Yo Yo Ma Discusses, Music, Practice, Psychology & Ageing…

The great ‘cellist Yo Yo Ma has been discussing his long career in music and his amazing diversity with Joan Anderman, in the New York Times. A revealing interview, Yo Yo speaks from the heart…


Yo-Yo Ma and the Mind Game of Music

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Ovation

When he reached middle age, Yo-Yo Ma said,  “I realized that of all the things I’m interested in, the thing I’m most interested in is figuring out what makes people tick.”

Published: October 10, 2013 T

Yo-Yo Ma began playing the cello at the age of 4. Now 57, he has received numerous Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1998 Mr. Ma founded the Silk Road Project, a nonprofit organization that brings together musicians from around the world. Last month, Sony Masterworks released his Silk Road Ensemble’s “Playlist Without Borders” CD and “Live From Tanglewood” concert DVD. Mr. Ma recently called from his home in Cambridge, Mass. A condensed and edited version of our conversation follows:


Do you ever wonder why it was you and not someone else who became a great cellist? What sets you apart?

Let me just say that I have no idea. I’m an accident. I don’t think there’s a rhyme or reason and I have spent a lot of time thinking about it. Why do I get these chances? Is it because I play faster? No. It’s a whole series of circumstances — some I work for, some come from my parents, my teachers, the points that are catalytic, the move, going to college, meeting my wife and knowing my children. It’s a confluence.

Earlier this year at the Aspen Ideas Festival you said it wasn’t until you turned 49 that you thought being a musician was cool. What did you mean by that?

Since I always played, as far as I can remember, I never said, “This is what I want to do.” And I think I always wondered: “Gee, could I have been this? Could I have done that? What would have happened if …?” What came up at age 49 is I realized that of all the things I’m interested in, the thing I’m most interested in is figuring out what makes people tick, why people think the way they do, why they act the way they do. And I realized that music is such a great way to investigate why people do what they do.

I don’t know if a lot of people think of music as a vehicle for understanding human behavior.

I’ve come to think of music in a way that’s a little clearer now. I would say the sound part of it, what you hear, the measurable part of the sound, is equivalent to the tip of an iceberg, less than 10 percent of the whole mass. So what’s below the surface is actually what is the music, what’s above is just the sound. I think about what is behind Bob Dylan’s voice. What is infusing my Goat Rodeo Sessions band mate Chris Thile’s sound, what is going on in his brain when he plays the mandolin? You can analyze the music and replicate it but you’re not really getting to Chris Thile until you understand what his worldview is, what motivates him to be open to everything around him, to be obsessive about slight differences in the taste of coffee.

Here and Heaven

How often do you practice, and for how long?

Mastering music is more than learning technical skills. Practicing is about quality, not quantity. Some days I practice for hours; other days it will be just a few minutes. Practicing is not only playing your instrument, either by yourself or rehearsing with others — it also includes imagining yourself practicing. Your brain forms the same neural connections and muscle memory whether you are imagining the task or actually doing it.

Have you experienced any of the physical problems that often plague musicians, like tendinitis or back pain?

I think all musicians have at one time or another experienced one physical problem or another. I have had tendinitis a couple of times, so I try to be really careful. It takes patience and persistence to overcome injury. Musicians often forget they are athletes and that it’s important to stretch before and after practicing or performing.

You’ve spoken about the perils of the child prodigy syndrome, saying that what you do when you’re young creates your emotional bank account and that you’ll be drawing from it the rest of your life, so be sure the stuff you put in there counts.

I think when I was growing up I was dealing with a number of realities. The primary one involved being an immigrant. I moved from France to the United States when I was 7, and I had Chinese parents, which meant that I had three sets of divergent points of view broadcasting in my ears. It was very confusing. I needed to use my imagination to fill the gaps.

Do you feel that, because you trained so rigorously throughout your youth, you missed out on other important parts of life?

I always feel I miss out on things. That’s part of living. And the idea that you’re missing out on things can be used as fuel for developing what I call a disciplined imagination. I would be a terrible musician if I couldn’t put myself in the mind of a composer who lived in a different time, a different place. I would be the worst musician if I can’t somehow project my imagination into someone else’s mind. I often say that to be a classical musician is to be a forensic cultural analyst.

Twenty-five years ago could you have imagined that you would win a Grammy for best folk album?

Probably not. But I don’t like to think in categories. To really learn you have to take away the categories. And maybe part of growing older is I’m slightly more self-aware, in the sense that I know some things that I’m good at and other things I’m not really good at, and I can accept that.

What are you not good at?

I’m not good at systems. I’m not great but I’ve become better at process. I think in shapes and in movement and images much more than in sound. I’m not an instrument freak.

What would you like to accomplish that you haven’t yet?

Oh, boy. I’m interested in pushing for the role of culture to have an equal place at the table of politics and economics. Is that an achievable goal? I don’t even know whether you can measure that. I think we would have a much happier, more fruitful and productive society if that were true.

Your role as an arts and culture advocate seems to be growing. Is it as much a part of your day’s work and life’s work as playing the cello?


It’s what I think about all the time, whether I’m playing Goat Rodeo Sessions or Silk Road or Bach or Beethoven. I never worry that, ugh, I’m playing this piece again, I’m playing this town again. I’m so much more involved in why I do it, why live music or being present with a group of people to share something you really believe in is important.

I remember growing up and people saying you can’t play the Beethoven Violin Concerto until you’re 40 because you’re just not ready to do it.

So there’s reverse ageism?

Then Yehudi Menuhin came along and played it at 12, and Pinchas Zukerman at age 19, and they gave the lie to that saying.

Are you a better musician now than you’ve ever been?

I’d like to think so.

Are some things harder?

Sure. The members of the Silk Road Ensemble, they’re 20 years or more younger, and if we’re on tour I can’t stay up as late. I can’t sleep on the bus the way they can. If I do a couple of short nights in a row, my body will pay the price.

Video by silkroadproject

The Silk Road Ensemble: Ascending Bird

Are there pieces you played when you were younger that you no longer play, and if so why?

Yes, but not for physical reasons. Concert repertoire has changed over the years, so there are fewer opportunities to perform some pieces.

While classical musicians tend to have long careers, even the greats start to lose something: rhythmic precision, intonation, bow control. Have you experienced these sorts of losses?

I think every musician worries about these things, and more so with age. I’ve been fortunate so far.

Does fame make it harder to connect with people and fellow musicians?

No, not at all.

Is the gratification you get from music different at 57 than it was at 27?

When you’re in your 20s you want to do it all yourself, and the great thing about being in my 50s is I’m super aware of one if not two generations of people that are younger, and their concepts of the world, the future, language, thinking patterns, are all very different from mine. I’m still really curious and I still love to perform and get my hands dirty, but I get such a huge thrill, maybe even a greater thrill, from seeing other, younger people doing things. So the sense of joy or satisfaction has expanded.

What, if anything, would make you think about retirement?

I’m not sure. Some days the complications — travel difficulties, fund-raising, visa issues — can seem a little daunting, but playing the cello is what I wanted to do with my life. All the things I love about life outside music have to do with people, and playing the cello allows me to fulfill all those interests through music.

Do you regret choices you’ve made?

I remember 20 years of having unbelievable children at home and falling asleep reading stories to them. I remember being impatient with my family members because I was so tired and stressed out. If I were to do it over again I would seriously look at the quality of decisions made during those years.

Joan Anderman, a former music critic for The Boston Globe, writes a blog,middlemojo.com, that explores, among other things, how artists change and adapt as they age.

About brendanball

Professional Trumpeter: Soloist, Orchestra Player, Chamber Music, Contemporary Music & Education.
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