Three Questions for Yo-Yo Ma

As he approaches his 60th birthday, the Cambridge-based virtuoso cellist reflects on the role of humor in his work.

Photograph courtesy of Sony Music/Todd Rosenberg

Photograph courtesy of Sony Music/Todd Rosenberg

Last time I saw you, you were really cutting up backstage. Is that how you usually roll?

I tell really stupid jokes. I have a tendency to regress. I have fun—I have a lot of fun. I tease people. Look, I see people most of the time. I’m around people all the time. And I love people, so I like to be with them. I like to share stories; I like to find out more about them, and learn things and have fun.

How do people react?

I think the reason I tease people or do any of those silly things is just to get all of us -relaxed. That’s probably why I do all of that. I do that at rehearsals, I do that at concerts, during concerts, whatever. Just so that, you know, we all feel comfortable together. Because I think once you’re comfortable together, then you can start talking about anything.

Does that help onstage too, when you’re playing music?

It’s a requirement. You can’t get any good work done if people are tense, because then they’re guarded, they’re not sharing all of themselves. They are judging and censoring and whatever so that you don’t get a free flow of information, of emotion, of access to your subconscious. And any good work that gets done, I think, requires access to both your analytical self as well as your subconscious self…your intuitive self. I think having access to both is really important when you are making a whole slew of different types of decisions.