Living Legend

The world-famous cellist and Harvard graduate Yo-Yo Ma ‘76 discusses his career and the power of music

It’s been 28 years since Yo-Yo Ma ’76 bid farewell to Cambridge, clutching his College diploma in one hand, his string bow in the other and set his sight on conquering the musical world. But this Sunday, Harvard will welcome its favorite cellist home in style, awarding him the 10th Annual Harvard Arts Medal.

But unlike most homecoming heroes returning to their roots after a long but victorious leave, Ma isn’t looking forward to being served a good old-fashioned, home-cooked meal. Rather, the endearingly humble and exclusive Sony Classical recording artist is himself eager to serve others.

In fact, Ma has made a habit of and enjoys hosting intimate master classes on college campuses when he travels, effusing that the young students not only reinvigorate his commitment to musical innovation with their energy but also educate him on another life perspective.

“I think it is so exciting, in my middle age, to meet [young] people who know the world in a slightly different way than I know it,” Ma says. When I was growing up, I was always working with people older than myself. But I find working with younger musicians now is always rewarding for me because they know what they think, and they have ideas that are different than mine. Interacting with people more my children’s age is really exciting to understand their world and what their concerns are, and what it’s like to live in that world, and what it’s like to meet some of the daily challenges as well.”


Just in time for spring, Arts First, Harvard’s annual celebration of student and faculty creativity, is back, and Ma will join the festivities on May 9 in Sanders Theatre as he is recognized for both his distinguished career in the arts and his artistic contributions to education.

As this year’s honored Arts Medal recipient, Ma’s name will be added to an elite list of past-winning Harvard alumni that includes filmmaker Mira Nair ’79, director Peter Sellars ’80, author John Updike ’54, singer Bonnie Raitt ’72 and the late actor Jack Lemmon ’47.

University President Lawrence H. Summers promises that the award presentation aims to be consistent with the passionate spirit of Arts First. As Summers explained in a press release, “The arts are an enormous part of the undergraduate experience at Harvard, with approximately half of our 6,600 students participating in the joys and rigors of learning about and creating art. Whatever your artistic passion, you’ll find it in abundance at Arts First.”


Ma was born in Paris to Chinese immigrant parents, and as a seven year-old musical prodigy, he came under the tutelage of Julliard music teacher Leonard Rose and never looked back.

Playing the role of the standout musician is not new to Ma, who began learning to play the cello at age four and gave his first concert by age five. But despite his years of stage experience, Ma has never been completely comfortable in the limelight. Even in interviews, it is clear that the soft-spoken Ma would rather not talk about himself.

“So what’s going on with you?” the Grammy-winning cellist wondered aloud, deflecting my question with a boyish charm that transcends our telephone interview.

Indeed, Ma himself playfully acknowledges that he has never fully grown up, perhaps as a result of his unusually precocious childhood. But he credits his years at Harvard with helping him to overcome some of his childhood naiveté. “Growing up—well growing up implies that I have finished growing!—I was exposed to a very specific, focused musical background, so seeing [in college] so many people my own age passionate about what they were studying, just as I was, really opened many doors to me.”

And then there was Harvard.

Even after 14 Grammy wins, Oscar recognition and over 25 years of globe-trotting, Ma still names Harvard as his primary inspiration. “I think that everything I do today probably has its roots in what I did during my four years in college.”

Citing the influence of his enrollment in anthropology and archaeology courses on his path of his musical exploration in his career, Ma says the importance of a liberal arts education should not be underestimated. “Those courses really made me think about how the training of different priorities, of different value systems, in different cultures translates into very different modes of cultural expression,” he said.

Linking this message with music, Ma says he came to the realization that “the true purpose of music” is essentially to provide an avenue “to engage the world” in meaningful conversation. According to Ma, musical conversations should help answer questions like, “What does our world look like right now? Why aren’t people talking to one other? How do you create a community? How do you bridge a community? How do you even define a community? Because people are moving around so much, how do we take into account new rivals and changing demographics. Some say a liberal arts education is useless, but it can actually do a lot. And [in my career,] I’ve just been trying to explore in a way some of the questions that were brought up in college and trying to answer them, or to ask further questions.”

Ma is careful to admit that like any young person away from home, he was a confused college student desperately seeking to discover his true calling. “I knew I played an instrument. I knew a little bit about the world, but there were so many blank spots… And for a long time, I was content to formally learn how to play the cello, but in my mind, I was always thinking, what about the world? How does one engage in the ways of the world with the rest of the world?”

Ma believes there is something special about the nature of college relationships that allow this kind of self-discovery. He explains that, by putting people with common interests on a single campus, Harvard nurtures the formation of these bonds. “You [students] share something deeply profound, in sports, in theater, in class, wherever… With music, because music is internal code, when you love something, you want to share it. But if you meet a stranger, although you may not know him, but you each happen to know what the other loves, you immediately establish a different special kind of bond, and you’re willing to trust more and take greater risks because you trust the frames active in that person.”


Ma furthermore credits his experiences with Harvard’s music culture with allowing him to fully appreciate the fruits of collaborative efforts. “When friends asked me to play with them…I learned that suddenly [as a member of a group] you are not playing for your profession, but for your community. College was one of the first places that I was introduced to this archetype of people jointed together by common interest, people who are genuinely curious about the world and how people do things.”

Yo-Yo has carried this lesson with him and has made many of his most musically-innovative career choices as a result of his collaborative experiences at Harvard. In 1998, his filmmaking of Bach’s Six Cello Suites bridged musical and media borders. This venture stand as a testament to Ma’s commitment to exploring unchartered creative territory. Ma has collaborated with musicians for the soundtrack of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and even on the recording of an Andre Previn composition, with lyrics by Toni Morrison, sung by soprano Sylvia McNair and accompanied by Previn as pianist.

After these numerous collaborative efforts, Ma knows that the work poured into a composition requires synthesizing the creative personalities. The fact that Ma is constantly playing and collaborating with new and evolving partners is expectedly exhausting because of the constant need to change the dynamics of your music-playing. But Ma says that the experience of playing with someone for the first time is not necessarily so different from playing with a longtime collaborator, like Ma’s friend and colleague Emanuel Ax.

In fact, Ma says, the success of a collaboration rests in how well the contributing personalities complement each other on a specific project at a specific time. “It all boils down to building trust. I can’t work with someone on something that is actually deeply personal…without trusting and respecting one another…There’s a point [in every collaboration] where you have to jump over a very difficult hurdle, when you encounter a difficult transition, and you must assess whether it is either going to break down or succeed. You have to decide, ‘Are you going to jump?’ It is the same in all relationships, you must decide, ‘Are you going to cross that line?’”


According to Ma, it is important to bring music to the community and to thread music into the essential weave of daily life because “music is one of the best ways that we have as human beings to express a part of ourselves.” Ma recommends a musical education because it helps to establish a universal line of communication.

“Musical literacy is something we can give to one another and use as a means to achieve understanding of one another. At age two, most children respond to music, they move to music. Why do people respond to rhythm? I think it’s all a part of our [natural human] senses. And using those senses, once we get the vocabulary, we can understand each other more deeply,” Ma says.

To that end, Ma has helped establish the Silk Road Project. Like its historical namesake, the Silk Road Project aims to link cross-continental cultures. Ma said he was inspired to found the effort because of his own career travels. “In my musical journey, I have had the opportunity to learn from a wealth of different musical voices… As we interact with unfamiliar musical traditions we encounter voices that are not exclusive to one community. We discover transnational voices that belong to one world…and [when] we enlarge our view of the world we also deepen our understanding of our own lives and culture.”

—Staff writer Vinita M. Alexander can be reached at