Yo-Yo Ma warms up to being a musician | AspenTimes.com
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Yo-Yo Ma warms up to being a musician

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Leigh Vogel/The Aspen Times

As a 4-year-old and already a failure as a violinist, Yo-Yo Ma found a reason to play the cello: the size of the instrument. What he really wanted was a double bass, but he struck a compromise with his parents and scored the cello. It was an agreeable bargain. Ma enjoyed playing the instrument, and people praised his musicality.

The next 41/2 decades, though enormously productive, were only moderately fulfilling. As Ma told an Aspen Ideas Festival audience on Thursday afternoon, it wasn’t until he was 49, eight years ago, that he found true satisfaction in music.

“I finally thought being a musician was cool because my great interest in life is people, and music is a great way to meet people, study people, see how they act and why they do what they do,” Ma, an artist-in-residence with the Aspen Ideas Festival, said. “With music I could go really deep. I was finally happy. It took a long time.”

Discovering that the essence of playing music was connecting with people seems to have been the opening of an enormous doorway. In a conversation with Damian Woetzel, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet and now the director of the Aspen Institute’s Harman-Eisner artist-in-residence program, Ma spoke of the many ways that music benefits society.

A long segment of the talk was devoted to how music prompted big-picture thinking.

“We live in the realm of what is possible. But actually, that’s not the whole universe. There’s something much bigger than what we can measure, what we can understand,” Ma said, adding that music and the arts are among the world’s unmeasurables. “Music makes you keep track of two things at once — the biggest possible universal space that your music is trying to fill and the smallest possible moment.”

Ma brought up an experiment he witnessed at the Chicago Symphony, where he is a consultant. One of its young orchestras experimented with learning a piece without the aid of a conductor. The experience taught the musicians to be both supportive of one another and self-reliant.

“It’s about finding who needs what,” Ma said, adding that was also a fine lesson in the art of democracy.

While much of the Ideas Festival is devoted to subjects heavier than music — the military, the economy, politics, health care — Ma emphasized that training in music teaches skills that could be vital outside the concert hall.

“What’s needed in the 21st-century work force — flexible ways of thinking, great imagination, innovation, collaborative skills — if we have people who can do these things, we won’t have any economic crisis,” he said. “Those are exactly what the performing arts teaches.”

Ma ended the event with an audience-participation exercise, playing a two-minute Bach suite, with the crowd making a droning note to go along with his cello melody. The result was moderately musical and only halfway inspiring, but Ma seemed to enjoy the exercise.

“I think my way through life playing the cello,” he said. “You can’t achieve perfection. What you’re really doing is trying to communicate something meaningful.”


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