Every tradition is the result of successful invention. … Human beings grow by being curious and receptive to what’s around them. A lot of people are scared of change, and sometimes there’s reason to be fearful. But if you can welcome change, you become fertile ground for development. —Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma, perhaps the world’s most famous cellist, and his Silk Road Ensemble released their latest album, Sing Me Home, last week. In an interview with the Mother Jones website, Mr Ma talked about the album, the Silk Road project, and how to get kids to play and perform music.
A documentary about the work of his parent organization, Silkroad, is slated for theatrical release in June. The album is described as a companion album, recorded alongside the feature from Oscar and Emmy-winning director Morgan Neville. The film is entitled The Music of Strangers.
But in the Mother Jones interview, Mr Ma spoke briefly about the simple yet profound idea behind the creation of the Silk Road Ensemble, a group of musicians and composers who have come together with the express purpose of building bridges between ourselves and people from other cultures and with other ideas, expressed as any diverse society of humans would express. It’s funny what happens when we embrace differences: new material gets created, and new traditions are born. Not that the old traditions were bad or wrong, but change is a rather guaranteed force in the universe.
He spoke briefly about the wall presidential candidate Donald Trump wants to build—he said an “arrogance of certitude” is “worrisome” when we “demonize a whole population” and have conversations that aren’t good ones—and then the interviewer, Julia Lurie, skillfully moved to music. “Kids who aspire to be professional musicians are told to practice, practice, practice,” she prompted him. “And yet it seems like it’s those life experiences that give the music its soul.”
To which he responded: “Exactly. I can do a forensic study listening to my own playing, and say, this is before I experienced baroque music, this is before I experienced Argentinean music, this is before I had children.”
Even with all his skill, Mr Ma said he still deals with stage fright. So what does he do to get past the blockade or paralysis stage fright can sometimes cause?
“My favorite way is to imagine that I’m throwing a party,” he said. “When I’m on stage, I’m the host. Everybody wants to have a good time. If something falls apart, that should not ruin or affect the totality of the time spent at a party. Because something is always going to go wrong. If you get really hot and bothered about it, it’s going to affect a guest’s enjoyment—and your own. So let things go!
“Also, we live a life where we’re constantly being judged. The point of performing is not being judged—it’s about sharing things. But you need to have something to share that you think is really worthwhile. If you’re convinced of that, then you find the technique to make that possible.”
These words strike a chord in musicians like myself. I recently reviewed a high school musical production at Valley Vista High School in Surprise, Arizona, and I was honest in criticizing the directors of the musical for not spending enough time working with the ensemble while working very well with the leads. I essentially argued that the learning experience and performance would be more worthwhile for students if all of them had fully participated and given their best effort with good material to work with.
My criticism isn’t the point of the performance, though: that’s just one insignificant person’s judgment of the final outcome of the hours and hours of practicing these wonderful students put in. Rather, the point is that kids got the opportunity to explore different people’s personalities through singing, through acting, and through interacting with literary characters and music. Many of those opportunities were squandered because teachers failed to invest enough training effort in most of the students involved in the production.
The point is to expand students’ horizons in the world, not simply to practice, practice, practice. I think as we explore differences among us and experience or express characters or cultures that are new to us, we will find that our performance of art with which we are familiar becomes better and speaks more clearly to our audiences.