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A Conversation with Judy Yin-Chi Lee

by Lorin Green

Before I finished my internship with Maestra, I had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting with Maestra’s new Chief Program Officer, Judy Yin-Chi Lee. A native of Taiwan, Judy is an active French Horn player in the New York metropolitan area with a broad array of impressive performances under her belt

As a commercial player, Judy has performed and recorded with numerous Broadway shows, Ray Charles, Harry Connick Jr., Hugh Jackman, CBS News, the NFL, Lang Lang, in movies and commercial jingles, and more. As a freelance classical musician, Judy performs regularly with various orchestras and has traveled to many countries in her career as a soloist. She is currently the horn player in the hit Broadway musical “Moulin Rouge!”. As a way to give back, she serves as Co-Chair with the Metuchen Arts Council, where she resides, to promote and present all arts-related activities for the town.

Our conversations were centered around elements of her upbringing, her life as a performer, and her work in administration. We also dove into the nuances of working as a woman of color within the arts field and how we have seen the past two years change our field in different ways. 

The following responses are excerpts of multiple conversations and correspondences between myself and Judy, condensed for clarity.

Judy’s Early Years and the French Horn

Before we dive into some heavier content, let’s start with Judy’s early years in Taiwan and how her journey with music began.

What inspired your love for music and the arts in general? 

My parents told me that from a very young age, I had a talent to perform. In fact, my parents told me that my kindergarten teacher told them, “This girl needs to be cultivated as a musician. There’s something in her, she just loves to perform and it comes very natural for her.” 

I guess I was fearless when I was little. I have a vivid memory of this. In Taiwan, when I was little, there was a neighborhood wedding and there were singers on stage, and I just decided to go on and start dancing. So I guess the short answer is: music has always been in me. 

It is something that I feel really strongly connected to and I cannot NOT do. It’s a calling that I believe for anyone who is in the music and arts industries. It’s part of your body and soul. I really do believe that if there’s a way to create world peace it will be through music.  

My ultimate dream one day is for people to live peacefully together: singing, dancing, creating, performing, and eating – a lot of eating!

Why the French horn? What about the instrument drew you to it? 

I didn’t really pick French horn – French horn kind of picked me. 

When I was in third grade, I was very lucky to be selected as part of a talented group of 30 students to study music further. Meaning besides all the academic requirements in school that we had to do, we also had to incorporate music intensively and pick a second instrument. My first instrument was piano and that’s what got me into the program. 

By the time it was time for me to pick an instrument, the school principal actually called my dad and said, “Well, every other instrument has been picked, but no one has picked the French horn. It’s a great instrument, it’s a lot cheaper than a violin!” So that’s how I got started.

Once I had it in my hands and started playing it, it felt so natural to me. I think the French horn is the connector in an ensemble. There’s a reason why the French horn is in both woodwind and the brass quintets. It can be very subtle, it can be really beautiful, but it also can be really strong and obnoxious if it needs to be. It aligns with my personality perfectly. I am usually very quiet, but I can also be very vocal if I need to. 

French horn and I kind of just gelled and I haven’t put it down since the day I picked it up.

Performing and the Pandemic

The pandemic affected everyone in different ways and since performing is Judy’s first and primary relationship with music, I wanted to know more about how she has been handling performing during these times while balancing a career as an administrator. 

Are you still performing these days? In what capacities? 

I have been very, very lucky that I actually never stopped being a horn player. However, I had to make some adjustments when I first started working as an arts administrator at New Jersey Symphony, where I worked for nearly eight years before I came to Maestra Music. I did slow down for a little bit when I first started working there because I wanted to make sure I was learning the ropes in the nonprofit. I had no prior experience to educate myself. 

That said, I never fully stopped playing. I was still freelancing and performing, I just became more selective. Currently, I’m the horn player at Moulin Rouge! and I am freelancing very actively. For example, in the last couple months, I have performed in Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully, and other venues in town as well as making recordings with various projects. 

I’m so grateful and fortunate to be able to keep up both of my careers as an arts administrator and performer and honestly, I couldn’t imagine myself being any other way. That said, it definitely comes with some sacrifices.  

I remember my final interview at the Symphony was with a donor who was endowing my position. She was interviewing me and she asked about my performing career. She said, “Well, you do realize if we give you this position, and if you start working here, you’re gonna have to give up the French horn and your performing career?” I looked at her and at the time I was thinking to myself, “If I say what I am about to say, I won’t get the job.” But I couldn’t lie about it, so I just said, “Well, I understand where you’re coming from and I can see that as a possibility, but I don’t intend to give up my performance career right now.”  

Anyone who knows me will tell you how stubborn I am, and if I made up my mind to do something, I won’t stop until I achieve it. In order to maintain both careers, I would work in the morning or during the daytime, have dinner with the family, put the kids to bed, and afterwards, I would go to the basement to practice. After practicing, if I had more work to do, I would go back on the computer or take some online courses to enrich myself (because I didn’t have any of the computer skills that were needed for the job) until it was time for me to go to bed, which was  often one or two in the morning! So, I had extremely long days for many years, but it was totally worth it. 

How have you seen the pandemic affect performance, both personally and professionally?

I see a lot of great things coming out of the pandemic, despite all the challenges that we’ve had. I am the kind of person that would much rather see solutions than problems. 

Personally, I am actually really grateful for the time to slow down and to spend time with my family. I know that if the pandemic didn’t happen, between my work schedule and my husband’s work schedule, we would have missed so much of our boys’ growth. So, I am truly grateful for the last two years in that sense.  Even though there were some really tense moments, just because of the amount of time that we were spending with each other, at the end of it, I do think that it brought us so much closer. 

As we all know, the performing industry has been shattered in so many ways during the pandemic. But because of that, and because of the social justice movement that has gained more traction during the pandemic, this is also a great opportunity for the industry to reinvent itself for the better. We still have a very long way to go, but I do hope that the conversations will continue. So far, the signs are more positive than ever.

Another silver lining worth mentioning: it forced many performing arts organizations into the digital format to stay relevant. I think it really fast-tracked years of progress for the very traditional performing arts industry, which is a true blessing! 

An Administrative Approach

Judy shares that just like in every field, working within administration has its challenges.

As an arts administrator yourself, tell us about the role you see administrators having in the arts field.

In my opinion, a good arts administrator has the ability to connect between the business world and the artistic world. Generally speaking, artists are more free-spirited and spontaneous. That doesn’t usually work well in a business setting. That’s where arts administrators step in. 

In order for the arts industry to thrive, we need great arts administrators as intermediaries. A good arts administrator can ensure a fair contract and working conditions for the artists while making sure there is profit for the presenters and companies. Arts administrators are a crucial part of the success in the arts industry. 

What has been difficult about working within administration? 

A lot of people still think of the arts as “entertainment” or “side jobs” and don’t realize the amount of time invested to master art forms. To make matters even more complicated, arts by definition are very subjective. 

I have found it difficult in my past experiences to convince people why great artists should be compensated fairly for their work and talents. The fact that our government doesn’t value arts education as much as the rest of the academic curriculum is not helping with the argument. Great performers and artists deserve being compensated as well as any other professions, but we are far from that reality today. 

On the flip side, artists/performers often have very specific ideas of what they want to present/perform which might not be what the presenters/audience are looking for sometimes. To align expectations with the artist’s creativity versus what the client’s looking for can be a challenging conversation. It takes a lot of knowledge, communication skills, and nuance to get the job done. 

Social Justice and Representation 

I have been an advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility for quite some time now. Being a woman of color in the arts field can be discouraging when you don’t often see yourself represented within spaces you occupy or aspire to occupy someday. 
Judy speaks on her thoughts on the social unrest we are seeing around the world, representation, and initiatives created to better these situations. 

Let’s get into this topic of social unrest and the things that we’re doing to combat that, as well as the steps organizations are taking. What have you been seeing? 

This is never an easy topic to discuss and it can get frustrating, but it is necessary to keep having these conversations if we really want to see changes. Many organizations are trying to incorporate DEIA into their hiring process these days, which can be a really positive step IF it’s done purposefully. I do think it’s extremely important that people are being hired not solely based on what they look like, gender, sexual orientation…etc. That not only doesn’t do any good to the minority groups they are trying to serve, it’ll only do more harm. 

I personally know some poorly-planned situations that happened to colleagues and now things are even harder for them in this industry that’s already so hard to break into – it’s truly unfortunate. I also know that some foundations will only grant funding to organizations that can guarantee changes within a very short or limited timeframe. That’s unrealistic and also not helpful, even though I understand they have good intentions. 

As a woman from a minoritized community, what has been your perspective on the social unrest we have been seeing over the past few years?

I have felt various shades of discrimination from the first day I arrived in America. However, I have also experienced an enormous amount of support and love from friends I’ve made along the way. 

I can only speak from my perspective, but I think things took a turn for the worse in 2016 and we will be experiencing the consequences for many years to come. I am in the camp of Confucius: I believe human nature is good but poor choices are made because of ignorance, power, and greed. 

I have hope that things will get better; they have to for my children’s sake. Now more than ever is the time for us to support and advocate for each other. 

We are seeing many initiatives being started to combat this unrest. What do you like that you’re seeing? What are you not liking? 

I am glad to see there are continuous conversations to address the unrest that’s happening currently. I truly hope that this is an ongoing dialogue and not just a trend. I often say to people that DEIA is not a diet; DEIA is a lifestyle that needs to be maintained and sustained daily. Every choice people make, especially people in positions of power, has ripple effects. 

In the music industry, there are many initiatives today to ensure minoritized musicians are represented. As much as I believe representation is important, I truly hope when people are being hired for positions, they are not just fulfilling a quota. 

How important is representation for you? What does it mean to you? What has it meant to you?

Representation is extremely important to me. It’s important because people need to be able to visualize where they are going if they want to get there, especially for the younger generations. 

I remember countless occasions of self-doubt because I was always surrounded by people who don’t look like me during my studies and professional career, even today. I have had numerous people come up to me to say that they wished they had known me earlier in their career because they never thought an Asian female brass player could “make it” in the professional music world, especially in the realm of musical theater. 

Representation to me means opportunities – opportunities to be heard and to advocate. Truthfully, I know that I am extremely privileged to be someone who has hopefully helped create a path for people who are now coming in as younger professionals. My whole career I can honestly say that I’m usually the only Asian female horn player in the room. I’m pretty sure I’m the only Asian female brass chair holder currently on Broadway, or maybe ever; certainly from Taiwan. So it’s really, really important to me to represent, to show up, and to say, “it’s possible and you will get there.” 

As we know, May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. What does this mean to you and are you seeing any projects or initiatives that are genuinely and effectively celebrating and uplifting members of the AAPI community? 

I am a little conflicted about the “month” celebrations. In an ideal world, all heritages, races, and genders should be celebrated equally on a daily basis. But, I do appreciate the sentiment. 

I think any celebration that highlights the culture, food, traditions, and more is always good. I am a firm believer of connecting people through arts and food, you can’t go wrong with combining those two things! You might need some Tums after, but it’ll be worth it! 

During these times of social unrest, we are seeing specific communities being targeted with hate and ignorance. How have you dealt with this personally and what are ways that you are combating this state of affairs? 

I have dealt with being targeted simply because of the way I look and obviously, it’s not pleasant. Personally, I can’t think of anything better than what Michelle Obama said: “When they go low, we go high.” It’s not always easy, but I do think it’s the best thing to do. 

At the end of the day, it’s about integrity. Just because people are being ignorant doesn’t mean that I should be. I will always speak up for myself and for people around me when necessary, but I will not engage in meaningless conversations anymore when I know there is no good outcome. Always surround yourself with allies and have a good support system. When you find “your people”, treasure them like there is no tomorrow because sometimes, there is no tomorrow. 

Looking at the big picture, what do you see as music’s and the arts’ role in society? 

Arts connect people in the deepest way possible – especially music. It’s the perfect example for myself when I first came to this country speaking very little English. I couldn’t have a decent conversation with any of my classmates, but I could sit down and perform a whole symphony with them. All we were sharing was sheet music and we connected with each other without any spoken words. 

I deeply believe that the more people learn about culture, arts, and music, the more peaceful our world can be. We need to prioritize arts/music education in classrooms for our younger generations. It’s the best thing we can do for society.

Family and Balance

Performing artists are often questioned about how they balance work and family time. I couldn’t help but ask Judy about how she manages her performing schedule, administrative duties, and spending time with her family. After her answer, I am convinced she is Superwoman in hiding. 

With your busy schedule of performing and administration, how do you balance work and time for family? 

This is probably the most-discussed topic among working moms. I have been asked this question many times and I still feel like I don’t have a good answer for it. Maybe because there really isn’t one and it differs for everyone. 

It’s important to create a good support system. It truly takes a village to raise a child and it’s ok to ask for help when you need it. My husband has always been incredibly supportive of everything I do and is the glue that holds our little family together. We don’t have any family members who live close enough or are available to help with babysitting on a regular basis; we pretty much have to do everything ourselves or have hired help, which is very costly. I have to constantly remind myself that this is just a phase and try to enjoy it as much as I can even though some days are really difficult. 

I read an interview on Ursula Burns — who became the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 2009 – and it really helped let go of some of my guilt of missing my children’s activities. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard missing things, but I also know that these difficult choices have to be made in order to keep my family afloat financially. 

My boys know that I make every effort to be at their games, concerts, and activities. I also think it’s important for them to see women working and they can support the family equally if they choose to. Vice versa, if a male partner in a family chooses to stay home and be the main caretaker, that’s completely ok as well. Truthfully, I don’t think of work life “balance”, I think of it as a work life “game”. You win some, you lose some, and that’s life! 

Maestra and Looking Forward 

All of us at Maestra have our stories of how we first discovered the organization. I was curious as to what aspects of Maestra drew Judy to the organization. 

How does Maestra’s mission and values align with your own? 

Maestra’s mission and values ARE my mission and values. 

I am from a culture that I was told from a very young age that I am not enough simply because I am a girl. I grew up listening to my relatives telling my parents that they should try to have another kid because my sister and I are not boys and therefore, not good enough. 

I am so fortunate to have incredible parents who don’t believe in that and have always told my sister and I that they are supportive of what we want to do and we are loved for who we are, period. Thanks to that love and support, and a bit of stubbornness, I was able to achieve things in my life that I didn’t think possible. 

Anyone can do great things if given the same opportunity, and that’s what Maestra is all about: a chance. A chance that’s so hard to come by in the music theater industry for women and nonbinary musicians in the past. I am extremely lucky to do what I love to do as a career. I want to be part of the team that creates opportunities for other women and nonbinary musicians who are so deserving of recognition. 

The mentor who gave me the chance to start subbing on Broadway years ago told me, “Anyone can open the door for you. In order to stay in the room, that’s up to you.” I will never forget that and have constantly reminded myself of it. Maestra can’t control who stays in the room, but Maestra can open doors for people and oftentimes, that’s all it takes. An open and welcoming door. 

What are you most looking forward to in the coming years, and what do you hope to see coming out of the arts field soon? 

If we examine history, whenever there is a crisis, there is also amazing art created. Our spirits and creativity are what separate us from the animals. Artists respond to the world by reflecting inwards and the world is a better place because of it. 

Our world has some major crises going on right now, but I know for certain there are timeless works and pieces being created as we speak, and I want to see and hear all of them – not just from certain demographic artists, but from ALL artists.

I hope this conversation is as fulfilling and enlightening to read as it was for me to share with Judy. She has already proven to be an asset to Maestra and the communities we serve, and I couldn’t think of a more worthy subject to highlight and celebrate! 

Judy is a selfless, passionate, and dedicated musician, administrator, mother, wife, and friend. We are lucky to have her here at Maestra and are excited to see all the amazing things she is going to do within our organization. 

Judy would like to leave you with the following: 

Judy’s Book Club

The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear (Women’s History Month, True Story about an Inspirational Woman)by Kate Moore 

Judy’s Favorite Quote

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

-Maya Angelou

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