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Ask Me Another

Yo-Yo Ma: Beginner's Mind

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Yo-Yo Ma
Jason Bell, Provided by the artist

Yo-Yo Ma

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 episode of the Audible series Words + Music, 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."

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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

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