Photo: Jason Bell
Yo-Yo Ma On His Lifelong Friendships, Music's Connection To Nature & His New Audible Original, 'Beginner's Mind'
For decades, Yo-Yo Ma's life has been a Möbius strip of meetings and concerts and airport terminals. Then COVID-19 washed away that hurry-up-and-wait existence for a while.
At his Cambridge home in a snarl of wildlife, the 18-time GRAMMY winner and 27-time nominee crossed into a realm of self-examination. He took inventory of his life history, including his immigrant background, lifelong friendships and role as a 65-year-old classical musician and public figure. Ma also mulled over the Zen Buddhist concept of a beginner's mind. This means a consciousness open to new ideas, unfettered by preconceived notions and eager to play and explore.
This idea is central to Yo-Yo-Ma: Beginner's Mind, the latest entry in Audible's Words + Music series where Ma explores his roots, relationships and place on Earth in the 21st century. It's always been essential to his art, too. "A beginner's mind is something that I have to practice each time I perform," he reveals to GRAMMY.com. "It doesn't matter… what I did last night or during the full day. I could have played really well last night, but it doesn't matter. What matters is how present I am at the moment of performing."
Beginner's Mind isn't just for Ma fans; it's a must-hear for anyone feeling encumbered by world events and yearning to see the world anew. GRAMMY.com caught up with the one-of-a-kind cellist to discuss how he linked up with Audible, the nexus of music and nature, race relations in America and setting up youngsters to be stewards of the planet.
The cover image to Yo-Yo Ma's Audible Original: Words + Music: Beginner's Mind.
How are you doing?
I'm OK. I'm happy spring is here. Are you in New Jersey?
I am. I'm in Hackensack, and I can see the trees blooming outside my window.
Oh, that's fantastic. I heard the cherry blossoms have blossomed earlier than they have in 1,200 years.
Incredible. Why do you think that is?
I have no idea. It must be the water! [long belly laugh]
As good an explanation as any. Are you in New England?
Yeah, I'm in Cambridge.
Have you lived there a long time?
Yeah. A long, long time. I went to college in the area in the early '70s. And when I was married in '78, we lived in Cambridge, moved away for a while and then moved back again. So it's been kind of off and on for many decades.
It's certainly a beautiful time to be in this area. I listened to your Audible Original three times. I thought it was beautiful and heartening. How did you link up with Audible for this project? Had you done anything like this before?
You know what's funny? I subscribe to Audible, so I've listened to a lot of historic books. Sometimes, on long car trips, my wife and I would listen to some of the books. We've listened to Hamilton and George Washington and Rust, I think,was another book, and just varied things over the years.
On my own, I heard James Taylor's [Audible Original, Break Shot: My First 21 Years] maybe a year ago or something. I loved it. I thought, "Gee, that's a very neat thing." So when this came up as an idea, I sort of already had heard the format and thought, "Gee, that's really neat." So I welcomed the chance to put some thoughts down and here we are.
Three times! Are you crazy?
I wanted to prepare! So they approached you, or vice versa?
Yeah, they approached me. I think maybe they had seen a lecture that I had given in Michigan and they thought, "Oh! We might ask this guy to do something." I didn't particularly think… Maybe a lecture would be interesting, but somehow it turned into this.
It's certainly a unique format. How did you come up with the central thesis?
It didn't start with the central thesis, but more or less, I wanted to describe a number of long-term friendships and sort of get to the idea of [incredulous laugh] "How did I become this? This 65-year-old guy thinking the way I do?" Because I didn't always think the way I do, right?
I think the pandemic lent itself to making some forays into self-examination—'Wait, what happened 50 years ago?' I was doing these digital platform concerts with Emanuel Ax, who's featured in it, and it's almost now a 50-year friendship. And I did Songs of Comfort and Hope with Kathy Stott; I've also known her for over 40 years.
And so to be able to work with them during this time and to talk made me think, 'You know? That'd be really great.' Because I treasure these friendships. They're amazing people, musicians, artists—but most of all, friends, and we went through a lot together. So by process of thinking about what we were doing together during this time as well as reminiscing, I sort of got to talking about this sordid life I've been living for years!
I was going to ask how you settled on four stories to tell. But by the way you describe these four essential friendships, it must have been a no-brainer as to who you'd focus on.
Absolutely. There are good things and bad things about touring, and what I've always noticed is that when you move around a lot, the coincidences multiply.
At first, you think, "Oh my gosh, this is crazy! How come I just met so-and-so at an airport or some random place? How come we bumped into one other? What a coincidence!" But after the fortieth or fiftieth time, you realize, "You know what? That's probably because I'm not stationary. The fact that I don't stop moving [means] the chances of bumping into people multiply.
So many people have influenced me. Certainly, Kathy and Manny, but I thought about the move, being an immigrant, going to college, for example. They also changed me. They really were fundamental in directing my focus on whole different ways of thinking. I mentioned Marlboro [Music School and Festival]; I mentioned the Kalahari [bushmen]. These were seminal moments that changed the way I would think from then on, after that experience.
Yo-Yo Ma in the Kalahari Desert, 1993. Photo courtesy of Yo-Yo Ma.
Early on, you quote something the physicist Richard Feynman told you: "Nature has the greatest imagination of all, but she guards her secrets jealously." What does this mean to you or elicit in your mind?
Oh my goodness. Well, first of all, I think from a musical point of view, we're taught, in a way: "Don't play anything unless you can hear it first." Music, for me, is always—first of all, it stimulates the imagination. And I end up thinking that sound is, in a way, the interpretation of something else. Something that's imagined.
There are some people that think music is just sound, and it's sound for sound's sake. That's absolutely possible, but I think I have a preference for teaching that music also is a translation of thoughts and ideas and feelings and structures and energy and space and time.
And through sound—the manipulation of sound—you can express all of these things and the person's inner core, or a society's soul or you can represent peoples' voices when they no longer exist or whose voices have been taken away.
So, nature—I always think that if you think of sound as energy, the phrasing of something always can be described as something in the physical world, as something we've actually experienced. Therefore, when you then tie two notes together for a phrase or to get to a groove, you are trying to replicate, to get into the pocket of that feeling, of that sense. And that is what makes music alive, in my opinion.
Therefore, Richard Feynman saying "Nature has the greatest imagination"—yes, we want to have the greatest imagination possible, and we want to, in fact, practice and discipline our imagination so we can extract something from our experience and then be able to replicate it and get other people into that same state of mind that you are in when you work.
The fact that Richard Feynman—a physicist—said that was extraordinarily helpful to me. In saying, "Yeah, that's right! So it's not about Bach and Beethoven and Bob Dylan and whomever." Yes, it's their genius, but they're also extracting things from nature. And we're part of nature, too. What we extract, we can actually focus on and transmit to another human being. That information, that knowledge can live in somebody else. And my job as a performer is to make that transfer possible.
I looked into the concept of a beginner's mind a little bit. It comes from Zen Buddhist philosophy. And in the Audible Original, you discuss its meaning and extol its value. In your mind, how can we retrieve and restore this ability in adulthood after all these filters have stacked on each other?
One way I try to do it in performance is that often, as musicians, we play at night. We play after we've experienced, often, a full day. I don't know about you, but at 6 p.m., my mind is cluttered from a whole day where things have happened. What we try to do as performers is to have a clear mind and start with a clean slate.
Taking a nap in the afternoon is really important to me because it declutters the mind. I can start the day over in preparation so I can be fully present when I start to play the concert: "I'm going to tell you this story; this is how it begins." And if I have a full day of dreck in my head—of stuff that's gone on—it's going to be harder for me to get to the narrative and be totally present.
So, a beginner's mind is something that I have to practice each time I perform. Because, actually, it doesn't matter to you, if you're in the audience, what I did last night or during the full day. I could have played really well last night, but it doesn't matter. What matters is how present I am at the moment of performing.
And from a slightly different point of view, I think it comes down to first principles. What are the first principles for a musician, or for a physicist, or for a scientist? What's your North Star if you are a leader or if you are a teacher or a doctor? For a physician, maybe it's the Hippocratic Oath. And for a scientist, you want to find the closest thing that can be replicated according to a certain number of conditions of something you're testing. And it has to be true every time you have those conditions. You can't fake your data.
So, what is the most important thing you have to start with? Associated with a beginner's mind is the idea of first principles—which comes from science, but are values that come from philosophy, ethics, religion, society. "Do unto others," right? Society has those principles and we know what they are.
The question is, are we practicing those things constantly? Because that's what we need to do to build something that people can trust.
Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. Photo courtesy of Yo-Yo Ma.
From what you're describing, it sounds like a beginner's mind is easily transmutable to anything, from loving somebody to designing a space shuttle. Anything a human can do can be graceful thanks to first principles.
Yeah, absolutely. And you can see the limitations of that at the beginning of meeting somebody.
I can tell you, for example, I was kind of shocked when you said you had listened to this thing three times. You could have listened to 20 minutes of it and done an interview. But you didn't. That said something. So either you had nothing better to do and it was set on perpetual play, or you wanted to listen to it. And, my goodness. So, you cared. Maybe I'm taking an overly positive view, but "Oh, wow. Morgan cared." That's amazing because you did more than you needed to in order to get something done. That says something about you and affects how we have our conversation.
I appreciate that, Yo-Yo, because I did care. I took notes and thought about it and slept on it. This was in my hope to elevate it from a good interview to a great one.
But little things, right? You reveal something about your principles when you do little things.
Your first story in the Audible Original is about your family's emigration to the U.S. As you tell it, you and your mother took to this new beginning while your father stayed a little staunchly stuck in his ways. It seems like what you're saying here is that by showing up and leaving the door open to new possibilities is paramount to being a successful and thriving individual. What's your take on that?
I both believe in the goal and process. I think both are incredibly important. I think living fully, the process allows you to reach a goal that actually may change because of the process. I think when you are open to things, that's very often what can happen with ultimate goals. They have shifted.
I think I remember Stephen Colbert saying that he started out as an actor. He wanted to be a serious actor and if you asked him at age 22, "So, you think you want to have a comedy show?" he'd say "You're crazy." But he did it very seriously, the acting bit. And one thing led to another, so he ended up in a goal in an unexpected place. I think my father had more specific goals, and he also was trying to provide for his family. He had to immediately use whatever skills he had [to do so]. It's not like he had immense choice in the matter.
Hopefully, I'm not at the end of my life. But by the time I do get to the end of my life, I don't know whether I look back and compare what my father might have thought at the end of his life; we may have ended up in the same place. I don't know. Or we may have ended up in very different places.
And what success might mean for each one of us could be so different because his life was so completely different from mine. What he lived through was something I can hardly imagine. Even for someone who has a good imagination, it's hard to imagine the period of that century that he went through.
When I survey notable people I admire, I've noticed that in youth, they typically wanted to be in a different field than the one we know them for. One of my favorite authors, the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff—do you know the name?
His roots were in acting, too, but he held onto that sharp left turn. And now, he gives his talks with that theatrical flair. It didn't just go away even though he chose a different path.
Oh, that's neat! That's neat! You know, some of my closest friends that I met in college struggled so much thinking "I do this. I love this. I don't know what to do. People say I have to choose." For two of my friends, it was between music and medicine. They're very talented musicians; they also wanted to be physicians.
And what they ended up doing—they ended up being physicians, but 30 years later, they ended up being able to incorporate music into the medicine they practice and to incorporate medicine into the music they perform, thereby creating unique careers. They created a place in the universe that didn't exist before from making a fusion of two interests that people did not necessarily think went together.
Yo-Yo Ma at the Trent School in 1962. Photo courtesy of Yo-Yo Ma.
Perhaps it's easier to make that pivot when you're young. In your Audible Original, you say that upon moving to America, you faced a dizzying array of subtle differences from the shape of cheese to cardboard milk cartons instead of glass bottles. Instead of being paralyzed by culture shock, though, these differences fueled your imagination. You were young, though; can an adult cultivate this attitude toward the world?
I say in the Audible [Original] that the time in your life that you need something new can also affect people very differently. You can go from one space to another space at exactly the same time, but if it's in a different time in your life—my biological family reacted to that very differently.
So for me, it was the fact that adults actually, sometimes, would talk to me and not talk at me. I liked that. I thought "Gee, that's possible." I didn't know that was possible before. It made a deep impression and made me like this place a lot and want to be part of this place. Rather than feeling that I'm an outsider in this place, it made me want to belong to this place because there was something incredibly attractive about it.
I want to touch on the book The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, which you mention in the Audible Original.
Oh, I love that book!
It'll arrive in the mail soon! Why does the phrase "Why am I me?" resonate with you? Concurrently, when you consider a lifetime of music and self-examination, have you landed on any ballpark percentage of how much nature versus nurture you are?
That question will probably never get resolved.
I see different slivers of it at different times. For example, I may think one thing, but I'm also a grandfather. My wife and I have two children and my daughter now has three grandchildren. We see in both our children different traits of us—and I won't tell you whether they're the good traits of the bad traits! [laughs]
Also, we see this in our grandchildren! We also see traits that possibly come from my wife's father. Their great-grandfather. So definitely, there are personality traits and things that supersede nurture. But I also think that on another level, how important the construction of values [is]. Or when you start with certain values, the lives that get constructed are a result of nurture.
I think values play an incredible role as genes do. Experience can lead them to make a 90-degree turn, which changes their life, but they're still guided by the values and still have the genes that they came from. So, those are also interesting experiments.
At the end of the Audible Original, you note that "recognizing our shared humanity has never been more central to our survival," and that knocking down racial, gender-based and religious boundaries is conducive to that. Right now, I see a lot of obsession with racial difference, even when it's in the service of "anti-racism." "As a Mexican person, as a Black person, as a white person, as an Asian person..." Is there a productive way to acknowledge our differences without driving artificial wedges between people?
What's interesting is that the United States is not the only multi-ethnic society. Ancient Rome was multi-ethnic. For a while, Rome also was subject to very specific laws that gave rights and privileges to Roman citizens. But you're asking a different question.
I think it's very important to go into the weeds and try and figure that out from our immediate time frame. But I also value perspective. I value the perspective that time can give as well as different disciplines. We can look at ourselves biologically. If we look at ourselves genetically, the huge chasms in racial-ethnic differences become minuscule.
[We can] look at humanity and our present world from, let's say, what I experienced in Ecuador. When I asked Ecuadorians "What do you think about post-colonial history?" the Ecuadorians looked at me and said "You know, we have a 12,000-year history. 500 years is just not very long."
I was really stumped. I thought, "Damn, we [might] discover more and more about our past because we have so many ways of knowing about digging into mounds and ice-core samples and we know about tree rings and [radioactivity]—all kinds of data searching." For example, we know what the Iceman ate for his last meal from what they figured out from his stomach.
So if every country started its history from 12,000 years ago, that would put our world religions in a much smaller sliver of history. It changes your perspective. Carl Sagan used to talk about the little blue planet. From an astrophysicist's point of view, we're just a tiny blip. Does that help solve our big problems? No, but it certainly puts our egos and self-importance in a different perspective.
I can look at life from a 65-year-old. If I talk to a 20-year-old, I have a different perspective. But the 20-year-old also has a different perspective, and it's important I listen to the 20-year-old because that 20-year-old is going to live another 60, 70, 80 years, hopefully, and will have a lot to do with shaping the world that the following generations will experience.
It's important to have those conversations so that we can encompass 100 years of experience. And that's what Indigenous folk do. They think in seven generations.
Yo-Yo Ma and his wife, Jill Hornor, at the White House in 2011. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
In conclusion, let's focus on our current generation. People might be too overwhelmed or bitter or jaded to cultivate a beginner's mind. It's tough to peer into your own mind when you're dragging your kids through Zoom school. What's your advice for those people, to show them they can adopt a mental state where they feel new, fresh and excited about the world?
I think one is not to give up on your ideals. By that, I don't mean be rigid on your ideals. But never forget you always have a beginner's mind. You can be in touch with what you think is good. That doesn't change.
I do think that Gen Zs are more in tune with their values in wanting to choose where to shop—thinking more about the food cycle and climate change and living with fewer cars and material goods. Wanting to lead a life that's less segmented, in a way that's using their values. And I think it's the job of someone like me to accelerate giving them custodial responsibility so that they can live a long time and in a way that's good for the world.
I want to encourage that generational dialogue to show that you are capable of responsible caretaking earlier on. For people like me, not to say, "You're got to wait to earn it." Bulls**t. If you can do it now, do it, and we should help as much as possible because you will make the right decisions because you're closer to not having made certain compromises that get you stuck in golden handcuffs.
Wonderful talking to you, Yo-Yo. I hope we can talk again in the future.
Sure. By the way, Morgan, since we're talking generations, how old are you?
OK. Perfect. So you're just around Gen Z—a little bit above. So good luck, go do it and I hope life goes well for you.