Yo-Yo Ma: On Playing Cello and Being Human

Photo by Ashley Jiang | The Bottom Line

Samuel Yang

Cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma led a master class with three UCSB students at the Granada Theatre last Saturday morning, April 27. Thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures, the public had the opportunity to sit in on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for free and bear witness to one of the most renowned artists of his generation expounding on music and the human condition. Through his music, Ma encourages harmony in a world filled with strife, and he seeks to share this altruistic attitude with as many people as possible.

One of the foremost cellists in the world, Ma’s influence on music cannot be overstated. Born to Chinese parents in Paris, he was raised in New York and studied at the Juilliard School before graduating from Harvard. After playing his first public recital at five years old, he debuted at Carnegie Hall at nine years old and later went on to earn 18 Grammy Awards. Since then, he has begun connecting his music to the world at large, promoting harmony among cultures through his Silkroad ensemble and blazing new trails through the field of forensic musicology.

Lines formed in front of the theater as early as 7:45 a.m., with many in attendance ecstatic about the opportunity to meet Ma at 10 a.m. A hush fell over the audience as the first cello student, Katrina Agate, began playing her piece, Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major” alongside Natasha Kislenko on the piano. The two performed a stunning rendition, drawing out applause from the crowd. Following the performance, Ma made his first appearance and immediately began connecting musical energy to electrical energy.

“It’s all about conditioning. Condition the audience to believe this is a top, that the energy level cannot go any higher … And then blow it out of the water,” Ma announced.

He then segued into discussing the concept of musical roadmaps and proposed a challenge for his students to play and count at the same time. Likening it to patting one’s head and rubbing the stomach at the same time, he encouraged the audience to empathize with the difficulty of the task and injected some much-needed levity into an otherwise nerve-wracking experience.

When asked about this challenge in an interview with The Bottom Line, Agate offered, “I feel like with anyone else it would have been a lot worse, but the way he phrased it … He makes sure the audience knows how difficult it is, and he makes it fun … It wasn’t so bad.” The audience shared her joy upon witnessing Agate accomplish what she could not do at the beginning of the class and cheered as she walked off the stage, nervous but proud.

“Like the great jazz players, [timing] is a freedom, not a constraint. They can play around it and make it their own,” Ma continued.

Thomas Lin Jr. followed the performance with Bach’s “Cello Suite No.3 in C Major.” Emphasizing the necessity of improvisation and the importance of inserting joy into music, Ma focused on how one might evoke emotions through music. The audience laughed along as he brandished a series of silly faces and whacky noises while he discussed happiness. “Focus on the variety — there is no dull joy. Everything is interactive. Allow yourself variety and improvisation … Why is a sunset interesting? Why is a tree interesting? Because it’s like no other tree.”

With a few brief comments on Lin’s stiffness during playing, he encouraged Lin to transform the cello from a safe zone to a danger zone, and with that, he instilled a life into Lin’s playing that the audience felt on a visceral level. He wrapped up this talk with a vastly insightful comment: “Music is not a product. It’s not a transaction. It’s actually an interaction.” Upon hearing this, the audience instantly exploded into applause. When asked about his takeaway in an interview with The Bottom Line, Lin said, “It’s about finding the joy in music and putting that into the music.”

The last student, Chenoa Orme-Stone performed Brahms’ “Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in F. Major” with Natasha Kislenko on the piano. As the crowd’s cheers faded, Ma could only comment on their beautiful playing and how their notes wove between each other seamlessly. It was immediately evident that he was overcome with emotion upon hearing their music as he expressed, “It’s not about piano or cello playing. It’s about making music.”

Afterwards, Orme-Stone, in an interview with TBL, stated, “What’s so inspiring about  Ma is with everything he does, he makes it about so much more than the music … unlike a lot of cellists who give a lot of masterclasses … he makes it about how we treat other people and the story of our lives.”

For anyone interested in similar events, UCSB Arts & Lectures has invited David Sedaris, one of America’s most celebrated humor writers, to speak at Granada Theatre this Friday, May 3. For the musical enthusiasts, the Bell-Isserlis-Denk Trio will be performing on piano, violin, and cello at Granada Theatre on May 7.