The 60-year-old cellist is on a magic cello ride, and still striving for perfection
by Martin Steinberg
A cellist walks on a beach and picks up a bottle. A genie pops out and says, “I give you two wishes.”
The cellist says: “Wow, I’d like to have world peace.”
The genie thinks for a second and says,
“That’s too hard! What’s your second wish?”
The cellist says, “Well, I’m turning 60 and I want to play in tune.”
The genie thinks for a second and says, “What was your first wish again?”
Musicians, take heart. That joke was told by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma during an interview ahead of his 60th birthday on Oct. 7. After 55 years of playing, yes, even Yo-Yo Ma needs to practice.
“What all string players have in common is that if we don’t play for awhile, we actually start from ground zero,” Ma says. Ma was four when he started the cello.
At seven, he was performing with his big sister for an audience that included two US presidents. Now nearing his milestone birthday, he’s ever youthful, always learning, asking questions, constantly building bridges.
And striving for perfection.
Despite all his achievements—more than 100 CDs, 18 Grammy Awards, and other honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts—he’s going full tilt toward more accomplishments.
In the weeks before his birthday, Ma’s agenda was packed. At Tanglewood, his scheduled performances included all three Brahms trios with Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos and the six Beethoven cello sonatas with Ax. That was followed by a six-country European tour with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony, featuring Strauss’ Don Quixote in advance of next year’s 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death. At the London Proms, he was scheduled to play all six Bach Cello Suites in one night. In September, his new album, Songs from the Arc of Life (Sony Masterworks), with long-time accompanist Kathryn Stott on piano, was to be released, as was a documentary focusing on musicians in his Silk Road Ensemble—a collective of musicians, composers, visual artists, and more that explores Eurasian culture.
The journey began in 1955 in Paris, where Ma was born to immigrant Chinese musician parents. His sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma—a violinist, pianist, medical doctor, and children’s orchestra administrator—remembers that their father started Yo-Yo on the violin at age two and a half, then piano, but he didn’t like them.
“He didn’t want to do something that I already did because he could see that I already knew how to play,” Yeou-Cheng Ma says. “He was a very smart kid, very intuitive . . . and a charmer, even at a young age.”
So he didn’t play any instrument for the next year and a half, during which time the family moved to New York. One day, he saw a newsreel about a New Orleans jazz band and noticed the double bass. “He was thrilled,” his sister recalls. “He said, ‘That one! The big one! That’s what I want!’” But since he was so little, he was given the second-biggest one, a cello. Their father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, taught him the Bach Suites, measure by measure. At age seven, Yo-Yo and Yeou-Cheng performed Breval’s Concertino No. 3 at a fundraiser for the Kennedy Center. The audience included President John F. Kennedy and former President Dwight Eisenhower.
Ma went on the study with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School, but dropped out and entered Harvard at age 16, majoring in the history of science. Since then, he has been on a magic cello ride around the world, figuratively and literally. As he approaches the start of his seventh decade, Ma says he is swimming and walking, watching what he eats, and assessing his goals—“What’s worth really, really trying hard for?”
About the genie joke. You don’t have intonation problems. What are you talking about?
Mark Salzman wrote this wonderful book about a cellist (The Soloist) . . . seeking perfection. Of course, you cannot achieve perfection and you kind of get paralyzed, so you have to find equilibrium between the possible—what’s realistic and what is ideal.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Family. I love my family. They’re great people, and I’m just so, so lucky to have them. That’s by far.
In your career?
To have been part of these children’s television shows Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, [and] Arthur, because what happens when you go on a child’s show is that they’re not a guest in my world, but I’m the guest in their world. If they accept you, it’s permanent, it’s theirs. And that is so important because to me that is the basis of all cultural understanding, or any artistic understanding, which is you have to stand on the inside. So if you’re accepted into a child’s world, that’s the greatest gift of all.
I’ve had the great luxury of meeting kids who saw [me] many years ago, and I see them as teenagers, 20 year olds, 30 year olds, and they can tell me, “This did this to me at that time and therefore I did this at that time.” And that’s incredibly rewarding.
I didn’t expect that answer. You never fail to surprise.
I think that, and probably being part of building the Music Garden in Toronto [as part of Ma’s “Inspired by Bach” series]. There’s a music garden that Julie Moir Messervy based on the First Bach Suite. Because that’s another symbol of what culture means to me . . . . Culture is kind of like a living seed and it can grow in places that are not fertile . . . . Gardens are not just existent in nature, but somehow there’s a human element of tending it, caring for, of enriching, of selecting.
And then, of course, the garden is there to be enjoyed, to be used, to be part of people’s lives in different times and seasons. To me, it is the ultimate metaphor for culture. And for culture, I would say, what we tend in our human garden is probably things like the arts, the sciences, and philosophy.
I’ve been thinking of these things because I’ve always wondered, what is music for? And lately, a lot of musicians are interested in music and health. What is it that actually becomes a passion? Is it the sound, is it the activity, is it what state of mind you get to, where you are actually in the activity of teaching music, of playing music and joining with others into creating music? What part of the brain does it use? How does it affect your state of mind? How does it affect the other things? And so whether you’re a child or an adult [or] a retired person, what do these things do to your brain?
And what are educational systems based on? Where did our high school subjects come from? Our studies are from 1910, so [do] we need to reboot that? How does art fit into that, how does that fit into arts funding and science funding? What are we educating our children for? Is it a transactional thing? Do you pay that money in order to get better jobs or is there something about education that is different?
I think those are serious questions that the nation’s considering. Not just this nation but every nation. “Oh, we’re falling behind in the sciences! Oh, we have to do STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]!” But wait a minute? Do we have common philosophy? Is it e pluribus unum, which is on every quarter, or is it “all for one and one for all?” Or is it just for me? Because is what’s good for me good for everybody?
So these are the questions and when we think about them it affects the sounds that we make. And I think for Strings, and the edition of Strings that you are writing for, I think that’s something—yes, strings are like vocal cords and how we use our voice, whether we use it to alert, warn, soothe, pacify, communicate, what are we communicating, who are we communicating to, what’s the purpose of the communication? Is it to join, is it to separate, is it to point to something larger, is it to something in the micro world, in the macro world?
I think those are incredibly interesting things that I would like to continue to consider after turning 60, because by many standards, I’m old. I’m part of AARP [laughing] and I can get a discount on the bus. So is my contribution less now that I’m old, or what is it that I can contribute for certain? Whatever I do is becoming less interesting than what other people do . . . . I’m less at the center of my world than when I was 20, when I was trying to say: I can do this, I want to do this.
This seems to be fodder for a very important book on society.
No, just musings of a middle-aged person going through what everybody goes through. I’d like to be able to think about these things, but also be able to try and play in tune. But while I’m playing in tune, not to obsess over intonation, but the obsession of trying to play in tune because transcending technique allows me then to communicate the content.
Do you still practice a lot?
I actually enjoy practicing more and more . . . as a child, I practiced because I had to practice and you didn’t want to mess up. But that’s not a good thing. You want to please your teacher, you want to please your parents, you want to please your peers. And now I practice because I’ve experienced so much love that you practice out of loving a phrase, loving motivic change, loving a structure or harmony change or the way a sound can get to something.
I think that part of practicing is great because it unites what you want to do in engineering, as in technically, where do you put your arms and your fingers and your body—micro movements—with that desire and the feeling of what it needs to be. That’s a wonderful process because it’s a constant of going toward something bigger than the notes and yourself, and very lovingly so.
Whenever I catch myself playing something that sounds mechanical but dead, it’s because either I’m not paying attention or it’s something difficult that I haven’t solved. Sort of like a physicality issue that, you know, sudden tension, so I freeze up and become more internalized, so I can’t love it. Loving something implies going outside yourself and fear means retreating into yourself. I’m scared. Well, go back into yourself. That’s a metaphor for societal fears when a whole people are scared of something that they can’t control and sort of hits them, what do they do? It becomes more tight, they will make much, much more conservative decisions. The counteracting of that is culture. Hey, wait a minute, I want to know what that fear is. I’m going to research that fear. What exactly is that fear? Is it exactly what I think it is? Is that what I feel or can I analyze it? What’s the truth behind the fear? So you kind of have to look at that—that’s a key in performance. When someone performs, you want that person to be open and not to have any barriers. Any barriers that are set up between the performer and the audience actually impedes the communication of what needs to be.
I often tell people the world needs more Yo-Yo Mas, and this is a perfect example. Just these ideas alone, if people could hear them, everything that’s headed in the wrong direction can turn around.
I don’t know. We’re so invested in thinking, in trying not to screw up. Basically, I have your back. We don’t want to make obvious mistakes, so we cover up. But actually, to really create trust, you have to trust that it’s OK to make a mistake, and you’re not going to be punished for it. We acknowledge and do better the next time. It’s one of the hardest things to do because we don’t want to look like fools. [New York Times writer] David Brooks has been talking lately about what we work for: our CVs or do we work for our eulogies? There are different things that you work for, curriculum vitae, and people talk about a person differently in the eulogy. There you talk more about character—this and that—and so which one are we working for? That’s a kind of philosophical question, isn’t it? That comes with a philosophical part of culture. What are we as a society working toward? So what are we working for in a community, what are we working for in a political party, what are we working for in classical music?
You’re about to perform the Elgar Concerto, and have done so many times. How much time must you devote to it at this point?
The thing is, you know, there is engineering, neuromuscular finger work, and there’s head work. So for anybody who’s really really passionate, basically it’s whatever it takes and it’s also head work. It’s kind of all the time. It’s sort of like you’re downloading a program in your computer, it’s in your brain. When I go on to do the Elgar, I start thinking about it, on and off, all the time. So I’m thinking, “Huh, how about trying it this way?” So you’re always in some ways trying to hear something a certain way, solving a problem a certain way, and rethinking it and thinking there’s a better way to build this mousetrap. So you want to align your physical self and your mental self into the state of mind that is required of that piece.
Do you ever envision your life after cello?
Like après-ski, hot chocolate by the fireplace, with pizza?
You’re not going to lose any weight like that.
You’re right. Maybe a cup of herbal tea and some nuts. Well, I’ve always been interested in people and culture and arts and sciences and philosophy and typology, so I think I’m always going to be thinking about it, and the older I get, the more I’ll get interested in young people because that’s another form of culture.
The young people’s world—we may occupy the same space, but they will think differently and have many different reasons to do what they do and I’m deeply curious about that. I like to think of it in K through 12 and beyond and how people learn—why they learn—and so I will always be thinking about these things.
What Yo-Yo Ma Plays
Yo-Yo Ma’s principal instrument is a Montagnana cello built in 1733. At the frigid 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, Ma performed outdoors on a modern Luis and Clark carbon-fiber cello. He uses a circa 1820 Tourte bow.
Growing up with Yo-Yo
What was it like growing up in the Ma family? I asked Ma’s sister, Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, about the guidance her father, musicologist-conductor Hiao-Tsiun Ma, brought to the family. “My father was very strict. He was also a very wise person,” she says. “I tried to quit practicing because it gets tedious after a while. So I said, ‘You know, I’m not going to practice today. I practiced yesterday.’ He said OK. I was very surprised because I thought he was going to yell and scream and carry on. And then came dinner time and I’m hungry. He goes, ‘But, oh, you ate yesterday.’”
“He has this vision to bring people together, aside from his own playing. I remember when he was very young and I was heading toward taking medicine,” she says.
“He asked me, ‘Well, should I be a doctor, too?’ I said, ‘Oh no! Your music is so amazing that when you play you will move mountains, you will affect the universe.’ He was like maybe ten, 11. And it proved to be true, even though he was very young. He went beyond what anybody could think.”
The Big Gig with Yo-Yo
She was fortunate enough to have attended his first concert in his parents’ native land. “That was [a] big moment,” she says. “For Chinese, especially for young musicians, we are all looking up [to] him. We know he’s Asian, we’re proud, you know—he’s a hero for us.”
More than ten years later, she had moved to the United States, and in the late 1990s, she got the gig of a lifetime—to play Bright Sheng’s “Three Songs for Pipa and Cello” with Ma at the White House during a state dinner hosted by President Bill Clinton for Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji. “I was so nervous,” she recalls. “Bright Sheng’s music is not that easy.”
And there was the issue of balancing the cello with the four-string pipa, a Chinese instrument. “The color is so different,” she says.
“The rehearsal was basically to figure out how we can make it sound good together.
Yo-Yo was very, very nice. He changed the way he bowed so it came out [a] different sound to match my instrument.”
Later, Ma recruited her to join his embryonic Silk Road Project, a unique cultural exchange featuring music from the countries along the ancient trade route connecting Europe and China.
The project was supposed to last five years. Fifteen years later, it’s still going strong, and Wu Man is still performing with the ensemble.