Arts: No more strings attached

When you're the world's greatest cellist, life is a long slog of engagements and obligations. Now, Yo-Yo Ma's priorities have changed and he has found time for himself and his family. By Sue Fox

Many years ago, Leon Kirchner, one of my teachers at Harvard, told me that I hadn't found my sound. I hadn't found my voice. The question kept coming back to me: what does it mean to find your own voice? Obviously, I'm much clearer now about what it is, but maybe it's something you never find because, to have totally found it, means there's no development."

The greatest cellist of his generation, Yo-Yo Ma, is drinking Starbucks coffee in the Faculty Club at Harvard. He has an hour before he must drive into Boston to collect his young teenagers, Nicholas and Emily. "These past two days, I've been the single parent because Jill, my wife, had meetings in Washington. We're very child-orientated. Touring as a family doesn't work because the children have their lives here. If I'm performing I'm not available. I've learned the hard way that being available is mental as well as physical. When Emily complains, 'Dad, did you hear what I just said?', and I've no idea what she's talking about, I know my head is somewhere else."

Ma, who draws inspiration from a wide circle of collaborators, was born in Paris to Chinese parents. He began studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York at the age of seven. Some might describe his inspiration as gimmicky - after all, this is the cellist who joined forces with Mark O'Connor, a country fiddler, and bassist Edgar Meyer in a Sony crossover album, Appalachia Waltz. Last year he made a much publicised series of films around the Bach Cello Suites, with, amongst others, skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Now, for his new recording, Simply Baroque, and a series of concerts with conductor Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, with whom he first worked eight years ago, he has restored his Stradivarius to a condition that he calls "75 per cent virginal". He had instrument makers in London and Paris restore the bridge which lifts the strings off the instrument, and the tailpiece, which anchors them. The steel strings were replaced with gut and the instrument was tuned to a lower - in what is now largely accepted as Baroque - pitch. The end pin has been removed so that when Ma plays he has to cradle the cello between his knees rather than allowing the instrument to be propped up on the floor.

Gimmicks are certainly not what Ma is about. "My background focused on different cultures. Much of my wanting to explore new music and new ways of doing things comes from looking at life around me, talking to people who know more about their work than I do, and trying to understand different systems of thinking. We live in strange times because our world is so hierarchical, so competitive and so niche-oriented that sometimes it seems strange to have someone do a variety of things."

For Ma, variety of work doesn't necessarily mean volume. "Age and responsibilities have meant having to plan more carefully. Family time is precious. Over a long period of time, I've been able to try and figure out what works for us. Now I'm past 40, priorities have become much clearer in my mind. If there are 10 things to do, I know what takes precedence. Twenty years ago, things were much more jumbled up. It was exciting and yes, of course, I could do it all. Now I try to make space for different projects rather than adding on top of things that are already full. I plan far into the future but also recognise the need to leave some time for serendipity. The terrible thing about our profession is the Two-Year-Ahead Schedule, but if you don't allow for serendipity, you can feel in a state of arrested development. New projects take on different timelines. When I made the film series of the Bach Suites, it was a wonderful, but complicated, experience. It felt to me like going through another university education."

Yo-Yo Ma is a very private man who leads a very public life. "I really enjoy living in the environment of a university community, where most people do work which is far more important than mine." At home, for relaxation, one of his great pleasures is to make "house music" with close friends. "Two of them play in our string quartet. They love music but, professionally, one's a physician, another is a physicist. Our children come at music in their own way. We would never force them into music - they have to find their own identities."

Going some place to perform is never enough for Yo-Yo Ma. "Nothing is ever just another gig. Wherever possible, I want to be involved in a place and start some kind of relationship. It's important to me to be able to go into the schools and participate in the life of the community." He had just played a benefit concert with the Mark Morris Dance Company in Orange Country, California.

"It was a strategic alliance between a theatre organisation and the symphony orchestra - an incredibly exciting combination." He made time to give master classes and listen to a Polish cellist on an educational programme in Santa Barbara. "He's 23 and is going to be someone very special. I heard of him a couple of years ago and we kept up a correspondence. Finally, we had the opportunity to meet. Listening to young musicians isn't generous of me - it's extremely exciting."

Typically, after the concert, he caught the "Red Eye" and arrived in Dallas way past midnight. "I walked half a mile with my cello. At three am I just lay down on the floor and slept by the gate until it was time to catch the Boston flight." So, has Yo-Yo Ma found his voice? "Who knows?" he says. "But I'm much clearer about what it is - what it could be." And off he went to pick up his kids.

Yo-Yo Ma performs with conductor Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra at the Barbican on 23 April. Box office: 0171-638 8891

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015