Renowned harpist brings talent to Wheaton

By Jessica Young
Staff writer
Published 8/31/06

Amy Lee of Wheaton spent a decade donning mermaid costumes and togas for gigs as one of three resident harpists at Disney World in Orlando. She played at Cinderella's Castle, in the park's wedding chapel, on the beach, atop a boat and inside monorail trains.

But then she decided to move on.

"After 10 years, the magic wears off. You can only take so much magic," said Lee, an Indiana native.

So she packed up her harp and relocated to Illinois, where her musical career first took off. Lee stayed a short time in Lansing and made the move to Wheaton about six weeks ago to be closer to family in the area. She recently accepted a special education teaching job at Washington Elementary School in Wheaton.

But she's also getting back into the game by frequenting the fundraising, corporate event and wedding circuits to expand her booking schedule. Lee has already committed to performing at an event for the Prairie Center for the Arts Foundation in Schaumburg.

At Disney World, she launched into a rousing rendition of the Mickey Mouse Club theme ("Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? M-I-C, K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E...") every time the big-eared icon entered the room. As much as that was fun, Lee said she wanted to get back to her roots.

The classically trained instrumentalist is a pop rocker at heart. While for most laymen, the harp sound may conjure visions of wood nymphs frolicking in a field while under a magical trance, Lee begs to differ. Her repertoire includes Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Phil Collins and the Beatles. But Sting is the artist that really inspires Lee.

"I can do all the classic standards," she said. "But I think people book me because I'm not limited to them. Sting is my favorite artist to interpret. You could say that I've been stung."

Lee's love affair with the harp can be traced back to when her father was stationed in the Philippines during World War II. A movie was being filmed on his ship, so they had a live orchestra. Famous songwriter and harpist Robert Maxwell played to the servicemen each evening at sunset, and Lee said she believes the tune "Ebb Tide" was written about the experience.

Years later, her parents were walking around downtown Chicago and saw a harp in a storefront window. Her father bought it for her mother as a sentimental gesture, and Lee said the rest was history. Her mother, a musician and music teacher, took up the instrument and passed her love of it to Lee and her brother.

From age 6, Lee took a train into Chicago for harp lessons. She had her first paying job at 11 when she took the University of Chicago's theater department by storm. Although she studied radio and television at Purdue University and did a short stint as a disc jockey at an Indiana station, she continued to dabble in music.

Lee's first break came when she played Chicago Fest in 1979. An official from the Art Institute of Chicago saw her perform and later lured her onto the staff, where she offered daily lunch entertainment in the garden restaurant and made appearances at all of the museum's private functions until 1990.

She was simultaneously playing high tea time at the Mayfair Regent Hotel and dinner at the Hilton and Towers in Chicago, where she crossed paths with the talent and booking agent for Disney.

"One thing has always led to another in my career," she said.

In the course of her professional life, Lee has had the honor to perform for Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and foreign dignitaries during various foundation events and other engagements.

"It was kind of exciting to be present and see them there with their wives," Lee said. "All of them were taller than I had envisioned except for Carter."

But the glitz and glamour of her career has taken a back seat to more pressing family issues of late. As a single mother of an 11-year-old child with special needs, she was partly motivated to move back to Illinois because of better services in the education system. She also went back to school and earned two master's degrees in education that would give her the option of working at the same school her daughter attends.

While Lee has slowed her musical bookings to between 50 and 80 a year -- a marked decrease from when she was in her heyday -- to be home more with her daughter, a harp talent has proven to be a crucial piece in a mother's toolbox.

"The sound is very relaxing, so it really calmed her down when she got all wound up," Lee said. "I'm glad she seems to love it, too, since it has become an extension of my own body over these years."

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