Thursday, November 14, 2019
US flag

Creativity gets kids to perform music, by Yo-Yo Ma

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.

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble’s new album cover (Photo credit: Jason Bell)

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.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

Recent posts

Mercury makes a transit; next in 2032

A transit of Mercury occurred today and was visible from the US, provided you had sunny skies. It was one of longest possible transits.

On the Naperville BWW racist incident

A racist incident at a Naperville, IL, sports bar indicates that the threads of racism are strong, perhaps as strong as ever.

IL bill could excuse absences to vote

A proposed law in IL could give students up to two hours during the school day so they could vote in the upcoming election.

Loan forgiveness gains some bipartisan support

One Republican from GA, who used to work under Betsy DeVos at the US Education Dept, offers a plan to forgive some student loan debt.

A band teacher is IL Teacher of the Year

IL named a band teacher the 2020 Teacher of the Year on Oct. 19. He individualizes music instruction and shares his work with 1000s.

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ bookends Halloween

Several high schools have decided to add a little spook to their musical stages in this season of Halloween. Music makes it happen.

New IL law ensures inclusion of LGBTQ+

A law will take effect next school year in IL that will require students to study LGBTQ history as part of the social studies curriculum.

MoCo doubles down on summer learning loss

Research is at least equivocal about summer learning loss, but maybe there's something to a new plan in Montgomery County, Md.

Downers North lights up the gym for Beth

Ongoing fundraising drives for a Downers Grove N. volleyball player killed by an intoxicated driver in Feb. are going strong in this western suburb.

High-payroll Yankees don’t make World Series

The World Series begins Tuesday, but some of the playoff games can teach us valuable things about youth sports, investment, etc.

Chicago teacher strike enters calendar week 2

Chicago teachers strike for the 3rd day Monday; the union wants smaller class sizes and support for paraprofessionals.