Yo-Yo Ma

by Danica from San Diego

William Butler Yeats once said, "There are no strangers here; only friends you haven't met yet". Cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma probably agrees as well. Born and raised in a very musical family, with a singer for a mother and a music professor for a father, it is no surprise that both Ma and his sister (Yeou-Cheng Ma) grew up to be talented musicians.

From a young age, Ma showed much promise in his skills, playing complicated pieces from composers like Johann Sebastian Bach as a five year old. As he grew older, Ma went to schools such as Harvard and Julliard, as well as the Marlboro Arts Festival, working with names such as Emmanuel Ax and Pablo Casals. Working hard to hone his skills, Ma has dedicated his life to the cello and has become one of the most widely known musicians of the century. He does not let the fame go to his head though, as he stays humble and true to his goal of bringing the world together. Yo-Yo Ma, a world famous cellist whose name means 'friendship' in Chinese definitely lives up to his name as a UN Messenger of Peace. With years of dedication to his instrument, he works hard to help many different cultures together with the compassionate ideals of his music.

One of Yo-Yo Ma's most admirable traits is how dedicated he is to the cello after over fifty years of playing. At the age of three, Ma's father, Hiao-Tsu, took him to a museum where he first encountered the cello. Ma wanted a "large" instrument as a child and was dead set on getting it. "Yo-Yo began lessons with his father at the age of four. He wanted something that was bigger than the violin so his father put a viola on an end-pin and the young boy began to play on the makeshift 'cello'" (Biography Today 2010) From a young age Yo-Yo was interested in music, being born to a very musical family. He was too small to play a full sized cello, but he was interested enough in the instrument to want to play even a makeshift one.

When he started lessons with his father, Ma did not get off easy. Hiao-Tsu was very strict with practicing and what he learned each day. "One of his methods was [to break] up practice sessions into shorter intervals every day Yo-Yo would learn to play two measures of one of Bach's suites for solo cello" (Whiting 20). Ma's love and dedication to his instrument has been present since he was a child. Sitting and practicing (no matter how long or short) can be hard for even an older student music or otherwise. As a four year old child, it is especially impressive that the music he was learning was a Bach cello suit, music that is considered very difficult for anyone to master. He did, though, and at about age five, he played an entire suite for a recital, a feat unheard of for someone that young. From a young age Yo-Yo Ma has been very dedicated to his music and instrument. He showed a great interest in the cello and did not 'tire out' of it as most children do. He has stayed by it and has now been playing for over fifty years.


Not only is he dedicated to his instrument, but Yo-Yo Ma works very hard at practicing and continually improving his skills. Now Yo-Yo Ma is considered one of this age's greatest musicians. Starting off as a talented child and continuing his career as a cello virtuoso. Though, he did not just get there through sheer talent and luck. He had to work hard and hone his skills for years before being able to perform like he does now. Ma once said: "I had to play right. If I made a mistake, then I would have to play the passage right three consecutive times." With the guidance of his father, Ma developed an interesting way of learning and new pieces of music. By learning and perfecting very short increments of music (two measures a day), Ma was able to perfectly play three different Bach cello suites within a year. Of course Ma could not just study under his father forever. Hiao-Tsu was a music professor, but he was not trained in the cello like he was with the violin. As he grew older and more skilled, Ma studied under several other teachers. In the words of one of his teachers from a younger age: "[Ma was] the most natural and eager boy you could imagine. We went through a mountain of repertoire in two years. He learned with lightning speed. He was everything one could wish for in a student" (Janos Schloz). With Schloz's words, it is easy to see that Ma definitely practiced and worked to play his music well even as a child. Despite what stresses he could have encountered, he stuck through them and kept playing. As a child, Ma was being spoken of as "everything one could wish for in a student". He was very enthusiastic about playing new music for his instrument and worked hard to perfect what he learned every day.

Yo-Yo Ma is a rare type of musician, especially one as famous as him. When one is winner of over fifteen Grammy awards and various other awards, people don't really expect them to be so compassionate and humble as Yo-Yo Ma. Unlike many musicians that start charities and programs to make them look better in the eyes of fans, Ma started the Silk Road Ensemble, possibly his greatest achievement, to "bridge the musical hap between East and West" (ix Whiting) with musical talent instead of copious amounts of money. "[Ma] organized several conferences. The conferences generated enough enthusiasm in the arts world for [Ma] to found a nonprofit organization... The Silk Road Project would therefore serve as a means of keeping these [native traditions in music].alive and even revitalizing them." Ma was very enthused about the project, saying that "The Silk Road is a musical way to get to know your neighbors." Even its motto is: "What happens when strangers meet?" Ma dreams of a friendly world, where people do get to know their neighbors, and where musical traditions were not lost due to issues with government and religion and others. With his tenacity, the Silk Road Project was launched and Ma, along with a group of other musicians traveled along it, performing for a wide range of audiences along the trade route. Eight years after the founding of the Silk Road Project, Ma was given another award, one with much more honor than a Grammy. In 2006, Ma was named a UN Messenger of Peace, a title held by others such as Charlize Theron and Jane Goodall. This shows that Ma is a very altruistic, caring man. One of his displays of character was actually not on a stage, but in the hospital room of Gert Kirchner, the wife of Leon Krichner- one of Ma's professors at Harvard. "Gert had been having a penchant for pickles. I said... 'Do you want pickles or do you want Yo-Yo?' She said, 'I want pickles.' . 'Next thing I knew Yo-Yo left his cello and took off. He came back about 30 minutes later with about six jars of pickles." (10 Whiting) Most celebrities would be offended by anyone saying that they preferred pickles to their presence, but Ma was not. He took it as a request and fulfilled it. Ma definitely has a spirit not seen in many people- let alone worldwide celebrities. He honestly cares for people, he cares for the cause that he's invested his time and money in. He does not take offense to people choosing pickles over him. Ma is very compassionate and friendly, caring for others as much as he does about his career.

As founder of the Silk Road project, Ma strives to bring together different cultures through music. Through years of musical training, Yo-Yo Ma has developed such amazing skills to be considered a virtuoso- one of the greatest talents of the era. Ma strives to bring use his music to bring together different cultures of the world and preserve long-standing musical traditions as well as building upon those to create new traditions. Being such a talented musician, Ma has performed for many audiences, including two US presidents. Ma has traveled around the world and has met so many people performing in many famous places including Carnegie Hall. He is widely known enough to exclusively play in venues like this, and if he were any other musician he probably would. But, unlike any other musician with such a high profile career, Ma is different: "He is the primary reason why this performance.[has] been sold out for months. Many famous musicians insist on continually bring in the spotlight and are reluctant to share their glory. Not Yo-Yo. Instead he deflects the attention to other members of the ensemble, allowing them to demonstrate their own considerable ability" (x Whiting). Like the quote states, Ma is very humble, more than willing to share the spotlight with others in favor of achieving the goal of bringing cultures together to play into our own daily lives, and work hard and dedicate ourselves, maybe we can eventually bring the world's cultures together and live together in harmony. Literally.

Page created on 1/10/2013 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 10/2/2019 4:47:34 PM

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Related Links


Chippendale, Lisa A.. Yo-Yo Ma: A Cello Superstar Brings Music to the World. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2004.

Whiting, Jim. Yo-Yo Ma: A Biography. Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 2008.

The Kennedy Center. "Yo Yo Ma." [Online] Available 2012.

Unknown. "Yo Yo Ma." Biography Today. 2010.

Meyers, Alice. ""Yo-Yo Ma." Musicians And Composers Of The Twentieth Century (2009). "Biography Reference Center, 2009.