Conversation with Yo-Yo Ma

by Alexa Reeves Massey, Cello Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Alexa Reeves Massey, Cello Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Alexa Reeves Massey

It was a vivid day for a number of reasons. Not only had I been anticipating seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform the Haydn D Major Cello concerto with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for weeks, but my teacher had acquired back-stage passes for him and his students to meet him after the performance.

Then a turn of events occurred. The day before the concert, the Twin Towers fell. I was in 8th grade and remember not fully understanding the impact of it until the following day in Denver, when my Mom pointed to the Sears Towers on our way to the Boetcher concert hall. As we looked up at the Sears Towers, which looked rather large to a small-town girl like myself, she explained that the Twin Towers were several times as high and wide as those buildings. This July, I visited ground zero in New York City, and the air felt thick with the loss of a decade ago. The surrounding Wall Street Buildings are still heavily guarded, and my heart pounded as the countless news images played through my mind of people running for their lives from the area I was standing.

Of course, Haydn D Major, an up-beat, joyful concerto, was no longer appropriate for the concert. An hour before the performance, the program was changed from Haydn to the Elgar Cello Concerto—one of the most soulful, heart-wrenching pieces of music ever written for the cello. This is also the work that inspired me to stick with the cello when I was young—I saw it performed at the age of ten, and I knew I would never quit the cello after seeing the true magic this instrument could create.

Most events were cancelled after the attack, but the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma continued on with the concert with an altered program as a tribute to the lives lost.

After the concert, Yo-Yo Ma spoke with my cello studio, and I will always remember the wisdom he imparted. He discussed the tragedy of the previous day with us, and I was struck by how gracious, generous, and completely humble this man was.

He went on to discuss cello playing with us, and said that practicing is about quality, not quantity. He said that some days he practices for five hours, other days he will only practice for five minutes. If you aren’t having a productive practice time, you are most likely just reinforcing bad habits. He also discussed the importance of having a balance of the three ways to practice. Those include:

1) Practicing by yourself

2) Practicing with others (rehearsing)

and 3) Imagining yourself practicing.

I remember being surprised by number 3 on his list. It seems silly, right? But it has been scientifically proven that the brain forms the same neural connections by imagining yourself doing something as actually performing the task. He said, “Just because your cello is in the shop is no excuse to not practice!” This piece of advice saved my music career in college—I was injured and the time I could practice was very limited. But I learned to practice in my mind, and work out fingerings, bowings, and other musical ideas before even touching my instrument. This is a great way to give your body a rest, or prevent injury, and still improve musically.

Yo-Yo Ma was a child prodigy, performing in the White House for President John F. Kennedy by the age of five. However, in college, he studied Humanities at Harvard University. Yo-Yo Ma stressed the importance of learning about the world. He said to develop yourself in many areas—to learn about history, humanities, art, and math & science; being a well-rounded person is as important to virtuosic musicianship as are practicing your scales and etudes. You can’t be a truly mature artist unless you are educated and aware of the world you live in.

As well, he said that he is always pursuing new musical interests. Yo-Yo Ma has largely popularized the cello because he doesn’t just play standard works—he is continually pursuing new projects, playing music from different cultures, and learning, growing, and challenging himself musically.

“When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it.”

Yo-Yo Ma


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2 Responses to “Conversation with Yo-Yo Ma”

  1. soundsorceress Says:

    Yo-Yo Ma is one of my favorites also, and full of sage wisdom.

  2. Practice | Refine Says:

    […] was reminded of this recently when I read a conversation with Yo-Yo Ma (on thelessonstudioblog) on practice. He mentioned the importance of productive practice time, that we are only […]

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