture Fellowship by President Halimah Yacob. The highest Skills honours the skills of the individual and his role as a mentor to future talents in his industry.
THE GIFT OF MUSIC
“I started my musical journey at the age of four,” Alex recalls. “I took music lessons at Yamaha, and fell in love with the piano when I was in Secondary 1. By the time I was 15, I knew that I wanted to pursue music as a career.”
He adds, “At that time, I always thought that I wanted to become a music producer, you know, to produce music for bands and singers. I told my parents I wanted to study music at Berklee College of Music. But things didn’t turn out that way.”
Although he had his parents’ support, Alex chose to do a diploma in Mechatronics instead of studying music at LASALLE College of the Arts, because he wanted to have a practical qualification to fall back on should his career in music not work out.
But the creative spirit in him would not be tamed, and Alex ended up really hating the course he was doing.
It was CHC where he had the opportunity to feed his passion. He joined the church at 15, and began cultivating his skills as a musician here. When CHC was holding its services at World Trade Centre (now HarbourFront Centre), Alex was one of the first male keyboardists.
“There were only a few hundred people in church back then. I told my cell group leader that I was interested in serving in the Music Ministry,” he remembers. “I was introduced to Brother Poh (Teo Poh Heng, worship leader in CityWorship), who was the music director then.”
Like many CHC members in the early days, Alex served wherever there was a need. “I went through auditions for the Music Ministry. At the same time, I was helping in physical arrangement, setting up the stage and tearing it down after the weekend services were over. The physical arrangement guys were usually the first to arrive and the last to leave.”
He added, “I got a chance to understudy Sandy (Yeo, keyboardist) and I observed how she would play certain songs, and that’s how I learnt to play for praise and worship. Having come from a classical music background, watching Sandy helped when I had to learn to play Pop Piano (the genre that Christian music comes under).”
His passion for music grew deeper as he served, leading him to learn new genres of music.
“There was a need for me to keep learning. Serving in the music team led me to develop a thirst for more musical knowledge and the artistry behind it,” he adds.
Recognising his musical talent as a gift from God, Alex says, “During my time in church, I’ve learnt that in the past, it was the Levites that brought the people into the presence of God. So, when I serve, it’s not just playing the keyboards, but knowing that what you do with the music affects others—you may succeed or fail in bringing them into the presence of God.”
STEPPING OUT TO SHANGHAI
In 2007, having already done a few film scores for movies such as The Maid (2005), Gone Shopping (2007), Alex ventured into Shanghai to further his career as a producer. He composed and produced jingles for various television commercials in his time there.
“There were a few reasons why I went over. First of all, I wanted a change in my life. But there was also a practical reason: I wanted to write music for TVCs at that time. But there weren’t many opportunities to do that here, with only a few local channels available. Many advertising agencies were also uprooting and basing themselves overseas,” he recounts.
“I was actually in Shanghai for a holiday, to rejuvenate myself. I had already done a few film scores at the time and I was a little burnt out. So, I went to look for some of my friends who were based in Shanghai,” he continues.
His “lightbulb” moment came one night when he was channel surfing. He realised that there were so many TV channels in Shanghai, and that meant there would be many more avenues to do TVCs there.
“I started speaking to some of my friends who were working in advertising, and they told me there were lots of opportunities,” Alex says. Shanghai became home for Alex for the next four years, and it also turned out to be where he would meet his wife Rachel. The couple now has a son, Johnny, 8.
When he returned with his family to Singapore in 2012, Alex started his company White Noise Music. One of the pull-factors for him to return was the movie Bait, which he had opportunity to score.
“My co-composer was based in Singapore, so we decided it would be better if I were to come back here so that we could work more effectively,” he said. “My wife and I initially planned to come back here for a year or two, but it’s now been 11 years.”
And in these past 11 years, Alex has gone on to write music for movies such as 1965 and 2359 II, as well as with a host of TV shows.
Alex reveals that the person who helped him get into the movie industry was his old friend and mentor Poh. “Poh introduced me to some producers, who were also members of the church. I started doing the soundtrack for a documentary for National Geographic,” he said. “Before that, I had never written music to visuals. The writing was totally different from songwriting, as I now had to take into consideration what was happening before my eyes. There is more of a thought process involved in film-scoring. This documentary was one of the hardest projects I’d had to do, but it was what made me realise that I found great satisfaction in writing music for visuals.”
That first documentary he worked on was Cyberwars: To Catch A Little Fish. It gave Alex the training he needed to compose music for his debut film soundtrack, The Maid.
In 2016, Alex took a year off to fulfil an unfulfilled dream—he pursued a Master degree in Scoring For Film And Visual Media, awarded by Pulse College in association with DIT Conservatory of Music And Drama in Dublin, Ireland.
“One of my regrets had always been not making it to Berklee,” he shares. “But what made me want to do that course was that I realised that writing music for visuals was something I really, really loved. But I never had anybody to mentor me. There wasn’t even YouTube to give me more information on how to be a better film composer.
“You can only self-study this much. Also, when I was doing the soundtrack for Bait, I had an orchestra to conduct and record. That was when I realised that my skills were not enough. I needed to improve myself—all I wanted to do at that point was to be better at my craft.”
When the opportunity to study in Ireland came up in 2016, Alex had many financial commitments to weigh. But unwilling to live with the regret, he took a step of faith, applied for grants and took on more composing jobs, all of which allowed him to complete his Master’s programme.
GIVING BACK TO THE NEXT GENERATION
These days, Alex can be found on mentorship panels helping aspiring film composers, collaborating with organisations like Scape to give advice on how to write music for visuals.
“In the past, I couldn’t find anybody to mentor me. I am a firm believer in helping others learn so that they can pick up the skills faster,” Alex says. “I also take in interns to train, so I can give them the guidance that I didn’t get back in my day.”
Given his mindset of wanting to constantly improve his skills and at the same time, nurture the next generation of musicians, it’s little surprise Alex was awarded the SkillsFuture Fellowship, a $10,000 monetary award for his continued pursuit of the mastery of his craft.
“With the award, I’m planning to take another course in Film Conducting in Los Angeles. Basically, I will be learning to conduct and how to make the musicians express themselves through the music,” he explains.
“Learning is a lifelong process. Every day, I try to learn more and be better at my craft.”
All photos courtesy of Alex Oh