With his new album, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Yo-Yo Ma has yet another chance to do what he loves most: share his music. Bach, bluegrass and jazz are just some of the inspirations for the 56-year-old cellist/composer’s collaborative project.
“Musicians’ egos are fragile,” he says, including his Sessions band mates, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan. “But [here] all the egos [were] in the right place.”
But music is only the “tip of the iceberg” of what Ma’s all about, says the 17-time Grammy winner. During a recent chat he revealed more:
He was teased as a kid:
With a name like Yo-Yo, he took plenty of knocks. “In the days when you’d call collect and the operator would [ask], ‘What’s your name?’ I’d say ‘Yo-Yo,’ ” says Ma, who was born in France to Chinese parents and raised in New York. “They’d say, ‘Oh come on, what’s your last name?’ I’d say ‘Ma’ and then they’d hang up on me.” Nicknames he endured: Oy Oy; Yo Squared, Yo-Yo go ’round the world. It builds character and you also take it lightly. You have to work with what you have.”
Practice isn't always fun, even for him:
“Sometimes you practice for an hour and the hour feels like 3 minutes; other times it could feel like 20 hours,” Ma says. “What I say to myself and to young children and to parents [is]: ‘It’s not about you have to practice but about turning that little switch on inside yourself that goes from ‘I have to do it’ to ‘I want to do it.’ That’s the essence of learning anything.”
He eats too much meat:
His guilty pleasures are “all the things that we’re not supposed to eat: anything fried, lots of beef.”
He didn't encourage his kids to play an instrument:
Today, both Emily, 28, and Nicholas, 26, play but are not professionals. “And that’s actually never the point — ‘You should go into what daddy does,’ ” says Ma, whose wife of over 30 years, Jill Horner, insisted they learn. “And thank goodness [she did] because they really love it.”
His life was almost cut short:
“I took six months off when I was 25 because I had major scoliosis in my back. My wife took me to the doctor. If she hadn’t done that I would be dead.”
He's a terrible driver:
“I love to drive but my record is not such that it is something that’s encouraged.”
He doesn't know where his Grammys are:
“I think some are in an office, but they’re not prominently displayed. I’m not downplaying getting Grammys and stuff like that, but [there are] more important [things] that are immeasurable,” such as his work integrating arts into schools through his Silk Road Connect, he says.
He first knew he was musically inclined at age five:
“When I was five I was happy when I could figure out something that requires left hand/right hand coordination.”
He's not perfect:
“I’m really, really great at procrastinating. I could be a world champion.”
His wife is "a saint":
“As a performer, you go up and down in terms of energy output. To look over 30 years, I was gone 20 of those. So she is both married to me and was a single parent. If she didn’t fully believe in this whole thing, I know I wouldn’t have been able to do what I have done.”
He listens to the radio:
Even though he has two iPods filled with music, “I listen to the radio because I can surf and come across things I don’t know,” he says. When he’s driving and he loves to “open the windows and blast out music” to stay alert.
He was a nerd as a kid but didn't know it:
“I came from a very structured family so I was not aware. Obviously I was a nerd in hindsight.”
Finding balance is harder than being a great musician.
“The hardest thing in life for everybody is to find equilibrium: the same is true in nature as in for humans. If you play too many concerts and you stop playing you can’t be in production mode all the time you have to have reflection time, everybody is challenged in this way these days. We need that in our country as much as we need it in ourselves, that kind of civic thinking and engagement I think is needed in all disciplines.”