Yo-Yo Ma on His Breakthrough

Yo-Yo Ma as a child. 
(Photo: Adelaide de Menil)

I was kind of home-schooled until second grade. With music, I started so young, but it wasn’t till I was about 49 that I kind of realized that I was happy being a musician. Because through music, I could actually explore all the things I wanted to in terms of trying to understand people. I realized only then that my passion was people.

I started the violin when I was 3, and I think I screeched away and sounded horrible, so I gave it up. My parents thought I was not talented. So basically they left me alone. My big mistake came when we went to the Paris Conservatory — I was born in Paris — and there was a very large double bass. I saw this double bass and I said, “I want to play that.” The cello was a compromise because I couldn’t play the double bass at age 4. So they said, “Okay, but if you choose the cello, you have to promise that you’re not going to switch again.” So I kept my promise and I’m still playing the cello.

My first wedding gig, I was 15 years old, I was at some camp, and there was an older violinist and a violist and they said, “Hey, kid, you want to go play a wedding?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” This was in upstate New York, Elizabethtown, and they were older, they drove, they had a car — oh my gosh, it was amazing. And then of course came a couple of $20 bills and I said, “Oh my gosh, we got paid for that? That’s amazing.” And same thing in college, people would ask me to do occasional things and I’d get some pizza money, right? I was like, “Wow, you can do that? Incredible.” And of course, money for pizza, this is golden stuff. I still love playing weddings — one of my favorite things to do.

The New York Times reported that on November 29, 1962, a benefit concert called "The American Pageant of the Arts" was to be held with "a cast of 100, including President and Mrs. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Leonard Bernstein (as master of ceremonies), Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Robert Frost, Fredric March, Benny Goodman, Bob Newhart and a 7-year-old Chinese cellist called Yo-yo Ma, who was brought to the program's attention by Casals."

As biographer Jim Whiting noted, "the article was noteworthy in two respects. First, it included Yo-Yo's name in the same sentence as those of two U.S. presidents and eight world-famous performers and writers. Second, Yo-Yo had been identified in a major newspaper for the first time. It would hardly be the last. In the years since then, the New York Times alone has written about him more than 1,000 times."

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