A Proven Path

Known for its rigor, the International College of Music in Kuala Lumpur has set up hundreds of students for success at Berklee over the past 25 years.

November 23, 2022

Julian Chan B.M. ’01 was a 16-year-old trumpet player in Malaysia’s Sarawak State Symphony Orchestra when he first fell in love with the idea of being a sound engineer. The orchestra had traveled to Monash University in Australia for a week of classes and performances, and Chan had noticed all the people working behind the stage during concerts.  

“Brass players tend to have a lot of rest,” he says, laughing. “My mind would start to wonder, and I was really drawn to what the tech guys were doing.”

On a visit to the university’s music technology department, Chan asked someone how he could break into the field. The man had one tip: Berklee College of Music. When Chan returned home, he persuaded his parents to let him pursue his dreams. Then, just as he was ready for college, the Malaysian economy took a dive, making the cost of Berklee prohibitively expensive in Malaysian ringgits. 

“We were thinking, ‘This isn’t good. This might not happen,’” Chan remembers.

Fortunately for him, the principal of his music school recommended he look into a new contemporary music college in Kuala Lumpur. The International College of Music, or ICOM, had just launched a formal partnership with Berklee.

“ICOM became the lifeline,” says Chan, who began there as a student in 1998.


A Bridge to Berklee

For aspiring musicians in Malaysia, ICOM is still a lifeline. Since 1997, nearly 200 of its students have transferred to Berklee through its official status as a Berklee Global Academic Partner school.

Formerly part of the Berklee International Network (BIN), Global Academic Partner schools have credit-transfer agreements with Berklee, allowing students to complete core music courses (known as the Berklee track) at the partner school. A major benefit of such partnerships is the cost savings. 

BIN first launched in 1995, with three schools: Philippos Nakas Conservatory in Greece, Rimon School of Music in Israel, and L’AULA de Música Moderna i Jazz del Conservatori del Liceu in Spain. Gary Burton and Larry Monroe, under the leadership of then-President Lee Eliot Berk, spearheaded the program.

“It came from seeing the need to diversify our enrollment, to create more pathways for people from outside the United States to get access to the Berklee education,” explains Jason Camelio, assistant vice president of Berklee Global Initiatives. “The avenue they saw to do this was to work with institutions that were like Berklee—typically those are places where Berklee graduates have gone and set them up, taken a germ of the Berklee genes, and planted it in that community and culture.”

Today, Berklee has 25 Global Academic Partners, including three in the United States. The schools are “like a bridge” to Berklee in Boston, Camelio says. “Students get this core music experience, and then they tend to get accepted on a higher level, to get scholarships, to do incredibly well academically, and to graduate at a higher level.”

Since 2015, only two other Global Academic Partner schools—SJA Music Institute in South Korea and Rimon School of Music—have sent more students to Berklee than ICOM has. Eighty-two percent of students who transfer from ICOM graduate from Berklee, compared to 70 percent who come from other partner schools. (Across Berklee, the graduation rate in 2022 was 67 percent.) 

“If I didn’t have this pathway to Berklee, I might not be doing what I’m doing now.”

Julian Chan B.M. ’01

ICOM’s success is due in part to Irene Savaree B.M. ’88, the school’s founder, president, and chief executive officer. In the mid-1990s, after a successful singing career in Malaysia as a solo act, and with her sister, Helen Savari-Renold B.M. ’88, Savaree was approached by investors to start a music school in her home country.

“They had one caveat,” she says. “They said, ‘You need to have some kind of an institutional tie-up with Berklee.’”

In 1997, when ICOM officially became part of BIN, the Malaysian prime minister and the heads of many of the country’s music labels attended the formal signing ceremony. 

ICOM recital hall

Students in ICOM’s Berklee track, also known as the Foundation in Music program, take courses in music theory, contemporary harmony, ensembles, music technology, ear training, and traditional harmony, among other subjects. The program is open to anyone, not just those planning to go to Berklee. (The school also offers diplomas in sound production and in music.) After a full year in the Foundation in Music program, students are able to transfer as many as 54 credits to Berklee, where they can focus on their specific majors. 

“I think the role that ICOM has been playing and is still trying to play is to instill that foundation in students to be able to excel not only at Berklee but also to thrive in a professional environment,” says Ali Aiman B.M. ’10, who heads  ICOM’s Berklee track. “It’s quite a rigorous program.”

The rigor pays off. Berklee student Will Tiong, a vocalist who hopes to work on the business side of the industry, says he “butchered” his audition to ICOM because he had no previous experience in ear training or sight-reading. After a year at ICOM, however, he nailed his Berklee audition and even received a scholarship.

For Tiong, who enrolled at ICOM specifically for its Berklee transfer program after initially studying finance at another institution, ICOM had several advantages, including its cost savings and the opportunity to study music formally without a four-year commitment. 

“I was making a big switch at the time,” he explains. “The low commitment level appealed to me. It was a good test to see if I really did want to go into music, and it turns out that really was what I wanted.” This summer, Tiong interned with a record label and with a music marketing guru who tapped him to run Barbra Streisand’s TikTok account.

In the Same Boat

The ICOM community is small and close-knit: About 120 students are currently enrolled and about 15 faculty, including several Berklee and ICOM alumni, teach on campus. Students and faculty regularly gather just outside the school’s doors where a vendor sells coffee, tea, soda, boiled eggs, and local cakes. 

“Lecturers go out there, students go out there, and we’d talk about our experiences,” Chan remembers. “This is what I think was special during my time.” 

Although students are generally academically prepared for Berklee, they still often experience culture shock when they arrive in Boston.

“The biggest shock is just how big it is and how diverse,” Chan explains, adding that his transition was eased by the fact that everyone seemed to be in the same boat. “It helped that everyone you were meeting was in some way or another not from [Boston].”

Nisa Addina B.M. ’18, a violinist who first learned about Berklee from her mentor, Shafiee Obe B.M. ’87, says being able to go to Berklee with friends and classmates from ICOM helped her transition. 

“I wasn’t feeling so alone,” Addina says, adding that the Malaysian students at Berklee got together often

Since ICOM is a hub for music students from across Asia, its transfer students at Berklee also include people from China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, and South Korea, among other countries.

Several members of Savaree’s own family have gone to Berklee. In addition to her and her sister, four of her nieces and nephews have attended, including two who transferred from ICOM.  

“It’s been a wonderful relationship,” Savaree says. “Besides the Berklee brand, which opens doors, what I personally find very valuable in the Berklee-ICOM relationship is the sense of community.”

Shereen Cheong B.M. ’17 echoes that sentiment. When she served as music director for one of Victory Boyd’s shows in Los Angeles, Cheong called everybody she knew from her time in Boston and was able to fill out the horns section and a string quartet.

“It was a mini-Berklee reunion,” she says, laughing. “It was very warm.”

ICOM’s Berklee track has paid off for others as well.

“If I didn’t have this pathway to Berklee, I might not be doing what I’m doing now,” says Chan, who has done sound mixing for video games including Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and now works for the Eagles’ Don Felder as an engineer. 

Soya Soo B.M. ’15 agrees. As a teenager in Malaysia, he noticed Hans Zimmer’s name popping up in the credits of his favorite films and video games; today, he works as a studio engineer for Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions in Santa Monica, California. In his career so far, Soo has collaborated with the film composer John Powell on Solo: A Star Wars Story and Ferdinand, and has worked with Zimmer on Dune, The Lion King, and Dark Phoenix, among other projects.

“Without ICOM, I couldn’t go to Berklee, and, without Berklee, I couldn’t learn all the technology or know anyone in the industry,” Soo says. “I wouldn’t be where I am.”

This article appeared in the fall/winter 2022 issue of Berklee Today

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