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Yo-Yo Ma talks COVID, hope and anti-Asian hate: 'Why is anybody surprised?'

Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY
·9 min read
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Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, winner of 18 Grammy Awards, recently made news with an impromptu performance at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he is a part-time resident. In a March 31 conversation with USA TODAY commentary editor Jill Lawrence, he talked about the role of musicians in a pandemic and how he has shared his own music with patients, families and essential workers in need of comfort. He also shared his determination to stay positive, try to make a difference and approach life with the openness of a "beginner's mind."

That is the title of Ma's new 90-minute Audible Original of reflections and performances that illuminate his own life and beginnings.

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Last year, he and pianist Kathryn Stott released an album called "Songs of Comfort and Hope." Ma plans to resume his "Bach Project" — 36 recitals of the complete Bach cello suites in 36 locations, a global tour he began in 2018 — later this year.

Here is what he had to say about human kindness and cruelty, how COVID-19 has affected his thinking, and much more. Questions and answers have been edited for length, clarity and flow:

Q: What was it like playing at Berkshire Community College after your second shot?

A: There was one older person who just brought his chair and just sat there the whole time listening in a way that said to me, "This is someone who really needs it." It was a whole mix of things. I loved it because the vaccine center was at a gym in Pittsfield, which is local, and these are my peeps. These are my folk. There were so many volunteers just doing what's necessary, which is sort of the best thing we could hope for, at any time, but especially now.

Q. How else have you brought classical music to nontraditional settings during the pandemic?

A: The pandemic accentuated that part of me that says why am I useful? Am I useful for anything? I'm only useful if I feel I can respond to need.

There were the months when nobody was allowed in a patient's room. And even family, relatives and that person may be just leaving us. Music actually touches the skin of people; it's that tactile, that personal, that intimate.

So I thought if I can actually be useful and Zoom into hospital rooms, Zoom and play for front-line workers — remember when Italy was going through this surge where people were just all of a sudden just overwhelmed with cases? So we sent music there. Remember when the huge explosion happened in Beirut?

When people go through terrible times, there's sometimes not much we can do. But if someone sends me a note and says, "I'm thinking of you because you're going through this tough time," it gives some kind of comfort.

If the way I'm thinking of someone is sound, this is what I do. This is what I can offer. Maybe I can't give you an orange. But I can give you music.

Q. You say in your new Audible recording that you had a choice at one point to obey your parents, who had tough backgrounds involving wartime violence in both China and France, or become a great musician.

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Audible · Yo-Yo Ma: Beginner's Mind - First Exposure to Music

A: I think we sometimes overemphasize that we need to live in a binary world. It's not an either or type of thing unless someone makes it so. And that's what's so sad. The fractures of our world right now, it's either my way or the highway. Is that really what life is about?

Everything that I understand about music or about humans is that we inhabit the whole spectrum and in fact we're capable of the most glorious ways of thinking, of creating, and we're also the cruelest people on earth.

And it's not like I'm good and you're bad. We're all capable of both. So how about if we just acknowledge that and live with it and not make ourselves feel like we're on the side of good and these are the bad people, but to acknowledge that in fact, maybe there are times when I am not good.

That's what I'm trying to figure out, and the pandemic made me think about this. My parents were thinking in a binary system.

But if I look at who they are as people, I can kind of understand why they may have gotten to that way of thinking. I don't think that way, but maybe that's the best you could do.

Q. The pandemic has been an eye-opener on health disparities, racial disparities, and there's now been a spike in violence against Asian Americans. What are your thoughts about what COVID has revealed?

A: This speaks a little bit to binary thinking. Instead of having 17 political parties, we have two parties and that's supposed to make things more efficient. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you can get to everything through one party. The responsibility of leadership — let me take it to a person-to-person level — If a child comes up with a drawing of a butterfly and they're really proud of it and they say, "Look at the picture I just drew," what if you say, "What is it? That's not a butterfly, that's nothing." They were so pumped up, you can see the deflation happen, all that excitement, this pride in something, just go away.

You could say, "Yes, now I see it, at first I didn't quite see, that's a wing, right? You obviously saw it differently." You've actually said what you were going to say, but without judging, through observation. This is the beginner's mind that I talk about. Address people where their mind is, without judgment, so you can go further. So people who have power, like an adult over a child or a leader in an institution or a system, obviously have to be aware of that power.

Q. You talk about the beginner's mind as a way to approach music with a fresh eye. It made me think of "You've got to be carefully taught," the song from "South Pacific" about children starting off open and nonjudgmental. Is that what you're getting at?

A: I was a proud artist in residence at the Harvard Medical School four years ago and I spoke with freshman medical students. They had a lot of questions about something that was beginning to be talked about in medicine: unconscious bias. It was a new term to me.

So I don't know if this answers your question. But I think it's also about brain real estate. I could spend 100% of my time being totally depressed because I see what's going on in the world.

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Audible · Yo-Yo Ma: Beginner's Mind: Building a Better Future

I can read the newspaper (and think) this is just horrible. And I can feel like I have no agency at all in this. But I would love to spend 90% of my brain real estate focusing on the little things that I can do that actually might make a little bit of a difference. This is a drop in the bucket. I understand abstractly that it makes no difference. But I will not at the end of the day say I can't do anything, because that I find is the most debilitating thing of all.

Q. Were you surprised by the violence and hate speech against Asians?

A: The reason I'm not surprised is that when somebody starts it going … Of course if someone keeps saying something, people are going to end up believing it, especially if it's a person a lot of people listen to. I mean, why is anybody surprised? That's why we don't do certain things. That's why there's morality. That's why there's a right and wrong. We set up these systems so we can actually try to bring out more of the best out of people than the worst out of people.

We have to actually set up things so that we don't do horrible things. The veneer of civilization, we saw what happened during World War II. That's the sort of the thing I've been trying to think about all my life. What happened? Why did it happen? And when we say never again, we've been doing it over and over again. So that's within us. And it's not "we're the good guys and they are the bad guys."

We're all part of it. Until we recognize it, we don't stand a chance of not being manipulated. So yes, Asians, it's Puerto Ricans tomorrow, Haitians yesterday, Italians last century, the Irish 150 years ago. You name it, we've done it to everybody. And people continue to do this to everybody all the time.

We have to think about things differently, because the way we're going is not helping, it's just exacerbating. Yes, I could talk about have I experienced people saying, "Why is it that an Oriental like you can understand Western music?" Those questions were asked 40 years ago. They are not asked so much now. And so I can talk about that, but you know what, it's interesting if you put it in the right context of how people change over time. Part of what we can explore is different time perspectives. What can we learn so that we can actually, legitimately, move on together? And to me that's the question.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Yo-Yo Ma interview: Hope, COVID and violence against Asian Americans