Yo-Yo Ma ’76 Talks Art’s Personal and Global Role at Arts First Event


Cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76 joined six Harvard students to discuss the importance of art in bridging various personal and global gaps in a virtual event on Monday as part of this year's virtual ARTS FIRST festival, hosted by Harvard’s Office of the Arts.

The event, titled “Music and Human Connection” and moderated by Alicia Anstead and Jack Megan of the OFA, is the first of three conversations with past Harvard Arts Medal recipients as part of ARTS FIRST, which runs from April 19 to April 30.

Ma spoke on the emotional demands of his art, including his struggle to embrace imperfections.

In response to Alan J. Tu ’23, who asked Ma about the role of messiness and experimentation in his music, Ma urged listeners to be “absolutely present” in every moment despite its flaws.


“The first thing that I had to get rid of in performing, which is about essentially being in an unstable environment that you can't control, is to get rid of the idea of perfection,” he said.

Anastasia A. Onyango ’22 asked about Ma’s examination of the relationship between pain and joy in his art, citing his recent performance at a vaccine clinic in the Boston area.

“I think everything about humanity exists in the space between life and death,” Ma said.

“Very often, I've played the very same music from my friends’ weddings, as well as their memorial services,” he added.

Victoria Sanchez ’21 inquired about bridging the gap between audience and performer.

“I can tell you from performing for over 50 years that the best way I have found to perform is to be in that semi-awake and sleep,” Ma said. “That's the time when you are maximally open between your conscious mind and your subconscious mind.”

Noah A. Harris ’22 said he has increasing skepticism in the government’s ability to inspire hope, especially among marginalized populations. He asked if there is a way for music to remedy that feeling.

In response, Ma shared an anecdote about his days as a young musician, recalling how his teachers told him that even though he played well, he did not know the first thing about music because he was only playing for himself.

“So, for the rest of my life, I'm trying to actually really understand and advocate for someone else's voice,” he said.

“Artistic visions were created with this profound realization,” Benjamin T. Rossen ‘24, an audience member, wrote after the event. “Mr. Ma’s insight emphasized this responsibility of unity, connection, and universality.”

Mafaz Al-Suwaidan, the only graduate student on the panel, read an interview from the Paris Review with James Baldwin, who spoke on the guidance that he received from a fellow painter. She asked Ma who guides him and helps him to see differently.

Ma said that one should “savor as much as possible a beginner’s mind.”

Ma ended the event with a short virtual performance, dedicating the performance to the “wonderful” students on the panel.

“The theme of the whole night was human connection, and music or human connection, art, I just felt very connected to my fellow panelists,” Onyango said after the event. “You could even feel the audience there.”

“Just the fact that like people stayed and lingered, because they wanted to hold on to that moment,” she added.

—Staff writer Felicia He can be reached at