Musician Yo-Yo Ma reflects on the impact of life’s variations


Life, like music, is based on themes and variations, experiences and experiments that shape who we are and who we’ll become, ultimately providing the knowledge and understanding to relate to other cultures, learn from each other and evolve.

That was the message world renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma shared with nearly 3,000 faculty, staff and students that filled Hill Auditorium on Wednesday as part of a two-day visit to the University Musical Society, with appearances in Ann Arbor and at UM-Flint that explored the theme of “Culture, Understanding, and Survival.”

Organized by UMS, Ma’s visit also included a Day of Action in Flint on Thursday.

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After playing the theme of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the piano — “You see, I think I left my cello in the taxi,” he joked — Ma told the audience to notice how the piece starts and ends with a theme, and many variations in the middle.

“I began with this is because I want to suggest to you that all of music is based on variation. In fact, I could go as far as to say that all life is based on theme and variation,” Ma said. “In my life, I can point to three changes, three variations, three events that have defined my worldview and deeply influenced my thinking.

“These events, you won’t read about in my biography yet they are essential to what I am, how I practice daily life and how I behave as a musician. And each one of them has helped me to understand the themes of my life more clearly.”

Photo of Yo-Yo Ma in front of an image of him as a young man
Yo-Yo Ma addressed nearly 3,000 people at Hill Auditorium during a presentation that was part of a two-day visit to the University Musical Society. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

Intermingling jokes, personal experiences and music on the piano and cello, as well as a few short recordings, photos and quotes by author T.S. Elliot and physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, Ma captivated the audience for an hour.

Ma said some of the variations or experiences were painful, and others included learning and being surprised by another’s culture. One of those experiences was when, as a young man, he went through a painful back surgery to correct his scoliosis, which also meant risking irreparable nerve damage and possibly not being able to play again.

Often, Ma said, people ask him how he keeps his repertoire fresh even after playing a piece hundreds, or even thousands, of times.

“I play as if it were the last time I will play that piece,” he said, adding that having confronted that possibility at the beginning of his professional life was an incredible resource. “Through that surgery I was given a gift of liberation and another chance of life. From then on another day was a gift of time.”

Photo of Yo-yo Ma playing the cello
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma said he’s often asked how he keeps his repertoire fresh, even after playing a piece hundreds of times. “I play as if it were the last time I will play that piece,” he said. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

Growing up, Ma recalled, there were a lot of instructions he was expected to follow but few questions he got to ask. So in college, he set out to explore: Japanese and Chinese history, French, archaeology, anthropology.

It was during this time that he learned about the bushmen of the Kalahari and was fascinated by their music, beliefs and healing. When he finally visited them a decade later, observing a night-long ritual led by a shaman, he had another of those life-changing experiences, he said.

The next morning, he asked a woman who had been in a music-induced trance why she does it, and she replied, “Culture gives us meaning.” The phrase stuck with him, he said.

Ma said some of America’s greatest composers — Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington — share the educational philosophy of their teachers’ teacher: Antonín Dvořák.

“Dvořák didn’t teach his students to be like him. He taught them to listen. Don’t compose like me, he said. Listen to what’s around you. Listen to the music of Native Americans, of immigrants,” he said after sharing snippets of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-Oo.”

“Listen to the music of all ethnicities. That is the future of American music: listening to what’s around you experience and experiment. That’s the practice of life. That’s cultural evolution,” Ma said.

He also talked about finding inspiration in people who are changing their communities: the Native American professor building a virtual world so young Native Americans can see themselves having a role in the future; the chef that provided tens of thousands of meals to hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico; Flint musician Tunde Olinarian, who is helping his community reshape its story.

“Culture requires a different kind of practice: the practice of life,” Ma said. “And life, I’ve found, is full of infinite variety.”


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