Life lessons from Yo-Yo Ma: Surprise Houston talk wows kids, reveals a happy-go-lucky cello celeb

Yo-Yo Ma
culturemap Houston

By Joel Luks

He was a short man with a bold head," joked Yo-Yo Ma.

Yo-Yo Ma's lighthearted description of storied Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, which was received with hesitant laughter from a group of some 50 high school students from around Houston, taught an important lesson. Yo-Yo Ma wasn't being disrespectful. He was illustrating the hierarchy of his vocation. Yo-Yo Ma — and his childhood idol — was first, a human being. Second, a musician. And third, a cellist.

The Houston Symphony, as part of its education and community engagement program, extended an invitation for students with aspirations of becoming classical musicians to watch a dress rehearsal for a one-night-only concert at Jones Hall Thursday that featured Yo-Yo Ma as soloist with composer/conductor John Williams on the podium. What the students didn't expect was that Yo-Yo Ma would spend 45 minutes engaging in an intimate dialogue about his life and career, the music industry and artistry, as well as offering to perform a work for unaccompanied cello. On the spot.

The impromptu conversation wasn't planned. It wasn't on Yo-Yo Ma's contract to address curious music students. He did so because he felt it was important to talk about aspects of performance that aren't readily evident early in a musician's journey.

"You don't perform because you want to show how good you are," he said. "You perform because you have something to share. When you feel nervous, it's because you feel judged.

"But if you concentrate on what you are communicating, if you work to get the meaning of something — that's better. That's making music."

In his signature, somewhat wispy yet spirited way of speaking, Yo-Yo Ma shifted the educational paradigm of students who are otherwise concerned with competitive auditions for chairs in school ensembles, city and regional youth orchestras, music schools and scholarships, an environment in which their respective technique, sound and musicianship are constantly compared to that of their peers.

"If you work to make what you learn memorable, and if you learn to make what you play memorable, that's permanent," he added.

For 16-year-old Robert Rosenfeld, who's a student at Cypress Woods High School and a member of the Houston Youth Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma has great flair, quirky facial expressions and dramatic gestures. Although Rosenfeld was familiar with Yo-Yo Ma's ability to perform the classics alongside folk, jazz and world music, experiencing Yo-Yo Ma's happy-go-lucky youthful energy demonstrated that seriousness and enjoyment aren't mutually exclusive.

Anoosha Anupindi, a 16-year-old cellist from Saint Thomas' Episcopal High School who's also a member of the youth chamber orchestra Virtuosi of Houston, learned that practice isn't about doing something over and over again in search of perfection.

"I learned that the value of practice is in the quality, not the quantity," Anupindi says. "I'm inspired to be creative in how I tackle learning."

For High School for the Performing and Visual Arts senior Katia Krupa, Yo-Yo Ma reinforced that, thought it seems that the refinement of musicianship often happens in isolation, a musician that's better informed, more well-rounded, has a richer foundation from which to gather meaning.

"Yo-Yo Ma has a humanistic approach to music," Krupa says. "Music isn't above humans, it's part of the human experience. Next time I pick up the cello, I am going to try thinking not about being in front of an audience, but being a host who interprets music for them."