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Yo-Yo Ma — “The Duty to Care”

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In my role as Producer and Host of “The Cello Sherpa Podcast,” I had the privilege of interviewing one of my biggest influences, Yo-Yo Ma! The podcast is available on Apple podcasts and all the other major podcast platforms, or at my website.

If you don’t have a chance to check out the podcast, you can read the interview below:

Joel Dallow: Welcome to the Cello Sherpa Podcast where we explore all aspects of the climb to the summit from intermediate musician to the professional stage. Check us out online at thecellosherpa.com or follow us on Twitter and Instagram. I’m Joel Dallow, your host. I joined the cello section of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1999 and founded the Riverside Chamber Players based in Roswell, Georgia in 2003. Today’s episode is sponsored by clear resources, your premier resource for compliance Legal Ethics and Risk. For more information, visit them online at clearresources.com.

On April 13, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a special concert with Yo-Yo Ma, who performed the Dvorak Cello Concerto with us. After that morning’s dress rehearsal, I had the honor and the privilege of sitting down for a conversation with him. I hope you enjoy. Yo-Yo Ma is a globally famous cellist songwriter and musical ambassador who has recorded more than 75 albums and received nearly 20 Grammy Awards. I’m willing to bet that probably everyone who listens to this podcast knows exactly who you are. Thank you much for joining us today on the Cello Sherpa podcast.

Yo-Yo Ma: Oh, thank you so much, Joel, I’m glad that you have this mission of trying to extricate little moments that might be useful for others, as you explained to me, in their journey with music, life, cello, whatever it is that they’re engaged in.

Joel: Well, what a pleasure to have a person that I would consider the ultimate Cello Sherpa on this podcast. I’d like to ask you what is the thing that you believe is the most important message to communicate to young musicians and cellists?

Yo-Yo: Probably the act of caring. When you care, you have to know enough about yourself and enough about somebody else to want to engage in their life and that requires both your analytical skills, it requires your empathetic skills and it requires your communicative skills. Caring, in some ways– our largest organ is our skin and touch is probably one of the most human acts, and the sounds that we make activate air molecules that actually not only reach their eardrums and get interpreted, but actually reach their skin, it’s visceral. I think caring has all those aspects involved in it and that’s what we’re trying to do with music.

Joel: Would you say that something that you have come to over your career or is this something that’s innate in you as a human being?

Yo-Yo: Well, I think what’s innate in us in human beings, we do have that care. As you get older, you think about sometimes, as citizens, we think about the duty of care and responsibility, the duty of what does it mean to care? Or as a parent and as you’re growing up, if you have a pet, you have the duty of caring for what that pet means. A lifetime spent playing an instrument is about trying to make the instrument an extension of your body. The strings of the cello become an extension of your vocal cords. The bow becomes an extension of your lungs. The soundbox of the cello, it’s like your vibrating lungs.

Your musculature gets transferred onto the motion of the bow to pull out the sound, to tease out the sound, to caress the sound, in order for your vocal cords, as in the strings, start to vibrate in such a way that it becomes expressive and not just identified, “Oh, it’s this sound and that sound,” but it’s how do you humanize the sound. That takes constant, a different kind of care to tease that out.

Joel: Yes. Having had this incredible global career that you’ve had, what do you feel is the most important aspect of music in our world today?

Yo-Yo: Well, back to the idea that music is something that travels lightly, meaning if you hear something on the street, in a hospital, in a forest, out of the ocean, you like it, you internalize it, it’s yours, you’re actually able to turn what was something else into you. I think that’s what culture can do, so whether it’s nature, or human expression, or mechanical expression, whatever it is, you can, if you say, “I like it, I want it to be part of me,” it’s yours. In that sense, it reminds us of the nontransactional nature of so much that we have in life that is, in fact, not transactional, in a society that has put sort of transactional value on everything but it reminds us that that’s only part of it. That’s part of the story. The rest of the story is about the other stuff.

Joel: Can you talk about a little bit of the inflection points in your career? For example, the first time I saw you perform, I was 14, I was attending Tanglewood, and you were playing a few concertos with the orchestra there and you gave some masterclasses and I’ve had a lot of exposure to you over the years, which has been wonderful. I’m curious how you went from being the cellist that played all the big concertos with all the major orchestras in the country to this global figure that everybody knows who Yo-Yo Ma is, everybody knows what the cello is now. Really, I think because of you. Was that a concerted effort or is that something that happened more organically and if so, what would you attribute that to?

Yo-Yo: Well, I’ll tell you, since you mentioned Tanglewood. The first time I went to Tanglewood was when my son was three months old and this was back in 1983. I was probably 28 years old and Seiji Ozawa was the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I just played something with them for the first time and he said, “Yo-Yo, you should come to Tanglewood and you should come and teach and do something at the Tanglewood Music Center.” The inflection point happened, because up to that point, in so many places, I was always the youngest kid on the block. I was always playing with older musicians, more experienced people and they were adults telling me what to do, and you should– and suddenly Seiji saying, “Wait, I want you to teach or coach people.”

What was interesting to me was that I realized suddenly, there was another generation of people that’s younger, and now there’re many generations of people that are younger than I am, but that started the idea of thinking, what younger people are thinking about, because then we may be living on the same planetary surface, but the way they think is different from me. I was aware of generational separation and that the only way that I could actually get to know them is to truly interact with them and find out what they think.

That inflection point has affected me for the rest of my life, including, for example, having children and now grandchildren. At the musical professional level, it’s like being aware of younger people, bothering to find out how they think, what they care about. Of course, the most exciting thing is that, as a 28-year-old, I was on the verge of doing things for the second, third, fourth, fifth time, but for them when they’re discovering that piece of music for the first time, or that idea that has come across the mind, to see their faces light up, and their eyes light up and they got it, they got something. They worked really hard on something and they made it happen. It’s like the most exciting thing in the world.

I think that’s why teachers love to teach, because they see this over and over again and they have this ability to light up people’s minds and hearts and set their hearts on fire to something that is, in fact, really exciting that someone else did for them before. That kind of passing on is just one of the most exciting beautiful and human things we can do.

Joel: Yes, and I’m so glad you brought that up because it reminds me of many of the guests that I’ve talked to here that have talked about their first experience of hearing the cello was Yo-Yo Ma on Sesame Street. Then I thought, “Is this what led to global stardom, Sesame Street, with all of these young people getting this message from you and everybody knowing who you are?” Is that the secret, Sesame Street?

Yo-Yo: Let me tell you something, that I think that when sometimes I’m asked, “What are you really proud of having done?” I’m not particularly proud of having done anything because I just do stuff. The answer I always give is that I am really proud of having been in children’s shows. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, Arthur. Why? Because when I was appearing on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street, I’m a guest in their show. I’m in their world, in their territory. If they accept me as part of their world, that’s a forever thing, because when you’re young, I don’t know by you, but I’m so old that I forget everything. [laughs] I do know that when I was younger, I remembered everything.

Joel: Yes, that’s true.

Yo-Yo: My advice to young people say, if you want to learn anything, memorize as much as you can before you’re 20 years old, because after that it just gets harder and harder.

Joel: Yes, that’s true.

Yo-Yo: I’m proudest of having been and to have been accepted in these children’s worlds because I see them now as 30, 40 year olds saying, “I remember that.” That’s proof that that memory is permanent, but embedded with those memories are the sets of values that Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers neighborhood was trying to demonstrate or act and so that that also is something that follows an interest in woodworking, or painting, or cello playing, or whatever that the hosts of these shows are trying to put in terms of content for the children.

Joel: That’s terrific. Every person that I talk to has been influenced by you on the cello in some way. So many of my colleagues and generations of people. It’s so great to have this opportunity to speak with you. I know we’re running short on time, I was wondering if you would like to share any particular parting words that might be helpful beyond what you’ve already offered.

Yo-Yo: I don’t know, Joel, I think it’s so great that you’re doing this.

Joel: Thank you.

Yo-Yo: That obviously is a labor of love, and I think when you do labors of love, you know that that has great meaning because one of the things that we desperately need everywhere and I think people are hungry for, is just people who are authentic, who are just believable. There’s no reason when you are doing a labor of love that you’re doing it except for the fact that you love doing it, right?

Joel: Yes.

Yo-Yo: This is not a transaction.

Joel: Yes, that’s true. [laughs]

Yo-Yo: Our talk right now is not a transaction. We’re doing it because we’re fellow cellists, we like the stuff, and we want to pass on that love to anybody who might be interested. That’s all we can do.

Joel: Yes, that’s true.

Yo-Yo: That’s all we can do as humans, is that we pass on something that we think is valuable.

Joel: Yes, and certainly as we get older in this profession or in whatever it is that we do, we see the value of that more-

Yo-Yo: Absolutely.

Joel: -because we have the perspective that we need.

Yo-Yo: I can tell you one thing that happened today. We had a rehearsal, the Dvorak Cello Concerto, which I have not played with an orchestra for a number of years because of the pandemic, but the visceral emotions that I experienced having this fantastic group of musicians and artists playing a piece that we obviously know and love, and hearing it almost as if for the first time, the plethora of emotions that I felt listening, I was so moved, I was so moved.

I was speaking with our colleagues afterwards, and I think that’s something that not only we want to recapture all the time, because it is special for a group of people to be able to commune together and be of one very rich, large mind and say something together that we really believe in and that we want to share it with an audience. I think it made me realize, “Oh, that’s why we have orchestras. Wow, that’s why we do music.” It gives us something that is so enormous and rich. I felt it, I felt it like a furnace blast of– just embrace of this massive emotion. Thank you for that. Thank you for this morning.

Joel: Thank you.

Yo-Yo: Thank you for this talk.

Joel: Thank you so much for joining us today on the Cello Sherpa Podcast.

Yo-Yo: Yes, keep Sherp-ing. I don’t know if that’s a word.

Joel: Sure.

Yo-Yo: You can turn into a verb.

[laughter]

[music]

Joel: Thank you so much for listening to another episode of the Cello Sherpa Podcast. Be sure and catch our next episode where we interview Brant Taylor, who has been in the cello section of the Chicago Symphony since 1998. We talk about his impressive audition experience, his teaching philosophy, and much more. We’re here to serve you. If you have questions or topic suggestions you would like to cover in future episodes, please use the contact page on our website, thecellosherpa.com or tweet them at us @thecellosherpa. You will also find information about the specific services we offer on the website. Don’t forget to follow us and rate us on whatever platform you get your podcasts. This helps us climb the ranking so other people can find us. Today’s episode was produced, edited, and recorded by me, Joel Dallow.

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