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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Yo-Yo Ma, Cellist

"My parents thought I was not talented. So basically they left me alone."

Yo-Yo Ma as a child.  

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.

Ma’s most recent album is Songs From the Arc of Life.