"Know what you want to say and say it clearly"
Cellist Yo Yo Ma is revered around the world not just as an outstanding artist but as a superb communicator. He makes beautiful music and has a delightful personality. He loves to laugh, he’s deferential to the people around him, and despite his outsized fame, he’s never more than a real person. You see that personality on display in concert but in the many articles I’ve read about Ma, whatever setting he’s in, he surprises people with how down to earth he really is.
His most recent venture is bringing music to America’s National Parks. He’s named the project Our Common Nature and through it, hopes to explore ways in which we can enrich our relationship with the world around us. Although some would scoff at his lofty goals, Ma brings his good humour and humble self to this venture as well.
Performances are part of it, but Ma’s most interested in bringing a wide variety of people together – farmers, artists, miners, teenagers and, of course, musicians – just to talk. He asks questions and does a lot of listening. There are no cameras and many of his performances are spontaneous, done in harmony with local poets, composers, and Native Americans, accompanied by the sounds of nature in the background.
Being at ease with himself, whether it’s on stage or in the woods, looks like a natural gift, but it was probably also nurtured over time as he grew more comfortable with his talent and personality. I would say it also comes from empathy.
And this is the lesson for us as writers and communicators. Before we write, we must approach the task with an open mind, and think about how to form a relationship with our reader.
After one of his impromptu concerts, a student asked Ma, how did he become the best cellist? His answer seems tailor-made for writers. “If you say what you’re thinking and feeling, you’re good,” Ma said in reply. “There’s no best in music, as long as you know what you want to say and you say it clearly.”
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