Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Inspiring The Next Generation – Yo-Yo Ma At Harvard

If you are a regular reader of this Blog, I have to assume that for you, Yo-Yo Ma needs no introduction. What you may not know is that the world’s greatest cellist graduated from Harvard College in 1976, and has maintained strong ties to his alma mater. Ma mantians a home in Cambridge. His son, Nicholas, is a recent Harvard graduate. Ma frequently finds low-key ways to encourage the next generation of Harvard-educated musicians.

On Monday morning, I made an early morning foray to Cabot House, a Harvard residence hall hidden away in a secluded corner of the campus near the Law School – just west of Massachusetts Ave. The occasion for my visit was a chance to catch up with my friend, Daron Roberts, a second year student at Harvard Law School. (Daron and I met last year on a flight to Dallas – but that is a story for another time.) Daron also serves as part of the residence hall staff at Cabot House, and he invited me to join him for an early breakfast. “We have a great waffle machine.” That’s all I needed to hear!

During our free wheeling conversation, Daron mentioned that there was a rumor circulating that Yo-Yo Ma might stop by on Tuesday evening to be part of a spontaneous jam session. There are some gifted undergraduate musicians who call Cabot House their Harvard home, and he might be joining them. When Daron saw my eyes dilate, he said: “I take it you are a Yo-Yo Ma fan; would you like to come?”

I arrived around 9:15, and a crowd was gathering in the dining area. Yo-Yo was talking quietly with several students while preparations were being made to create a small stage area. I came expecting to hear him play, and could not wait for the opportunity. Around 9:20, a young man mounted the makeshift stage and addressed the gathering crowd of students and sprinkling of faculty and staff: “Do you know why we are here?” The crowd responded: “Yeah, for a jam session!” He displayed and introduced an African drum, and gave a quick workshop on drumming techniques. He involved the crowd, and eventually invited 10 members of the audience to play the 10 carved wooden African drums and an assortment of bells from Ghana that were arrayed on stage. For the next half hour, we clapped and followed his lead in mouthing rhythm syllables in tribal syncopations – DOOM TK TK DOOM – DOOM TCKA TCKA TCKA TCKA DOOM!

While all of this was taking place, I was able to sense a quiet back beat. I was seated only a few feet from where Yo-Yo Ma had perched; he was sitting on the edge of a table off to one side of the room. He joined in the clapping and humming and DOOM TKing with a huge smile on his face. He would turn to face a group of students and lead them in a round of rhythmic clapping. He would pick out an individual member of the audience and engage him or her with his smile and a nod. I was the recipient of a few of those ebullient smiles and nods, and felt like I had just won the Boston Marathon! He was having the time of his life – not as the center of attention or star of the show, but in a quiet descant above the main theme being played out on stage.

Then I began to observe another dynamic at work. By ones and twos, student musicians began to arrive carrying violin cases and cello cases. Many of them were Asian students. In each case, as they entered through the door near where Yo-Yo was ensconced, they would come up to Yo-Yo and greet him – with a smile, a hug, a handshake. It was clear that they knew him and were comfortable in his presence. It was also clear that he was their guiding star, their role model, the template they hoped to somehow emulate through their own hard work and innate musical genius. He was their anchor and their inspiration.

The workshop leader invited the “melody musicians” to come on stage to join the “rhythm musicians.” Dozens of violins, violas, cellos, a mandolin, a sitar and several even more obscure instruments made their way to the stage and the jam session took on a new dimension.

Around this time, Yo-Yo quickly slipped to the back of the room, grabbed my friend, Daron, and said: “It’s hot in here; let’s try to open these windows.” And soon, a gentle and refreshing breeze began to blow. The metaphor was not lost on me. Yo-Yo – by not performing, but by humbly offering the encouragement of his presence, had blown a breath of fresh air into the evening and into the lives of a next generation of world-class musicians.

A few minutes after the second half of the jam session had begun, Yo-Yo slipped quietly through the door and out into the Cambridge night. He never did play the cello, but he had clearly come for a different purpose. I had come to hear the musician Yo-Yo Ma in all his glory; I ended up experiencing the man in all his humility and humanity. I would not have missed it for the world. I have always reveled in listening to his recordings. Now, my enjoyment of his music will be forever enhanced and deepened by my knowledge that his virtuosity with the cello is exceeded only by his generosity in sharing his spirit and enthusiasm with those drawn into his gentle gravitational field.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yo Yo Ma, though your account of the evening, has inspired me. Thank you for this addition to your fine "Blog."