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Airman cellist bows for audience

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jarrod Grammel
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs

The deep, rich sound of the vibrating strings echoed in front of thousands of people at a change of command ceremony as one Airman put to work 22 years of practice. 

Although the musician had been in the Texas All-State Orchestra, his recent performances were confined to church and friends' retirement ceremonies. 

Staff Sgt. Joey Lee, a 31-year-old public health technician for the 23rd Aerospace Medicine Squadron here, now uses his hobby to entertain fellow Airmen and support base functions.

For Lee, it all started at 9 years old when he wanted to learn to play the violin. After his sister forced him to abandon the idea of playing the same instrument as her, he said he decided on the cello. 

"I got into the cello because my sister played the violin, and she was older," he said. "Of course I didn't know any better, and she wanted me to stay as far away from her as possible, because I also wanted to play the violin. So I ended up playing the cello.

"I would've played the bass, but I was a short kid," Lee added. "I can only imagine myself carrying that big hunk of luggage around with my 4-foot-whatever frame. So that's the story. My sister forced me to play the cello."

Lee stuck with the cello, practicing almost every night at home and school in northern Virginia where he grew up. All of his immediate family played an instrument: His mother played the piano, his father the guitar and his sister the violin.

"Prior to playing the cello, I actually played the piano, so the cello was starting to get a little bit easy for me," Lee said. "Instead of looking at two clefs, I was just looking at one, the bass clef. After that, it was just a lot of private lessons. My parents were big on that.

"I started doing a lot of orchestras," Lee said. "Then I started competing, and next thing you know, I was pretty good at it. So I kind of just stuck with it."

While living in San Antonio during his senior year of high school, Lee was accepted into the Texas All-State Orchestra. He said it was a great accomplishment to be one of about 20 cellists from Texas to be chosen for the orchestra.

When he graduated high school and moved on to college, he began minoring in music but gave that up to focus on his major in biology.

Despite not finishing his minor in music, Lee continued to play and maintain his musical ability. Although he can play many different types of music, his favorite is classical. 

"For me, it's always been classical," he said. "I think out of all the string instruments, the cello has the best solos. I've been raised classical, but I can also play modern."

Although Lee said he initially hoped to keep his music as a hobby and occasionally play at church, he enjoys giving back to the community and Air Force by playing at base events.

"It feels great," Lee said. "It was more of a hidden hobby for me. I like to play at church, and I kind of wanted it to stay at that level. But I guess it was just one of those hidden talents that people want to enjoy more of.

"I think for people with hidden talents, it makes you that much better and separates you from the rest," he added. "I think that music kept me on track and kind of kept me out of trouble, too."

Lee's first performance in the Air Force was at his first base, Aviano Air Base, Italy, where he volunteered to play his cello at church. Eventually, he said people started noticing his talent, and a co-worker asked Lee if he would play for his retirement ceremony. 

After moving from Aviano AB to Moody AFB, Lee continued to play at church, and when he went to Airman Leadership School, he accompanied a singer during the national anthem. 

After playing the national anthem for his ALS graduation, "it's been pretty much all the national anthems, whether it be Senior NCO inductions, ALS graduations or retirement ceremonies," Lee said. "Next thing you know, I'm gainfully employed."

One person who noticed Lee's talent was his first sergeant.

"The first time I saw Sergeant Lee was at the retirement ceremony,” said Master Sgt. Vivian Hirt, the 23rd Medical Group first sergeant. "He did an amazing job. It was absolutely incredible."

In the future, Lee said he would like to learn to play the ukulele, or the guitar like his father.  But a shared interest in music isn't the only thing he has in common with his father, who also enlisted in the Air Force, commissioned soon after and eventually retired as a colonel with 26 years of service. Lee hopes to put in a commissioning package soon and continue to follow his father's legacy.

In January, Lee is set to move to Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, for his next assignment where he said he hopes to continue playing for church and base events. He said he's a free gig, and as long as his audience appreciates the music, he'll be there.