Internationally-acclaimed cellist and humanitarian Yo-Yo Ma has played on every main stage across the globe, performing for two U.S. presidents, Leonard Bernstein, and Johnny Carson all before age 10. More recently, his stage has been smaller, but his platform just as wide—soothing listeners around the world by sharing “Songs of Comfort” from his social media channels in response to COVID-19.
In an uplifting conversation with PayPal CEO Dan Schulman on “Never Stand Still,” Ma shared that in this moment he’s focused on what he wants society to look like post-pandemic, but also decades into the future. “COVID has actually made me focus a lot on the long-term,” he told Dan. “The moment itself right now is so painful that if I can actually spend less time whining and complaining… I [can] spin my wheels thinking constructive, long-term, midterm so that we could backtrack to, 'Okay, if that's the way I think long-term, then maybe the next five steps will be very clear.'"
Ma is a problem solver at heart, and he shared with Dan his philosophy that breaking things down incrementally is the key to learning and doing. With the help of Petunia, the nickname he gave his cello crafted in 1733, Ma demonstrated to Dan how he learned Bach’s famous Cello Suite No. 1 on the cello at age four. He tackled it one note at a time, asking himself whether each note was the same or different from the measures he’d practiced the previous day. “It's about pattern recognition,” he explained, “and out of patterns…we actually can construct all the information in the world.”
With this mindset, Ma asked Schulman to dissect PayPal’s recent $530 million commitment to support Black and minority-owned businesses—with separate tranches that are designed to generate impact at different intervals. Dan explained, “There are needs over the short-term, and you must address those needs, but then you have to be willing to be in the fight over the medium to the long-term which is why we decided that we were going to put $530 million…to really doing something that we felt we were able to help with, which was close the racial wealth gap that has been with us since the 1960s. It hasn't closed at all, and that we would do that over not just now, but over the medium and the long term as well, and be part of the fight and be part of doing the work day in and day out.”
In the wide-ranging conversation, Ma also shared with Schulman how he found his purpose as a musician, why music is a cultural connector, and how being diagnosed with scoliosis led to a liberating moment in Ma’s career.
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