May 14, 2013

Art for Life’s Sake

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with Yo-Yo Ma

On the evening of Monday, April 8, 2013 cellist Yo-Yo Ma delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He called his presentation ‘Art for Life’s Sake.’ It is well worth the one-hour view on YouTube. Mr. Ma chose to end this address with a listening lesson for the audience.

I repeat. Mr. Ma chose to end this address with a listening lesson for the audience.

Why did he choose to do this? He had, after all, most eloquently presented the case for the importance of art in our lives with wonderful musical demonstrations, impressive statistical results and inspiring words. As he said in the summation of his main points:

“Societies are powered by three engines: politics, economics and culture. A vibrant society exists when all three engines are firing and intersecting, resulting in a populace that is energized, engaged and fulfilled. Our collective work in the arts is not just relevant, but essential to strengthening our culture and positively influencing society. Thus: ‘Art for Life’s Sake.’ The arts are the way to foster the four critical skills necessary for our children to succeed in the 21st-century workforce: collaboration, flexibility, imagination, innovation.”

Yet, he chose to end the entire presentation by playing a Bach unaccompanied Sarabande – but before doing so Mr. Ma gave us a beautiful listening lesson which I encourage you to experience for yourself. Why did he give us this listening lesson?

He did so because he understands that it is only by giving our undivided presence and attention to music that we, as listeners, truly become one with the music – noticing and being moved by the music’s detail as it unfolds. It is only by listening, and not merely physically hearing, that we can receive the deepest benefits which music may impart. And this is, of course, why the board, staff and members of The Discovery Orchestra are totally committed to fostering a national ‘listening conspiracy’ to encourage truly attentive listening among the members of our society.

On a personal note before beginning the lesson, Mr. Ma commented that he has played this Sarabande for his friends both on happy occasions such as weddings and on sad ones such as memorial services. One might say that he takes the enormous emotional-spiritual power of music with him wherever he goes. . .be it the concert hall or the hospital. I can personally verify that this is true. When my niece Rachel Simon, just out of college, was first treated in a Boston hospital for leukemia, Yo-Yo Ma appeared one day to play for one of his friends who, like Rachel, was very ill in the room across the hall. Mr. Ma graciously included Rachel in this most intimate audience. Many years later, after Rachel’s death, my wife Marcia and I saw Mr. Ma following a New Jersey performance. When Marcia identified herself as Rachel’s aunt he immediately embraced her, all three of us crying, unable to speak, so powerful was the memory of that occasion back in Boston. ‘Art for life’s sake’ indeed!

The Discovery Orchestra applauds Mr. Ma for choosing to elevate the act of listening at a national forum in our country’s capitol. As he said: “Our collective work in the arts is not just relevant, but essential to. . .positively influencing society.” Listening is the key that unlocks the life-affirming power of music. We cannot all be performers like Yo-Yo Ma. Most of us will not be musical performers at all. . .but we all can become perceptive music listeners, the result of a conscious decision on our part that will change our lives forever.