Pianist Foo Mei Yi: “Enjoyment of Music Makes the Musician”

Foo Mei Yi. Photo by: Kaupo Kikkas

“MY FIRST MEMORY of the piano was at a Yamaha Music School back in Seremban. I was touching four and my mother, who already had an inkling of my musical ability, decided to register me for classes. But they had to turn me away; I was still too young!” recalls Foo Mei Yi with a laugh. “I hadn’t even learned my numbers yet. They told my mum, ‘Come back in a year and we’ll give her some lessons.’”

That was the starting point of Mei Yi’s musical quest. She took to the piano instantly and as she grew, so did her passion for music. Encouraged by her parents, she enrolled at the Royal College and Royal Academy of Music in London.

Today, Mei Yi is a renowned concert pianist and recording artist.

Embracing Honesty in Music

She has performed alongside the Russian Orchestra during the White Night Festival to hosting intimate shows in cosy French wine cellars. Each venue is unique and its audience adds a new dimension to the concert. “My job is to be responsible for the music that I play. I like to draw on the audiences’ reaction, that’s how I feed off the energy; and I always try to find something special in every venue I play at.”

Perhaps, this is why her “homecoming” performance with the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra last March was imbued with a due sense of occasion, and a refreshing reminder of how far Malaysians can go in their career internationally.

But Mei Yi does not wish for music to be described as “a career”. “It’s not about climbing the career ladder and getting a promotion; it’s a way of life. And it’s a life that you have to be sure you whole-heartedly want because many – and sometimes painful – sacrifices have to be made. If you get paid to perform, that’s great, but the main thing here is to enjoy the music that you’re playing.”

And how does she feel when her fingers tease the piano keys? Mei Yi pauses for a moment to think, “Feeling? Well, I feel myself being transported, that’s what happens when I’m onstage. My best performance is when I cannot remember the concert. It’s like going to the movies and you’re so caught up in the moment that you forget where you are.” But she is also a firm believer that practice makes perfect, a habit that has seen her through many episodes of stage fright. “It’s healthy to feel nervous, it shows that you care,” she reasons, “but the days when I’d feel completely overwhelmed going onstage is behind me, which is a welcomed relief.”

Now, a mother to a two-year-old son, Mei Yi says that often, children are persuaded into attending music classes to check their parents’ list of expectations. “Its learning should be made enjoyable, and not for taking exams. That defeats the purpose. Children learn because they want to enjoy the music, they want to know about the composers and to convey what they have to say to audience members.”

She observes that the classical music scene in Malaysia has come a long way since the 1980s. “There are plenty of classical concerts these days. We even have full-fledged professional philharmonic orchestras, in addition to emerging youth and community orchestras to stir the imagination and interest of young people. I think that overall, access has been made infinitely better.”

Mei Yi adds that Malaysian audiences are also more appreciative of classical music in all its permutations. “In the UK, people know the music that will be played before going to a classical concert. It’s a preconception which is not necessarily good. To expect something that sometimes cannot be achieved is ‘wrong’ in a way. Whereas, Malaysians are open to anything because they don’t have a historical baggage that they carry or perhaps, they are not thoroughly attuned to a certain composer or music. So, the audience here are very open to new sounds and pieces.”

“My best performance is when I cannot remember the concert.” Photo: John Millar/BBC

Throughout her musical journey, one of her biggest influences has been fellow artist Ng Chong Lim. Mei Yi and Chong Lim’s friendship blossomed back in their Seremban days, and their similar hunger challenged them to become better musicians. “I have also tremendous respect for my teachers both in Malaysia and the UK. They played such important roles in shaping the person that I am today.”

When she is not enchanting audiences with her piano-playing, Mei Yi’s down time is usually spent with her little one. Scuba diving and beach-hopping used to be her go-to leisure activities, but play groups, playgrounds and singing nursery rhymes have since taken their place. But Mei Yi warmly welcomes the changes motherhood has brought on. She has had to adjust her pre-performance rituals and routines as well. “I used to have rituals like I must have a nap, or a banana before I play. Now, I have to make sure I’ve warmed up the milk or arrange for a babysitter,” she laughs.

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