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Yo-Yo Ma visits UC Berkeley campus

Proficiency, communication, and empathy—elements generally attributed to a successful group musical performance, all of which were but a few of the traits that appeared in brilliant abundance in cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma’s latest visit to Berkeley. Besides gracing our own Zellerbach Hall again, sharing a double bill with British pianist Kathryn Stott, Ma also offered a master class to the students of Crowden elementary school and spent an additional afternoon in the International House for a campus-wide Q&A with Music Department chair Benjamin Brinner.

I had the opportunity to attend this last event, which proved to be particularly inspiring given that Ma seems to be (or at least deserves to be) as well known for his kind and full-bodied character as for his incredible musical talent. Besides having interesting things to say about his life as one of the most proficient and respected cellists in the world—a conversation that spanned his recent work on the Silk Road project and his interactions with John Williams—Ma, made apparent the deep interpersonal philosophy that fuels his passion for cross-cultural collaboration and no doubt grants him such expressive ability as an instrumentalist.

Happiness, at least as it appeared in Ma’s overall demeanor, seems to be rooted in acceptance of the world at every level. When asked what motivated him to work so hard for so many years at the cello, Ma replied, grinning, that for the most part it was “a lot of fear.” He pointed out as well that, in general, the way life works is that you spend so many years running around, thinking things, working on things, running from things, running towards other seemingly more important things, “And then you die. THE END.” [Audience laughter and ear-to-ear grins all around.]

Given that you become comfortable with these things, though, like death, or how you feel at any given moment, you can then move forward to enjoy life for what it is, on its own terms. I was too invested in the conversation to take precise notes, but to paraphrase a sentiment Ma expressed early on in the discussion:

I feel like I’ve reached a point in my life where I could be plopped down in any culture of the world, whether I knew the language or not, and more or less be able to get by. It might be difficult, and would likely be very amusing to watch, but I would probably be able to find a way to communicate enough with the people, whoever they were, in order to get what I need.

And one of the traits Ma named as essential to this ability, besides a deep-seated comfort with feeling uncomfortable, was: Empathy.

Human beings are complicated. We all have different backgrounds, cultures, customs, habits, and opinions, and yet, as has already been demonstrated time and time again in music, we do have the ability to communicate with one another. It came up in conversation how our own Benjamin Brinner had worked in coordinating an Israeli-Palestinian orchestral collaboration, perhaps the perfect example of music’s ability to bridge the divide between people of different, even politically oppositional cultures. And to Ma, this is possible when we have the desire to try to understand others. We all know fear. We’ve all felt pain, sorrow, ecstatic joy, and even plain old contentment. All it takes to make a good-faith effort at understanding another person is to want to relate, to how that person sees the world.

And when the time came to open up the mic for audience questions, Ma demonstrated this as much in action as in word. Every question, big or small, was treated with equal consideration and thorough engagement (I feel self-conscious even implying there were “small” questions). And when audience members didn’t completely understand what Ma was expressing and asked for clarification, there was a sense in the interaction that it wasn’t just that the audience member didn’t “get it”, it was just as much the case that Ma wasn’t explaining it correctly, which he earnestly apologized for when it did happen. There was a constant affirmation that communication is a two-way process, as much in musical collaboration as in any social interaction.

Which brought me to the question I was then given the opportunity to ask him: how was it that Ma was such a great communicator? Is he naturally endowed with a style of expression that has always let him communicate easily with people, or does he consciously work to shape his interactions based on what he knows about the person? In other words, Mr. Ma, do we all have the ability to be like you?

His answer, as best I understood it, was an honest: possibly. He admitted that he does have some degree of intuitive communication skill that comes naturally to him, but said as well that part of that process is a conscious effort to shape his intent to best suit the way the other person may need to understand it. I tentatively used the word “pandering” to describe this latter technique, but it’s probably something more along the lines of: if you’re honestly trying to explain a concept to someone, you’re better off using words and terms that they already understand, rather than assuming that they should already know what you mean. If you’re plopped down in a foreign country trying to find food, you’re probably better off using some universal hand signals (i.e. rubbing your belly, miming eating a hand-sandwich) than yelling in English and getting irritated at how unintelligent these strange foreigners seem to be.

And as much as this is of practical concern (that is if you ever intend on communicating with anyone, ever), it is as well an inspirational way of being in the world. If the point of communication is reaching another person, in understanding them well enough to be able to help them understand you, there are no “stupid” people: if you can’t get someone to understand what you are saying, your explanation is as much to blame as is their inability to comprehend it. And if you’re not occupying yourself thinking about how stupid everybody is or worrying about how stupid you might seem to other people, you have a lot of mental and emotional space left for reflecting on how interesting, unique, and beautifully odd it is that we humans, as infinitely diverse as we are, are all thrown onto this planet for a relatively brief period of time to try and figure all of this out together.

Or at least that’s how I understood it.  –Forrest Riege, Music undergraduate