Five minutes with Ooi Chean See

Updated: 5 Aug 2013
Photos by Su Aziz

Malaysia’s first female orchestra conductor chats with Su Aziz on a job she utterly enjoys, her views on Penang today and drumming. Yes, you read right, drumming!

If we can use only one word to describe Penang born and bred Datuk Ooi Chean See, it will be ‘glowing’. She’s one of the few female orchestra conductors in the world, resides in the German city of Bonn and recently became a tourism ambassador for Malaysia. In line with her conducting role, Chean See’s classically trained on the piano, violin, percussions and harpsichord.  The past five years, however, she tried her hand on, of all things, drumming. Surprising choice, you say? Well, read on!

Why (orchestra) conducting?
I wanted something challenging. The orchestra sound has always fascinated me. And to combine everyone, to glue the sounds together, just imagine!

Conducting is a challenge when…
…faced with a group of musicians that’s not technically advanced and bringing out the best in them to get the sound together. It’s like having to come up with a gourmet dish with using not the best of ingredients. The result is extremely rewarding though. 


Chean See during a recent concert in Penang

Did we hear you say ‘drumming’?
Yes! I started taking lessons from this rocker musician in Germany five years ago. I wanted to understand that sort of music, the sort that’s not classical, you know. Walking in for my first lesson was funny. Here I am, classically trained, dressed and shod, and there the drumming ‘teacher’ was, an outright rocker! First thing he said was, ‘You’ve got to change your shoes.’ It was and still is, fun – both drumming and wearing sneakers! 

If you have your life to live over, what would you do differently?
I love to travel, to meet people. In fact, I do that now in both roles as conductor and tourism ambassador. I enjoy them both. What’s there to change?

An advice to aspiring orchestra conductors will be…
…to always try to become even better. If you think ‘I’ve been there, done that’, standards will drop. I tend to look at a (music) score as if it’s the first time even after having seen it hundreds of times before.

What do you advocate?
Making classical music accessible via airtime like radio and to make it appealing for the young. I tried to push it for Malaysian radio but alas, airtime is all about money, you see. 

While driving, what’s playing in your car?
The Carpenters!


Chean See during a relaxed moment

Besides music…
…I go to the movies once or twice a year. When I have time off work, I hop onto a train or plane and explore Europe or other continents. I also attend concerts and opera – I can’t seem to run away from music!

What’s the shortest joke you know?
It consists of three words, ‘Chean See, cooks?’ and my whole family erupts into side-splitting laughter.

Penang today…
…has always something happening, old buildings being restored, but the traffic’s pretty bad. Although, its charm’s still intact but the ‘air’ of Penang has changed.

Tags: Features