Face-to-Face With Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma challenges Berkeley Connect students: “If not Berkeley, then where?”


Yo-Yo Ma (center) on the stage of Zellerbach Auditorium with Prof. Mary Ann Smart (right) and Berkeley Connect Music mentors and students.

On December 12, Berkeley Connect Music students were given the chance to meet and talk to none other than Yo-Yo Ma, after his master class with two Berkeley cellists. Yo-Yo Ma, the internationally recognized cellist, has been playing since he was a child and has won fifteen Grammy Awards for his work, among other awards.

A major rainstorm pounded Berkeley as the students gathered in Zellerbach Auditorium. “How did you all get here?” Ma asked with a smile, miming a swimming stroke. For the next hour, the Berkeley Connect group listened as Ma critiqued the two budding musicians, asking questions and giving pointers to help them refine their pieces. As they finished, Berkeley Connect Music Director Mary Ann Smart, who admitted to being a life-long fan of Yo-Yo Ma, noted that this was the first master class she had attended where the students were asked their opinions. “It was very dialogic and integrated,” she said of Ma’s approach.

“That’s what Berkeley Connect is about, right?” Ma responded.
Berkeley Connect students and mentors had prepared questions for Ma, after attending his public talk about the concept of the cultural citizen the night before.  Ma is a part of the Citizen Musician initiative, an ambitious project to enhance communities through music, and believes strongly in the power of music to make connections and bring people together. During his conversation with Berkeley Connect Music, he spoke eloquently and deeply about everything from his approach to music to the need for young musicians to help their communities.

Students were able to see Ma’s process up close when he probed the two musicians. After listening to Berkeley alum Mosa Tsay’s piece, he asked what she imagined as she played and challenged her to focus her image to help bring the music to life. So when students asked him to describe how he explored a composer’s intention, it was all about connections. “It’s like combining forensic methodology with forensic musicology,” he replied. “It’s trying to figure out what a dead person thinks.” He noted that it can start anywhere and that it’s important to stay open to everything around you. “Once you start making connections, more and more connections come up. You make a gamble and follow through.”

Ma also spoke about how the cello and music has shaped him as a person. “I’ve been playing since I was four, so long that it’s affected my physical growth,” he said, noting that his left hand’s fingers were actually longer than his right. “But more importantly, the cello has been a conduit for me to explore my imagination and people’s motivations.”

In addition, it affects the way he lives every day. “It also challenges me to remember where I am putting my ego. Whenever I am performing, I ask myself if I am sharing,” Ma said. “Also as a performing musician, you learn not to be paralyzed by indecision because you have to commit yourself to a certain point of view when you perform. It creates a habit of commitment.” But in the end, Ma also noted that many things could be the same sort of conduit for different people. Addressing one student, doubling in Physics and Music, who asked about music as a path to self-discovery, he said, “Anything you look closely at becomes that path for you. Physics, for example, explores the outer limit of what is possible. That’s a great balance you have there.”

When asked about his daily routine, Ma said, a little sheepishly, “I don’t have a routine, that’s the problem.” But he also added that part of it was intentional. “You know how many baseball players are very superstitious? Not having a routine makes it possible for me to just take it in,” he said. “It allows me to accept that I am dealing with a chaotic world with a lot of variables.” He admitted, however, that he had a bad habit of being late and vowed that his New Year’s resolution was to be on time.

Ma also answered questions on everything from his preference between synthetic and gut strings to his favorite movie score. Ma also touched on his interest in exploring non-traditional ways to play the cello. One thing Ma is interested in studying is the way external factors affected sound and composition in the early instrument movement. For example, European composers often composed with large concert halls in mind, while early American composers composed for smaller venues.

Mentors, too, had questions for Ma. When asked by Mentor Nell Cloutier about how to encourage collaborations, Ma replied that he asks himself a simple question. “I always ask – ‘Am I being useful? Is there something around me that I feel is not being addressed?'” Ma said. “The feeling that something is unfair is what creates a movement.” Ma admitted that one of his proudest achievements was guest starring on children’s shows, after one student said that she first heard of him when he was starring in an episode of the popular children’s show, Arthur. “I get to be a guest in their world and maybe spark something in the children who are watching these shows.”

One student noted that as an aspiring classical musician, she often felt discouraged. “If I could, I would focus on music,” she said. “But I feel pressured to double-major and look for ‘practical’ jobs.”

Ma’s advice? “Believe in your passion and commitment and be flexible,” he told us. “Keep many doors open. I see this mentality in my own children that they feel like they have to do this and do that.” He also encouraged people to look at what other people have done that interest them, bringing up, for example, the Sphinx Program that was founded by violinist Aaron Dworkin to encourage more musicians of color. “If you would like to contribute to music, there are so many people who have found fulfilling roles. But a lot of those jobs are not posted. You have to create them yourself.”

When asked by Prof. Smart about his next project, Ma replied, “Maybe that is something we can do together.” He encouraged people to write to him and to participate in Ma’s Citizen Musician initiative. “Go for music, but really use it,” Ma urged. “We talk about who is the richest person in the world, but we have no similar measures for culture and education. There are a lot of social issues in the world today – from the health gap to disparities in education among communities of color – and it’s up to young people to address the needs in their own communities and to ask themselves where they will be useful.”

Finally, Ma challenged Berkeley Connect Music students to start thinking. “Let’s make a deal,” he said. “If all of you agree to meet three times for coffee and come up with a great idea, I’ll come back and we will talk about it.”

“After all, if not Berkeley, then where?”

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant