Stories » Yo-Yo Ma is trying to leave all the stress behind him / The New York Times

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Yo-Yo Ma is trying to leave all the stress behind him / The New York Times

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The renowned cellist, who has soothed us during the pandemic with "Songs of Comfort," also puts Fred Rogers, Pablo Casals and his Benoît Rolland bow on his list of cultural essentials.

Yo-Yo Ma has long been the person we turn to when music can express what words cannot. So in March, as the coronavirus plunged the nation into crisis, Mr. Ma asked himself how he could be helpful. Then he did what he does best: He picked up his cello, pushed record on his phone and played "#SongsOfComfort" for us, inviting the public to participate in his soothing social media project.

The response has been a flurry of videos from musicians, both amateur and professional. But if Mr. Ma likens the pandemic's initial phase to a blizzard, he sees a long winter ahead - and more questions. "How do we collaborate with the purpose of having legitimate hope?" he said. "How do we do everything possible to rebuild toward the world that we really want to live in?"

On May 24, Mr. Ma performed Bach's cello suites live from WGBH studios in Boston in memory of those lost to the pandemic. He has been busy these past few months. "Not Our First Goat Rodeo," the follow-up to his Grammy-winning 2011 ensemble album, comes out on June 19. And sheltering at home in Cambridge, Mass., has allowed the peripatetic Mr. Ma, 64, more time than ever before with his wife, Jill. "What I realized is that my wife and I have only been living under stress," he said, calling to discuss the 10 things that have helped him through the lockdown, and life in general. "What's amazing is that we're actually able to make it kind of normal. That's an unexpected joy."

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.


1. Animal Stories

I've become fascinated with some of the earlier animal stories, like "Aesop's Fables" and "Kalila wa-Dimna," which I found out when I was traveling for Silkroad had been the "Panchatantra" stories in India and are thousands of years old. Here are three different places that had essentially the same plotline. And I realized that during times of crisis, we want to go to fundamentals, to certain things that don't change. Stories are one of them, and the value of trust is another. Who do you trust right now? Who tells the truth? And who actually is helping? Those are values that I'm obsessed with. And these stories deal with, essentially, observations of the human condition.

2. His Phone

It's partly my brain, first of all, because I'm so old that it has a far better memory than I do. It's my newspaper that gives me multiple perspectives. In a way it has become my stage because I film stuff like "Songs of Comfort" from it. And it's a place where I can do research. When I was growing up, you used to go to the Britannica if you had a question. Now I go to the iPhone and I find what I need to find. Of course, I'm going to not tell you what my average screen time is.


3. Scotch Tape

Scotch tape is like a Band-Aid for music because the scores fall apart, and there are page turns with no time to turn, and they all have to fit on a music stand. Since I'm pretty scattered, I end up cutting up pages and taping them together in not such great ways, but long enough to last through a performance. If you also have to record yourself on the phone, you have to get the right angle. So I found myself using Scotch tape to tape my phone onto something so that it's poised precariously at the right angle for a certain number of minutes. I mean, it's pathetic, right?


4. Benoît Rolland

He's an artist-scientist who is an inventor, and I mean that very seriously. For my 60th birthday, my wife surprised me and commissioned a bow from him. You know, I'm not an equipment guy. I never like to think about bows or instruments or even strings and rosin. When I'm on tour, I can't count on anything. If I'm an equipment freak, I'll just be a miserable guy all the time because things are not exactly right. So when my wife first presented it to me, I thought: "It's wonderful. How thoughtful. Whatever." Then I started playing - and then I just never stopped. It did something extraordinary. I never knew that a bow can make such a difference.


5. Fred Rogers

Do we need him now or what? What an unbelievable, remarkable human being he was. One of the things he did when I met him was that he started asking me questions with his face about six inches from my face, which, if you imagine, that is very much into my personal space. You feel uncomfortable. And I didn't know why until I realized that he was actually using the space that a child has before they become socialized. He taught me that the space between the television screen and the child's face is sacred. [The] greatest lesson in trust.


6. Pablo Casals

We owe the Bach suites to him because he's the one who played each suite in its entirety. He was the first cellist who gave it that meaning that today a lot of people ascribe to as music that gives you solace, consolation. But beyond that, I loved Casals when I was 9 years old because I read that he said that he was a human being first, a musician second and a cellist third. At that time, I was being groomed: "Oh, you're going to be a wonderful cellist." And I thought: "Yuck. No, I'm not just that." So I was so pleased that my greatest musical hero said those words. And to this day I still think he's absolutely right.


7. Science

What science does is to expand the limits of our perception of our five senses. So we have tools to actually look into and probe the macro world, and we have instruments that can deeply examine the micro world beyond what we can see, hear, touch, feel. The sciences are extensions of ourselves in an anthropomorphic sense - ways that we invent so that we can better live and thrive and survive. Not to pay attention to that is like saying: "We don't want to see what's beyond the cliff. Or that there is a cliff."


8. Emanuel Ax

He's one of the nicest human beings on earth. Here's this formidable person with such a gentle soul and a steel-trap mind who is like my older brother. But I call him bossy because he actually is. He always is teaching me things. I've known him for 49 years, and he'll tell me the truth. [Laughs]

He used to say: "Don't let playing concerts be an interruption of your life. Make sure that on the day of [the] concert you spend at least as much time thinking about being in the space of the music you will be playing in the evening." And that's incredibly good advice. It's a form of mental advocacy so that you are, in fact, in that place when you need to be.

I tend to have wonderful friendships with pianists. Kathy Stott, whom I've played with for over 40 years, is also the boss. It's very easy. She'd say, "If you don't listen to me, I'm just going to drown you out at the concert."


9. Swimming

I had a back operation when I was younger, and playing the cello is not great for scoliosis. Swimming is something that I enjoy doing because it's a moment of meditation. It uses all my muscles and it counters what I do during the day. Because of my operation, I can't really turn my neck that well so I use a snorkel. It's a very good friend and allows me to get the exercise I need, and the quietude.


10. Sustainable Development Goals Pin

The pin is something that I've taken to wearing whenever I perform and I'm wearing a jacket. Why? So that people can ask me, "What is that?" And I proceed to say, "These are the goals of the United Nations for 2030 that will allow us to have a healthy planet and healthy population, no poverty, zero hunger, quality education, gender equality, et cetera, et cetera."

So many of us, myself included, are looking for purpose and meaning, and we feel helpless. "The problems that are facing us are too big. I can't do anything about it." Baloney. But we can only do something if everybody participates. It takes the will of all. During this pandemic, suddenly the skies are clearer. Suddenly people can breathe. And I think if everybody finds their specific place where they can make a contribution toward getting there, we can one day really impact the goals that the younger generations certainly feel deeply.