Reflections

Yo-Yo Ma on Transcending Technique

I saw Yo-Yo Ma perform the Bach Cello Suites at the National Cathedral in 2018 as part of his Bach Project. It was a bucket list concert. I bought the tickets the day they became available in a city that I didn’t even live in. I drove 14 hours to attend. I’ll never forget how heartachingly beautiful the performance was. Yo-Yo sitting by himself, just him and his cello, surrounded by grand pillars and stained glass windows.

But one thing he said has stayed with me even more than his performance:

“You develop technique not to use it but to transcend it.”

His performance was raw. You could hear a pin drop. There was no orchestra to hide behind. When he shifted in his chair, you could hear it. If he moved his cello, you could hear it. When he stopped to drink some water, you could hear him open the bottle. So every mistake, every flaw, you could hear that too.

If you listen to his incredible NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert performance, you can hear a few of those flaws:

Yo-Yo Ma began playing the first piece in this performance, “Prelude” from Suite No. 1, when he was four years old. He has been perfecting his craft for over sixty years. He’s a master beyond mastery. Most would probably say his technique is perfect.

Yet, he still makes mistakes. But none of those mistakes matter. His performances are still amazing.

They’re incredible because you can hear and see his connection to the music. You can feel his emotions through his hands, through his bow, through the cello, through the sound waves. If you are present with his performance, it’s impossible to miss. And it’s a beautiful experience. Yo-Yo calls every performance “a dance with the audience.” And I can’t think of a better way to describe it.

Whatever your art, developing technique isn’t about perfection. You develop technique so that you can move beyond it. To get to a place where you no longer have to think of the mechanics of playing, the position of the bow and fingers, the style of playing, the notes. You develop technique so you can get out of the mind and into expression. That’s where the magic lies. That’s where the connection lives.

“We transcend technique in order to seek out the truths in our world in a way that gives meaning and sustenance to individuals and communities. That’s art for life’s sake.” –Yo-Yo Ma

For more on Yo-Yo Ma, visit his website and learn more about The Bach Project. He has made recorded the Bach Cello Suites three times. Once in 1983, in 1998 and in 2018. Even though it’s the same piece of music, each recording is very different. The 1998 recording, Inspired by Bach, was also released as a series of six films – each inspired by one of the six cello suites. It won two Emmys.

Not enough time for all of that? Then listen to this short but wonderful episode of Song Exploder. Then listen to his interview with Krista Tippett on On Being. Both are worth revisiting over and over again.

Featured Image Source: NPR

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