The Untold Truth Of Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma is a world-renowned cellist who was a child prodigy. He was born in 1955 in Paris, France to Chinese parents. His father was a music teacher and composer, while his mother was a singer. At the age of 3, Ma was enrolled in violin lessons, and he was later trained to play the cello. According to Biography, Ma had already memorized and played pieces by Johan Sebastian Bach by the age of 5. His father trained both Ma and his sister — who played the piano — to play classical pieces.

Ma and his family moved to New York when he was 7 years old, and by that time, he had already made a name for himself as a classical musician. Ma attended the prestigious Julliard School and also enrolled at Harvard to pursue other studies aside from music. He graduated with a liberal arts degree and decided to pursue a career as a cello player. Throughout the years, Ma has recorded several studio albums and has also worked on film scores. He is a multi-awarded musician who dabbles in different styles and genres to captivate his audience (via Connolly Music). Here are other interesting facts about Ma.

Severe scoliosis almost ended his career

In his 20s, Yo-Yo Ma had a spinal condition that almost forced him to stop playing the cello. When he was 25 years old, he decided to undergo an operation to fix his scoliosis. However, just like any operation, there were risks involved. Ma said that he prepared himself for the possibility that he would no longer be able to play the cello if the operation didn't go as planned. "I was kind of at peace with whatever was going to happen because I was with my wife, she was obviously worried, but that wasn't going to affect her relationship to me regardless of how the operation turned out," Ma told BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs (via The Irish News).

Instead of dwelling on the fact that he might not be able to play again, Ma said that he was thankful for the years that he had played the cello and was ready to look for something else to do in his life in case the operation wasn't successful. Spinal surgeries are high risk that can result in paralysis or even death. Thankfully, Ma's surgery went well. He had to wear a body cast for six months, but he recovered without any issues. As he said to the Los Angeles Times, "Those things you've gone through add to your life experience and therefore your understanding of the music, and there's more depth to your communicating of the music."

His favorite cello is named Petunia

Yo-Yo Ma's instrument of choice when performing is his 1733 Montagnana cello that is reportedly worth $2.5 million. The cello was created by Domenico Montagnana, an Italian master luthier known for creating the finest cellos. Ma's cello got its name from a student he met at a school event. In 1999, Petunia made headlines when Ma left the prized violin inside a cab in New York, per AP News. At that time, Ma had just finished performing at Carnegie Hall and had another performance at the Anchorage. In a rush to get to his hotel room to prepare, he forgot about Petunia.

Ma immediately sought help from the authorities upon finding out that he had left his cello in the taxi. Fortunately, they were able to locate the taxi's garage, and Petunia was reunited with Ma after only several hours, thanks to the taxi receipt that he kept. "Luckily, luckily I had the receipt, so all of you, take the receipt," he said. "Somehow magic happened, and I have my cello. The instrument is my voice. So I need it," Ma stated. Aside from the 1733 Montagnana, Ma also occasionally uses a Davidoff Stradivarius.

He appeared on 'Sesame Street' and 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood'

In 1986, Yo-Yo Ma appeared a total of five times on Season 17 of the children's show "Sesame Street" where he played his cello. He even played a duet with Elmo on the violin and with Hoots the Owl and his saxophone, via Muppet Wiki. In addition, Ma also shared his recipe of Barbecued Spareribs with Beer and Honey on Miss Piggy's cookbook titled "In the Kitchen with Miss Piggy."

Ma was also featured on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" in 1985 where Fred Rogers interviewed him before he played the cello. In fact, the two developed a friendship outside the show. Director Morgan Neville, who worked on a film with Ma, asked the cellist how he handled his fame. Ma said that it was Mr. Rogers who helped him understand that his popularity could be used for good deeds (via Deseret). That conversation with Ma inspired Neville to create a documentary about Mr. Rogers titled "Won't You Be My Neighbor." Ma was also the very first recipient of the Fred Rogers Legacy Award.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Yo-Yo Ma was among the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by Barack Obama in 2011. Those given the distinction have provided contributions in the interest of the United States in different fields. As a musician, Ma has been nominated for more than 25 Grammy awards and has won 18. He has also released more than 100 albums during his career. Aside from his musical accomplishments, however, Ma has also given back to society, particularly to the Asian American community, as reported by Cornell.

Ma has collaborated with institutions and organizations both in the United States and China to promote cultural transformation. He is also the founder of the Silkroad Ensemble, a group of musicians from a variety of nationalities and backgrounds. Its aim is for cultural collaboration — "a musical language founded in difference, a metaphor for the benefits of a more connected world."

He performed for his fellow vaccine recipients

Yo-Yo Ma is regarded as one of the nicest classical musicians, and for good reason. In March 2021, Ma got the second dose of his COVID-19 vaccine at the Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts. While waiting for 15 minutes of observation after he got vaccinated, the cellist decided to put on a show for other vaccine recipients, as reported by People. The short gig wasn't planned. He just happened to have his cello in the car but decided to bring it with him when he got vaccinated in fear of it getting stolen.

Although Ma is paid a hefty sum to perform professionally, he said in an interview with NPR that he just loves to play in "all kinds of places." During that small performance, he distinctly remembered one man. "There was an elderly gentleman who obviously needed the music because he just turned his chair around, came really close but socially distanced. And the whole time I was playing, he put his head in his hands, and he was just kind of drinking it in," Ma said.