It’s not every day that an amateur guitar picker gets to play a duet with an internationally renowned classical cellist. But that was my thrill this week as I joined Yo-Yo Ma in a creative interpretation of the traditional song, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Our short jam session capped off Mr. Ma’s appearance as this year’s J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture.
The event, which counts The Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou, and Atul Gawande among its distinguished alumni, this year took the form of a conversation on the intersection of music and science—and earned a standing ovation from a packed house of researchers, patients, and staff here on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, MD.
The far-ranging discussion between Ma and myself began with a brief look at his extraordinary career. When I asked what qualities lead to musical greatness, he replied: “It’s very, very simple. Learn what you need to learn by heart before you are 20.” It gets harder after that.
Born in Paris in 1955, Ma started playing the cello at age 4. Soon after, he and his family immigrated to America, where he spent most of his formative years in New York City. His musical talents and curiosity for communicating with audiences in novel ways have been recognized with numerous awards. These include the National Medal of the Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Kennedy Center Honors. Ma’s discography of more than 100 albums includes 18 Grammy Award Winners.
Before the rapt audience at the NIH Clinical Center’s Masur Auditorium, Ma demonstrated various ways to interpret the notes and dynamics of Bach, opening the door to the fascinating topic of the neuroscience of music.