Yo-Yo Ma Performs the First Classical Piece He Ever Learned: Take a 12-Minute Mental Health Break and Watch His Moving “Tiny Desk” Concert

For those who feel their enjoyment of J.S. Bach’s gorgeous Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1 in G major has been undercut rather than enhanced by its frequent TV and film appearancesYo-Yo Ma’s 2018 NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert is a tonic.

As he explains above, the prelude was the first piece he learned as a beginning four-year-old cellist, adding one measure per day, an incremental approach he recommends.

He and the 300-some-year-old composition have done well by each other throughout a relationship spanning nearly six decades.




His first recording of the Suites, in 1983, resulted in his first Grammy.

Currently, he’s wrapping up the Bach Project, playing the Suites in 36 iconic locations around the world, believing that Bach has a unique ability to unite humans and inspire collaboration, especially in “a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division.”

The legendary cellist’s unassuming, friendly demeanor is also a unifier, well suited to the informality of the Tiny Desk Concerts.

(Producer Tom Huizenga—a non-cellist—recounts how Ma passed him his bow, along with a 1712 Stradivarius, encouraging him to “play something.”)

Music is a clearly a major part of Ma’s DNA, and also the way in which he experiences the circle of life. He introduces the Sarabande as the heart of the suite, telling how he played it at two friends’ weddings and then again at their memorial services, illustrating the ways in which music is a cumulative emotional proposition.

As he told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly immediately following his performance:

You try and transcend technique to get to what you think is there. Instead of saying, "Here are these notes and this is difficult and I'm going to try and nail it," you try to express it.

With the sand quickly slipping through the hourglass of his 12-minute performance, he treats his audience to Bach’s tiny, populist Gigue.

Set List:

J.S. Bach: "Prelude (from Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello)"

J.S. Bach: "Sarabande (from Suite No. 6 for Solo Cello)"

J.S. Bach: "Gigue (from Suite No. 3 for Solo Cello)"

Related Content:

Leonard Bernstein Introduces 7-Year-Old Yo-Yo Ma: Watch the Youngster Perform for John F. Kennedy (1962)

Watch 450 NPR Tiny Desk Concerts: Intimate Performances from The Pixies, Adele, Wilco, Yo-Yo Ma & Many More

Yo-Yo Ma & The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 4 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Louise Jordan Miln’s “Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes (1900). Follow her @AyunHalliday.


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