Yo-Yo Ma on Communicating Effectively with Your Audience

Performance is only magical if the audience is fully engaged
by Edith Eisler

“CONTENT, COMMUNICATION, AND RECEPTION,” cellist Yo-Yo Ma says, “those are the three elements that go into a performance; but unless they are in total alignment, there will be no magic.

The first part, content, is what you think of as the voice of the composer, the reason why the music was written, why it’s meaningful. In the second part, communication, the content is translated for the listener, and to do that, you have to able to use your brain, your body, and your technique, because there must be no impediment between content and communication. The third part, reception, is often forgotten but it’s perhaps the most important, for there will be no magic unless what you think of as the content is actually received by the listener. If it isn’t, then something went awry, something was not clear, there was an impediment in the communication.”

Let’s Talk: Yo-Yo Ma.
As anyone who has heard Yo-Yo Ma play knows, he is one of the greatest “communicators” before the public. His identification with the music is so strong, his projection so direct, that his listeners feel he is playing for each of them individually.

How does he do it, and how does he help others do it?

“You mean in terms of coaching? I never listen to anybody as a teacher,” he says, during a recent phone interview. “I try to act as a listener, and to think of the magic of a performance as a whole. I believe the most important part of communication is to transcend technique. If we hear a violin and piano duo and think, ‘Oh, what a wonderful violinist!,’ we are not listening to the music. And when you are dealing with two essentially different instruments, you also have to transcend that difference.

“If in a violin and piano duo, the piano, basically a percussion instrument, and the violin, a lyrical, singing instrument, are trading phrases back and forth, should the violin try to match the sound of the piano or the piano the sound of the violin? Or can they try to match each other and find a middle ground? To change the character of your instrument in order to match that of another is very hard; you need a lot of affirmative action. But as long as we are aware of two separate instruments, we are not hearing pure music—the flow, the conversation between the voices.

“As for reception: once you have determined what you are trying to say, it is very important to check with the listener to find out whether it has come across. I recently gave a master class at Tanglewood. We had a violin and piano duo that played Beethoven’s C minor Sonata, a clarinet and piano duo that played Brahms’ F minor Sonata, and a couple of cello and piano duos, one of which played Schubert’ ‘Arpeggione’ sonata. There was a group of listeners, including several musicians, who were invited to react. We tried to find out what the players thought was the content of the music, and then I asked the audience whether it had been communicated.


“OK, the Beethoven sonata is dramatic. Is it explosive? Should it sound hard? Tense? Does the tension ever get resolved? The chords in the first movement: the piano plays, the violin responds. Are they slaps? Did they sound too comfortable? Why did Brahms fall in love with the clarinet? For its warm, mellow sound? Did the piano succeed in matching that? And the ‘Arpeggione’: a very difficult cello piece with a very awkward piano part, but unlike the Beethoven, it needs to sound easy and comfortable.

“If it sounds at all hard, we’ve lost the music.

“So you must constantly ask yourself: Am I lazy and not thinking through the content sufficiently? Am I mistaken to assume that communication is self-evident?

“Remember that no one is great at everything all the time and keep checking whether your message was received.”

In his master classes, Ma sometimes asks a student to play the same phrase with different kinds of expression: pleading, angry, wistful, sad. “Yes,” he says, “I think it’s important to be able to find an infinite variety of ways of doing any one thing.”

Ma feels that the triad of content communication-reception lies at the heart of what every musician tries to do in performance, and that its principles apply to music of all kinds, styles, genres, and combinations.


As proof he offers the Silk Road Ensemble, which he founded in 1998. Like the ancient trade route linking Asia and Europe for which it is named, the ensemble forges connections by bringing together musicians from Eastern and Western cultures and fusing their styles, traditions, and native instruments. The music may be written down or improvised, or arranged and reorganized for the group, often by its own members.

“We try to find different or surprising content in a piece,” Ma says, “and work it out—communicate it in as many ways as music can be made.”


Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble just spent an entire year “in residence” in Chicago, which he describes as “a great world city that contains many of the world’s populations.

“We worked with its cultural institutions: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and many others,” he says. “We went into the public schools and put on all kinds of different programs. One of them was called A Life In or With Music, whether you’re an amateur or a professional. We had kids from various music schools come and discuss things like, well, content-communication-reception: how to find your own voice, how to incorporate what you know into what you do, how to make a new tradition your own.


“But What I am particularly proud of is that we got 567 ten-year-olds to perform with the Chicago Symphony and the Silk Road Ensemble before 10,000 people after two months of training. The children played maybe 40 different percussion instruments. They could imitate the sounds of volcanoes, of tidal waves, of earthquakes, of insects . . . the Chicago Symphony chose the repertoire so as to create a story, and the kids knew exactly how to fit the rhythms and the sounds into it.”

The tangible, lasting outcome of the Chicago experience is the Silk Road Ensemble’s third and latest CD. Its title, New Impossibilities (Sony Classical 88697 10319), is taken from Mark Twain’s description of Chicago in his book Life on theMississippi. Recorded live in concert, it is a collaboration between the Chicago Symphony and the Silk Road Ensemble in a program of mostly Eastern music played on both Western and Eastern instruments. It demonstrates the “magic” that results when musicians of vastly different backgrounds and traditions combine their talents and skills and learn one another’s musical language.

“The recording is a snapshot of the Chicago experience and also of the ensemble’s evolution,” he says. “The residency generated a subgroup based in Chicago: the Qi Lin Duo, consisting of Yang Wei, a pipa player from Shanghai, and DaXun Zhang, a terrific bass virtuoso from Manchuria. On the record, they perform a piece called ‘Galloping Horses,’ and that’s how they make it sound.

“I think there is nothing more important for a group than to have the depth and flexibility to play in different styles and to work with people from a variety of traditions. My hope for musicians of the 21st century is that they will have the tools and skills to do that, and that learning and absorbing new traditions will help them to deepen their own.”