Ode to Joy

The world’s most famous cellist reveals his secret. 

Last Thursday afternoon, as overcast skies pressed in on the windows of Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse, Yo-Yo Ma bounded into a room full of people and, without even taking off his coat or putting down his bag, he did something that most people don’t associate with the world’s best-known cellist but at which he is extremely, disarmingly good: He started teaching.

The forum was a master class—a venerated institution where really famous musicians come and instruct petrified students in front of a live audience. It was sponsored by the New York Philharmonic, with whom Ma was in town to play a set of concerts, and featured three aspiring cellists at various stages of their conservatory training. Rafal, an earnest young man in a dark suit, was the first to play.

As Rafal launched into the opening of the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1, Ma, dressed in a sporty, red zip-up sweater, began strolling around the perimeter of the room, hands clasped thoughtfully behind his back. “That’s beautiful!” he exclaimed smilingly once Rafal had finished and the audience’s applause had died down. “While you were playing, I noticed an intense concentration in the room. You drew us into your world, and it worked. Great! Now tell me something, Rafal. How would you describe this piece to a friend who had never been to a concert before?”

The lesson had begun. Ma wanted Rafal to put his instincts about the music into words, and in the process, clarify his intentions. “If you make specific choices in the music, we hear them,” he added later in the class. “If you don’t make specific choices, we don’t hear them.”

Toward the end of his half-hour with Rafal, a cellular phone went off somewhere in the room—a big taboo at a serious music event—and it wasn’t just a discreet ring but one of those long, offensive electronic jingles that lasts for several seconds. Heads wheeled around to identify the perpetrator, but no one was fessed up. The phone rang again, and a painful silence descended.

On the third ring, the culprit identified himself. To everyone’s surprise, he was not sitting among the audience, but standing in front of the room holding a mike and looking very sheepish.

“It’s my phone,” said Ma, turning several shades closer to his sweater. “I was trying to ignore it, but I just couldn’t. You know those times when you just want to crawl into a little hole and pretend you don’t exist?”

It took a while for the laughter to die down, but once it did, Ma, who had also been laughing, returned to the task at hand. The next student up was a serious-looking cellist named Eric, who played a light, frivolous Polonaise by Chopin in a very serious way. As he made his way through the piece, the harder passages started slipping away from him, and his playing grew more and more constricted and anxious-sounding. When he finally came to a crash landing at the end, it looked as if he were the one who wanted to crawl into the hole that Ma had dug.

Thankfully for Eric, he didn’t have to. Another teacher of a more Old World disposition might have pilloried him. Not Ma. After forcing Eric to take a bow, he walked over to him and placed his arm on his shoulder. “Eric,” he said reassuringly, “I promise you, we are going to have a good time.”

And so they did, once Ma convinced the cellist that the piece was in fact supposed to be a joyful one. Perhaps the most profound moment of the class came when Ma told his chagrined student, “Look, if you’re having a great time while you’re playing this, and you miss a few notes, it doesn’t matter. They’ll still have a great time,” he gestured toward us, “But if you’re nervous and uptight about it, and you hit every single note—who cares!”

A few people chuckled, and Eric nodded, but I wonder if he realized that in that moment, Ma had shared one of the major keys to his own success as a performer: He looks as if he’s having the time of his life on stage. The attitude, so seemingly simple, runs against the grain of the small-minded perfectionism that has long been on the rise in classical music’s training grounds. As a result, we have “better” players today, but far too many lifeless performances. Show the audience that this is a wonderful thing, Ma might have said, and they’ll enjoy it at least as much as you do. 

Ma checked in again with Eric. He was now trying very hard to seem happy while playing and was in fact sounding slightly improved. Ma grinned broadly, looking satisfied.

“Any questions?” he asked.