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Yo-Yo Ma: Beginner's Mind

Apr 16, 2021
Originally published on April 16, 2021 4:17 pm

World-renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma began his musical journey at just 2-and-a-half years old when his parents placed a violin in his hands, "I was very bad and I gave it up. And my parents thought, "well the boy is just not musically talented." He rebounded quickly when at the age of 4, Ma was introduced to the cello.

Musical curiosity runs deep in the Ma family. Recently, Ma's grandson took an interest in his cello. "He figured out how to open the case, take the cello out and everything," Ma said. "He wants to take over. I don't need the competition. Just stay away, I need my job!"

Ma most likely won't have to worry about finding work. He's an 18 time Grammy winner and has released over 100 albums in his 40+ year career. Yet, Ma says he still carries a curiosity and attentiveness with every new project he takes on. In a recent release of Audible's Words + Music program, he discusses the importance of what he calls a "beginner's mind." He said, "Ultimately what I love about a beginner's mind is that you get to be receptive to what's around you. It allows you to be present without judgment."

Over the past year, with venues and orchestra halls shuttered due to the COVID pandemic, Ma has had to get creative about where he chooses to perform. He's toured the parking lots of schools, hospitals and fire departments, playing on the back of a flatbed truck.

One particularly memorable gig took place at a dairy farm in western Massachusetts. "By the end of our playing all the cows had moved over to our side of the fence," Ma said. "I mean, they were drawn to something, right?" He said he hoped the farmers tasted the milk the next day, to see if the music changed its flavor.

For his Ask Me Another challenge, Yo-Yo Ma listened to the music by Vitamin C, En Vogue and Billy Joel and identified the classical compositions they quote.

Interview Highlights

On performing at a vaccination site after getting the COVID vaccine

I love to play in all kinds of places. What was lovely is that there was an elderly gentleman who obviously needed the music because he just turned his chair around, came really close but socially distanced, and the whole time I was playing he put his head in his hands and he was kind of drinking it in like he needed something.

On playing a rare Stradivarius for his Tiny Desk Concert

Almost for all time that Strads have been in existence, they've always been a little bit out of the reach of players. Because, you know, they were so beautifully made that they were very often snapped up by collectors. For the third time in the life of this cello, it was made available to a player. It has something to it that has a very special soul.

Heard on Yo-Yo Ma: Civic Duty

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.


Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. Yo-Yo Ma is a world-renowned cellist. He has 18 Grammy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You can hear him in the new Audible original series "Words + Music," free to U.S. listeners.

Yo-Yo Ma, welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER. Hello.

YO-YO MA: Hello to you, Ophira. I'm so happy to be on your show.

EISENBERG: So I saw a video that you brought your cello with you to your second vaccination and then took a moment to play for everybody. Now, did you set out beforehand? Did you say, listen, I'm going to play when I come there - or spontaneous?

MA: No, actually, it was my - our daughter who is much more technologically able than her aging parents, you know, went onto her laptop and searched far and wide and found a place in western Massachusetts that we could get vaccinated. So we went there, and I had my cello in the car. I said, well, maybe I should leave the cello in the car. My wife said, you know, it's not insured if it's stolen in the car.


MA: I think you should take it in. I said, yeah, but, you know you know, it's kind of awkward to bring a cello into your vaccination place. She says, listen. You know, she gave me that look, you know, that - you're going to take that in. So I said, OK. Would you mind, like, if we go, we sign in, maybe I'll pass it to you and, you know, you kind of go with it? And she's like, fine. And then - so she goes ahead of me and gets her vaccination. They said, you know, this cello - you play? She says, no, that's my husband. And so I'm next. And they said, oh, so you have your cello. You going to play? I said, of course I'm going to play.


MA: No because, you know, you don't want to make a scene, right? You don't want to go in...

EISENBERG: Of course.

MA: ...And say, hi. I'm here to get my vaccination, and I thought I'd play for you. No, we don't want you to play for us. Just get out.


MA: So, you know...

EISENBERG: I appreciate this talk of humility. I really do. But let's also understand, you know, I'm pretty sure, Yo-Yo, that they're going to say yes.

COULTON: Yeah. I mean, of all the people to provide unasked for cello music...

EISENBERG: You thought they would be like, OK.

COULTON: ...I feel like you are qualified.

MA: You got three minutes.


MA: Now scat.

EISENBERG: That's right. Yeah - things to do. And how did it feel performing at that vaccination site?

MA: Oh, listen. Look. I love to play in, you know, all kinds of places.


MA: And what was lovely was that there was an elderly gentleman who obviously needed the music because he just turned his chair around, came really close but socially distanced. And the whole time I was playing, he put his head in his hands, and he was just kind of drinking it in...


MA: ...Like he needed something. And other people came and, you know, just walked over, snapped a photo and...


MA: You know, and so you got all kinds of people, you know? It's like - one person, when I left, said, yeah, that was really nice. Do you play with the Boston Symphony? I said, well, you know, sometimes I do. And, you know, that was...


MA: ...Enough to answer their question. And...

EISENBERG: When they're lucky. Did you say that - when they're lucky?

MA: Oh, no, no.


MA: When I need a job.


MA: Give me a job, please. And so it was just - you know, but that's what's so wonderful. I think the person who gave my wife and me the vaccination - she said, you know, it's such a privilege to be doing this. And I thought, yeah, it's such a privilege to see this whole place of people, volunteers...


MA: ...Just manning the tables and the lists and just - you know, everything was well-organized, well-ordered. And it was just an ultimate demonstration of people doing civic duty.

EISENBERG: Absolutely.

MA: You know, it's like, yes, this is who we are. This is - you know, this is the country that I think we live in. In every local community, people are just giving of their time and abilities for the public good. And they are coming through gangbusters.

EISENBERG: Yeah. I mean, as someone who travels yourself consistently all - like, all the time for work, that changed, of course, in March. And you were at home, although, you know, you did many performances both over Zoom and what have you as well as outside on a flatbed truck.

MA: Best way to perform.


EISENBERG: Was it the best way to perform?

MA: I tell you, it was so liberating to go. And there was this wonderful arts company in Pittsfield who actually provided the backdrop, and they distributed these hula hoops, you know, because we were limited to 25 people. So they found a really lovely way to put, you know, these circles out on the ground...


MA: ...Colored circles. And people just knew exactly where to be. And we could only play 15 minutes because that was the amount of time allowed to be in one place...


MA: ...And gathering. It felt a little bit like when we were in grade school. We would be carted around from place to place.


COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: It's sort of like, here we are now.

MA: Now you do this. OK, now you do that. So it's like, yeah. It was great.

EISENBERG: And all the pretenses are gone.

MA: Yeah, yeah.


MA: And we even went to, like, a dairy farm, a wonderful dairy farm. And there were, like, a whole bunch of cows by the fence. And I wish I could have a photograph of this because by the end of our playing, all the cows had moved over towards our side of the fence, which is kind of - I mean, they were drawn to something, right? You know, I don't know what it was. But I wanted to say, listen. The next day's milk - make sure you taste it.


COULTON: It's going to be good.


MA: Just in case.

EISENBERG: Is it sweeter? Is it sweeter?

MA: Or maybe not.

COULTON: Or maybe not.

EISENBERG: Or maybe not.

COULTON: Oh, I see. Sure.

MA: Exactly.

EISENBERG: Yeah, this batch is off.

MA: Not that batch.

EISENBERG: But you were - you know, speaking of just feeling like you were in grade school being carted around, you know, your recent episode of the Audible series "Words + Music" where you talk about your life and career is called "Beginner's Mind" because it's basically about reclaiming that curiosity and openness and learning to approach things as if it was for the first time. How do you use that mentality in your own career?

MA: Well, I think this is one thing that, as a performer, I try and do every time I get on stage, because it doesn't matter what you did yesterday, it's what you do right now is what counts, right? Nobody cares how well you might have - or badly you might have played the day before. So - and in fact.


MA: Right? He says, I'm sorry, I messed up tonight's performance. But yesterday was really good. You should have been there.


MA: And - but I think, ultimately, what I love about a beginner's mind is that what - you get to be receptive to what's around you. It allows you to be present without judgment. It's like every place, people are concerned about slightly different things. And being able to talk to people who are, you know, at the airport or the cab driver or, you know, someone at the grocery store - you know, just find out, how's it going?

EISENBERG: Yeah (laughter).

MA: What's going on in your life, you know? Because in the evening, you're playing for them. And if I know who they are and I know what's on their minds, you know, I'm better able to deliver something that might be palatable to them.

EISENBERG: I also just have to ask - in 2018, you did NPR's Tiny Desk. And you brought your famed 1712 Stradivarius. There's something like 60 or 63 of these in the world. How did you obtain it?

MA: Well, the nice thing is I didn't obtain it. But I get to play on it for life. But somebody else owns it. And you know what's great about that? - is the fact that, you know, for all - almost for all of the time that Strads have been in existence, they've always been just a little bit out of the reach of players because, you know, they were so beautifully made that they were very often snapped up by collectors. And for the third time in the life of this cello, it was made available to a player. And so it has something to it that, I think, gives it a very special soul, you know? It's like there's a generosity in its spirit. And so I feel incredibly privileged, you know, to be a temporary custodian of this instrument. You know, this cello is older than the United States...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

MA: ...You know, right?


MA: It's - yeah, it's 64 years older than the United States. And it's still producing, you know? The fibers are still vibrant. The wood - you know, it's like, there's something wonderful about that.

EISENBERG: What is the personality of that particular instrument? Does it...

MA: It's just like you.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Oh, it's just like me - bright, charming...

MA: Absolutely - resilient. And, you know...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: It has bangs.

MA: It has bangs. Yeah. Exactly. Yeah.


EISENBERG: Fantastic. OK. We have a game for you. OK. This is exciting moment. Would you like to play a game with us, Yo-Yo Ma?

MA: I'd love to play a game with you.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Great. So this is a game about contemporary pop songs that quote classical music. We are going to play you a clip of a pop song. And you have to identify the classical piece that is being quoted.

MA: OK. Well, I can tell you something...


MA: ...I am known within my family as being the idiot.



MA: I would walk into the room - there's a piece of music playing on the radio. And I can identify a cello. Nice piece.


MA: Wow, you know, it's - yeah. I wonder what it is. I don't think I know the cellist, but I'd like to get to know the person. And Jill's asking me, so do you know - you know, what's the piece? What's the piece? Do you know? I say, I don't know. But it's very beautiful. Turns out it's something that I recorded


MA: And I just - I've completely erased it from my memory, you know? I'm supposed to be musically adept or talented or - you know, right?


EISENBERG: It's been said.

COULTON: That's what they say, yeah.

MA: Yeah. It's been said, right? But I told you, I am an idiot.


EISENBERG: I'm now - I'm so excited to see what happens. OK...

MA: Yeah, well, so am I.


EISENBERG: OK. So here's your first clip. It's by the artist Vitamin C. The song is called "Graduation (Friends Forever)."


VITAMIN C: (Singing) As we go on, we remember all the times we had together. And as our lives change...

MA: So I suppose the ostinato is - what? - "Pachelbel's Canon" or something like that?


MA: OK. All right. So all right...


MA: See; so I can't even predict my own failure, you see?


COULTON: All right. Here's another opportunity to succeed or fail (laughter).

MA: To fail. Relish all opportunities to fail.


EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: This is a Billy Joel song titled "This Night."


BILLY JOEL: (Singing) Oh, this night is mine. Oh, it's only you and I. Oh, tomorrow...

MA: Yeah. I know the tune - dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, duh, dah, dah, duh, dah (ph).

COULTON: Yeah. Yeah?

MA: Yes, it's the...

COULTON: It's hard to separate it from the context of a Billy Joel song.

MA: It's the second movement of the Beethoven "Pathetique" sonata.

COULTON: Yeah, that's right. Sonata "Pathetique" - that's right.

EISENBERG: You know, just a quick side question - you started playing cello when you were 4, correct?

MA: That's correct.

EISENBERG: So - but you played violin and failed at that before that. What - when did you start playing violin?

COULTON: (Laughter).

MA: Yeah, well, obviously, it's by a process of subtraction.


MA: I was - before I was 4. I think I was 2 1/2 or something. And my sister was four years older, and she was very good, and I was very bad and gave it up.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

MA: And it was - you know, my parents thought, well, the boy is just not musically talented.

COULTON: I love the idea of your parents giving you a chance to play violin when you're, you know, 2 1/2 years old and then saying, ugh, this kid is no good.


MA: Exactly. Well...

COULTON: This 2-1/2-year-old is no good at violin.

EISENBERG: Obviously not.

MA: Obviously.

EISENBERG: Can't read. Can't play violin.

MA: Yeah, exactly.


MA: Yep, that's right. My parents - yeah, they were quick judges.


MA: But you know what? I have a grandson who is now, like, 4. And when I played an instrument, for a while he was interested in listening, and I thought, wow, kid's really talented.


MA: And then he figured out how to open the case, how to take the cello out, how to do everything. And then he wants to kind of take over. I said, you know, I don't want competition. Just...


EISENBERG: That's right.

MA: Just, like - just stay away, you know? Because I need my job.

EISENBERG: That's right.


EISENBERG: And that's the one that's not insured, right? That's the one that's...

MA: Exactly. Exactly.


MA: Oh, my gosh.

EISENBERG: OK. OK, here's another one for you. We have a few more.


EISENBERG: This song is by the R&B group En Vogue.

MA: Ooh, nice.


EN VOGUE: (Singing) ...For you. I adore you, always wanting you, losing sleep over you. Guess I truly do love you crazy - crazy, crazy. I got crazy love for you.

MA: Yes, this is from "The Nutcracker." Dah, dah, dah (ph)...

EISENBERG: That is correct. Yeah, absolutely.

MA: ...Duh, dah, dah. That's my grandson's favorite piece right now, is "The Nutcracker."

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah?

MA: Yeah, he just loves it.

COULTON: All right, this is the last question for you.


COULTON: This one is from The Beach Boys, and it's called "Lady Lynda."

MA: Nice.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Lady, lady, lady, lady...

MA: This is from Bach, "Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring."

COULTON: Yeah, absolutely right.

MA: Yeah.

COULTON: Yeah, well done.

EISENBERG: Well, yeah, guess what? Guess what? You got them all right.

MA: Well, you know what? That is an anomaly.


MA: I beg to differ. I resent that.

EISENBERG: You beg to differ.

MA: Yeah, I do.

EISENBERG: I just have to say, thank you so much. Thank you so much for joining us.

MA: This is great. Thank you for having me.


EISENBERG: "Yo-Yo Ma: Beginner's Mind" is available exclusively on Audible and is free to all U.S. listeners.

That's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff, along with Julia Melfi and senior writers Camilla Franklin and Karen Lurie, with additional material by Cara Weinberger. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber and Rommel Wood. And this week, we say goodbye and good luck to our amazing intern Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis.

COULTON: Refashioned Zen inside his home.

EISENBERG: Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. And our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.



EISENBERG: Hey. You're still listening - fantastic. So since you're still here, why not pop over to Apple Podcasts and write us a review? We'd love to hear from you, and it also helps others find out about our show. For information about new episodes, bonus videos and more, follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Thanks.


EISENBERG: Next time on ASK ME ANOTHER, Wu-Tang Clan's RZA talks about his hot new jingle for ice-cream trucks. Plus, actor and talk show host Busy Phillips takes time out of her busy schedule to get busy with some trivia. And cartoonist Keith Knight faces off against his evil twin. So join me, Ophira Eisenberg, on NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER, the answer to life's funnier questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.