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Yo-Yo Ma Talks New MasterClass, YouTube Cellists and Discovering His ‘Own Purpose’

The legendary musician’s new online class teaches everything from developing creativity to overcoming personal doubt

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The online streaming platform MasterClass has added Yo-Yo Ma to its roster of instructors, with the legendary musician teaching an online class on “music and connection.”

Ma’s class includes 12 video lessons totaling almost two hours of instruction. Among the topics discussed: developing creativity, learning to balance “structure and emotion,” and effective collaboration strategies, both in music and business.

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In addition to recorded lectures, Ma also shares intimate musical performances in his class, including both solos and collaborations with other cellists. And while Ma teaches practical exercises, for both aspiring and seasoned musicians, the cellist also speaks about the power of overcoming personal doubt as a performer. “While he once reached for perfection, it did not fulfill him,” reads a course description on the site. “This realization changed his trajectory; he began focusing on human connection instead of human perfection.”

Rolling Stone caught up with Ma to talk about the best classes he ever took, the changing landscape for classical artists and why the themes and emotions that cellists express, are relevant to almost anyone.

Why did you want to work with MasterClass?

It took me a long time to understand my role in the world, to understand why music matters. Since I was very young I have been driven by this insatiable curiosity about others, about who we are and why we do what we do. I think I say in the class that it wasn’t until I was 49 or 50 that I realized that I could combine that drive with music, that I could use the cello to explore the human condition, to reinforce connection, to strengthen community, to remind us of common purpose.

I often talk about one of my heroes, the cellist Pablo Casals, who thought of himself as a human being first, a musician second, and only third, a cellist. That philosophy, I think, can be applied to any pursuit — the admonition that we act, first, always, as humans. If I can share a little bit of that understanding with others, I will have accomplished something.

Many people see you as a mentor, but was there ever a point in your career where you taught actual cello lessons? 

No — I have always spent too much time on the road to give individual students the attention they deserve. So many members of my family are teachers, and I have always been in awe of the devotion they show to their craft, which I believe is one of the highest callings. Earlier this year I met a middle school teacher in New York; he’s also a teacher of teachers, and he said something that I think is a profound description of a teacher’s responsibility. He thinks of teachers as “artists,” he said, and every student as a “work of art.” Think about the obligation and relationship that implies.

What are some college courses or memorable lectures that you remember from when you were in school?

College was a transformative experience for me. I had spent the first years of my life being handed an identity; in college, classes like anthropology and history and literature opened up an entire world of human expression and the possibility of crafting my own identity, discovering my own purpose. I heard Leonard Bernstein give his Norton Lectures on “The Unanswered Question;” I studied French civilization with Laurence Wylie; I read Dostoevsky with Vsevolod Setchkarev; music with Leon Kirchner, Ivan Tcherepnin, Luise Vosgerchian, and Lowell Lindgren — there are too many to name!

How is this course different than a cello performance course?

It’s for everyone! I think I say something in the class like “Are you human? Then this is for you.” I mean that — the themes that I have tried to use the cello to explore, themes like connection, communication, and collaboration, are relevant to any human pursuit. I like to think about using our heads, hearts, and hands together as the goal. Yes, it’s how we make good music. But it’s also how we find happiness, how serve one another, how we live full, creative lives.

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How do you think the musical landscape has changed for cellists over the last 5-10 years?

So much has opened up for cellists in the last decade. There is no genre closed to the cello. Just look at YouTube; see the variety of talent and range of experiments exploring the musics of our planet with more inventiveness than ever before. There’s a transformation happening here, not just in cello or music but in art broadly, a move from a philosophy of “art for art’s sake” to one of “art for life’s sake.”

In the MasterClass I talk about the idea of cultural evolution, about which the late physicist Freeman Dyson wrote just before his death last year. It’s the belief that we humans, perhaps for the first time, will shape our own future, that it is up to us to imagine and build a better world. And culture — all the ways that we look for and share meaning, art and science — is our most powerful tool to do so.

Hope Amid Tears - Beethoven: Cello Sonatas


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Who are some current artists that you’ve been listening to recently, and what do you like about them?

I do not profess anything approaching literacy in the seemingly infinite variety of current creation, but I should tell you about the album I just released, which features just a few of the truly extraordinary musicians I’ve met over the past few years, artists who are using their voices to honor the wisdom of the generations and imagine what a better future could hold.

Sign up for Yo-Yo Ma’s MasterClass on music and connection by heading over to MasterClass.com. A subscription costs just $15 a month and gets you unlimited access to more than 100 courses taught by industry professionals, celebrities and global leaders in the field of music, filmmaking, business, design and more.

Buy: MasterClass Monthly Subscription at $15/month


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