Press "Enter" to skip to content

Not exactly a starving artist

Michelle Ma

The piano adaptation of the Beatles’ “Come Together” that filled the crowded dining hall ceased as Feona Lee, smiling a wide radiant grin, looked up, moved her hands from the piano keys to her plate of food in the brief respite, and awaited a well-wisher’s request.

This was one of the few breaks Lee, dressed in a vintage-style maroon paisley shift with ruffled sleeves and a complimentary maroon scarf wrapped around her neck, took to enjoy her food, which she earns in exchange for making the Orchard Meadow dining hall sound like an upscale restaurant. After the well-wisher walked away, Lee pushed her shoulder-length curly brown hair behind her ear before returning her long fingers to the piano keys and launching into another Beatles song.

Lee was asked by Jeremy Crowell, residential dining supervisor, to play the piano in exchange for free food at Orchard Meadow. It was a proposition the artist took up immediately, relishing the opportunity to play piano and get fed. Lee, a sophomore, lives off campus and doesn’t have a meal plan, so she still enjoys the cafeteria food.

Lee began playing piano in middle school at the urging of her mother; however, she didn’t find a passion for it until high school. It was then that she began playing in bands, ranging from classical music genres to metal with a San Francisco band called Hypno Trigger.

This musical chameleon like-ability is part of Lee’s success wherever she plays piano, especially at her job. Every Monday, Friday and Saturday, Feona takes BART to The San Franciscan, a trendy restaurant in Walnut Creek, located on a street lined with upscale restaurants and boutiques. The very comfortable and modern decor is open and bright, thanks to big windows during the daytime, and romantically dim as the sun sets. The 10-month-old restaurant is striving to be, according to owner Leslie Brown, a place that “showcases exceptional Bay Area talent.”

On this particular Saturday night, Feona, who has been playing at the restaurant for four weeks now, looked up from the piano to greet her interviewer.
“It was so nice of you to come! What do you want me to play?”

Although the restaurant was closing, nobody minded staying around to talk about Lee. Brimming with praise like “She should be billed as a national treasure,” Lee’s colleagues all refered to her in superlatives as she played a small electric piano by the door. Her music greeted customers coming, drinking at the bar or sitting at the tables nearby. Resting on the piano was a very full tip jar, which restaurant owner Leslie Brown cited as an indication of Lee’s talent and skill. According to Brown, Lee earns at least three to five times more tips than the other artists.

Paul Morse, bartender, described the sense of Lee playing the piano which is directly situated in front of his bar: “She looks great, dresses fun and plays just the right kind of music.”

Morse added that Feona’s music is not only good for the customers but also improves the working conditions of fellow employees.

As her colleagues discussed her many merits, Lee never once glanced up from the piano but kept her head down to focus on her music. An appreciative customer, one of the only left in the restaurant, watched Lee concentrate before standing up at the end of the song to add to the tip jar. Lee smiled at the customer and asked, “What do you want me to play?”

Flustered, the customer, a young man with an equally young date waiting for him at the table, blushed and stuttered through saying he had no request. Lee noded, and a Scott Joplin song filled the air.

It was clear, as Brown described, that Lee “sets the mood for everyone in the restaurant.” Lee’s talent allows her to play a broad range of music, from the Beatles to Brahms, so that she’s equally appreciated in a Mills dining hall and The San Franciscan.

Brown said she wants to add Lee to the restaurant’s monthly dinner act with the restaurant’s “other star,” a singer named Claudio. “She’s so willing to give – if you’re a true artist, you want to please people,” Brown said. “She’s a true artist, she has a passion for it.”

Brown described seeing people, waiters mostly, and occasionally customers, so inspired by Lee’s playing that they came up to her piano and started singing along.
As Lee’s shift ended, she stood up and packed her thick piano books into a rolling suitcase as she discussed music choices for Monday’s shift with Brown. Morse suggested adapting Pearl Jam for the piano.

Taking a rare break from the piano to chat, Lee talked about the differences between the dining hall and the restaurant, all the while glancing nervously back at the piano. The restaurant has more of a classical mixed with jazz feel, while Mills students like pop and rock, more vocal-based songs. Mills, according to Lee, is more laid-back and grateful than the restaurant.

Ever diplomatic, Lee cannot choose a preference. “One pays rent and has a tuned piano,” she said. “However, one feeds me and has an acoustic piano.” She would not say how much she makes at the restaurant.

Finally, her responsibility wins out, and Lee excused herself to return to her piano, practicing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd concerto. She will be performing the concerto in a concert during the Fall 2008 semester.

Lee did not enjoy practicing the piano when she began playing, and she did not think it would be her source of income and stronger arm muscles, from carrying up to 20 books of music to fulfill requests.

During her early piano lessons with the neighborhood teacher, Mrs. Wan, Lee would watch her sister and friends play outside and longed to be with them instead. The lessons were so unappealing to Lee that her mother had to treat her to McDonald’s after every one. Mrs. Wan, a “boring, hunchbacked” woman, according to Lee, would always be angry with Lee for not practicing. Now, she often practices for hours on end.

It was this practicing that got her the job in the Orchard Meadow dining hall. Lee would sneak into Warren Olney, the connecting freshwoman dorm to Orchard Meadow, to play the grand piano. Jeremy Crowell, director of dining services in the dorms, heard her play and offered her the job. She also played for money at this year’s Athletic Awards Banquet.

Before becoming a Mills student, Lee attended Diablo Valley College. At Mills, she plans to major in music composition.

Lee’s love affair with the piano began when she played “Malaguena,” a song of Spanish rhythms and melodies, on the piano at a high school party. Upon hearing her play, some of the “indie rock boys,” as she called them, told her they needed her in their band, and she decided to give it a try. For the first time, Lee practiced the piano feverishly to keep up with the bands she played with – she was “the slow one.”

In the end, Lee said, the experience paid off. She “learned a lot, and it inspired me to write my own music, not just play others’.” It also gave Lee a love for collaboration rather than solo performances.

That is why on March 30, Lee enjoyed playing in a concert with friend Jerry Kuderna in the Mills Concert Hall. It was a “Two Pianos, Four Hands” style concert, which meant she and Kuderna played separate pianos on the stage. She plans to tour the world with Kuderna after they find a manager. In true Lee style, she has no ambitions for fame. She just wants to travel, get a change of scenery and “meet new music.”