Yo-Yo Ma is one of the greatest cello artists in the world. He also seem like a pretty nice guy and someone who is not afraid to take a few chances. It wasn’t long ago that he teamed up with some of the finest contemporary bluegrass musicians in the world to create some great genre shattering music. This included Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo, guitar), Edgar Meyer (upright double bass) and Chris Thile (mandolin). Here is a link to one of their songs – Quarter Chicken: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6ykydk-idY In an interview, Yo-Yo Ma was effusive about how great a group of musicians they were and how happy he was to be working with them. He was not just talking about how competent they were on their instruments but it became obvious that he also meant that they were very cordial and pleasant to work with. My wife (a flutist of no mean ability) and I had to snicker. She stated the obvious. “It’s because he is used to working with classical musicians.” Oh oh, I think we are in trouble now! That may be blasphemy. Let me quickly explain before I am run out of the industry on a rail.
Not all classical musicians are – how can I say this – self assured. Many are lovely gregarious people. But there are enough that are uniquely focused that I wanted to make a few comments. Classical music is very intense. The standard of performance at the professional level is perfection. Not really, really good mind you – perfection. Classical musicians obsess on things like the kind of hair they use on their bow, the type of rosin they use (“Oh really, well mine is mixed with just a dash of uranium) and who the influences were on their greatest teacher’s teacher. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When you hear an absolute maestro play the clouds part, the world is a better place and angels surely smile. This intense devotion to art and to “getting it right” is necessary to produce some of the finest music in the world. I am certainly in awe of some of the fantastic performances that I’ve heard. I do become concerned that we don’t get so serious and solemn especially when we are teaching beginners that we suck all of the oxygen out of the room and all of the joy out of the music.
Another friend of mine, a oboist and gifted multi-instrumentalist, once told me that the competition in professional music was so intense that it was not unheard of at the symphonic level to have other musicians change a few notes on your music to embarrass you in a rehearsal or audition. I was agast. It might be an apocryphal tale but she seemed quite serious and candid about it. I have also read stories in Strings Magazine about some of the greatest violin and cello teachers who were so relentless and condescending to their students that they seem like terror on wheels to me. Maybe that is what is required to reach the stratospheric heights in serious music. This reminds me of some of the great but abrasive top coaches in college sports. But music is not about crushing the other players with my virtuosity like it is in sports. I was reminded of a saying of Jesus: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and looses his soul?” Similarly I might say what does it profit a musician to become the greatest in the world but loose sight of what music is all about – moving us at an emotional level and, hopefully, uplifting us.
I’ve worked with just about every imaginable type of musician; from ones you would stick your arm in the fire for to ones that you would prefer to throw in the fire in bodily. I know that some of the best friendships I have ever made were with other musicians and that the feelings of creating pieces of music with other fine musicians in front of an audience (and without a net) were some of the greatest feelings I ever had. So, yes, gain the expertise. Yes, practice till your fingers bleed. Yes, be the best you can be but don’t loose the joy and don’t loose the love.