Brilliance plus humility equals Yo Yo Ma

I recently had a chance to speak with one of my all time heroes, Yo Yo Ma, certainly the finest cello player in the world and a citizen of our area. Whenever I spend any time with him I am impressed by his humility, his decency and his interest in other people. Superstars can be arrogant, condescending and intolerant. Believe me, I’ve interviewed some of this type and it can be very frustrating.

But, Yo Yo, well he’s different. You would not think that you were sitting in his presence talking to the very best, and thinking that he cares about the person that he is speaking with. Ma is a creative genius. He is responsible for selling out halls from Tanglewood to anywhere in the world. His Silk Road Project or his Goat Rodeo Show, which show just how eclectic this amazing man is, are just two demonstrations of his depth. He cannot be compared to anyone else on his instrument. As you watch him, his sensitivity, his mastery of his instrument, his absorption in what he is doing, you just know you’ll never ever see his like anywhere else.

He told me that he was a shy kid and he talked about how the secret of good teaching, speaking about his teachers, was to instill in a student self-confidence. I told him that my music teacher, Eugene Steiker, was the most important teacher in my life and he told me of his teachers who were incredibly patient with him. That really made me think of just how anyone who had a clear genius on his or her hands must feel, as in “I better not blow this.”

I’ve always loved the Joshua Bell story of how he was put in a Washington, D.C., subway station and how few people paid attention. So I asked Yo Yo whether he had ever wanted to do the same thing. He said that he had always wanted to do it and then confessed that on two occasions he had a chance to see how it worked. He used the term “busker.”

The first was when he was performing at the church in which Bach worked and played. He was to perform that night but he needed to test out the acoustics so the church led him to the podium where he would play for just a few minutes. He says that he didn’t realize that a few tourists had been trickling into the church. He was surprised when he heard a clink in his open cello case and realized that people were putting coins in, thinking that was how he made his living.

The second time he tried it he did it in Times Square and I think he said that he collected a dollar sixty-seven. Some of the musicians I have interviewed at Tanglewood, the greats and the near greats, would never have told that kind of self-deprecating story, but the unforgettable Yo Yo does.

He also did something else for me. He told me that he and his family listen to WAMC in every room in his house: bedroom, bathroom and kitchen among others. You know, I was taken back to earlier in our conversation when he said that a great teacher inspires self-confidence in his students.

When Yo Yo said nice things about the station, and even about me, I felt it was one of the most charitable of gifts. He was doing for us at the station what had been done by his teachers for him. It really makes a difference when one of the greatest men in the world reinforces what we’ve all been trying to do here. In fact, I can’t think of a greater gift.

As he spoke of his love of Tanglewood and the Berkshires I thanked my lucky stars that all of us have either, by design or just plain luck, got plunked down where we are. All I can say is that when the interview was over I have never felt better.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 7/29/13

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