Yo-Yo Ma brings Goat Rodeo Sessions to Bethel Woods

How do you maintain your energy?

I love tackling really difficult problems. Maybe it’s a function of age or having children, but you have a different sense of time as you get older. At age 17, a year is a really long time, but in the second half of life, a year goes by really quickly. You know time is limited.


What issues concern you the most?

We are talking more and more about difficult planetary conditions, whether it’s global warming, food scarcity or energy scarcity, and a planet that now is seven billion people, 192 countries and 6,000 languages. How is it all going to work?

The thing I worry about the most is [America’s declining] high school graduation rates. If the statistics don’t improve over the next few years, given the fact that the world is much more competitive, we’re not going to be going too many places. I don’t mean everybody should get really good grades on tests; I mean people being really curious about the world and solving problems, doing what they’re interested in and learning. People talk about the big advantage of studying science and math, but it’s the arts, humanities and culture that give you perspective on why you need science, engineering and math.

With the Silk Route Project and the Ensemble, we’re working with Damian Woetzel, an arts educator and former ballet star at the New York City Ballet, on bringing programs to sixth-graders in different schools in New York City and across the country, from Boston to Wyoming to LA. We’re using all the different forms of performing arts, whether it’s music and dance or spoken words and calligraphy. This can be integrated into biology, English and other subjects. The most important thing we can do is to use every sense we possess. You pull together everything you have learned and have the kids create something at the end of the year that actually shows what they’ve learned.

The idea is to get into people’s passions to experience new things, and attach that to things they are learning, so learning is memorable; then to connect it to other things, so everything adds up, as opposed to just doing this to graduate. That’s not an education; it’s a piece of paper. The work we’re doing is really only good if you actually remember it and make use of it.


What is the particular value of the performing arts in promoting education?

The performing arts involve the whole individual. It’s not just using the right side of the brain and forgetting the left, but learning organically. We’re training 100 public school teachers at a summer program at Harvard, talking about their passion for education and what it means. We’re also focusing on cultural entrepreneurship and giving prizes to people with ideas so they can execute them. Making people connect to things is the basis of culture and education, of being a good citizen.


Besides reaching out to schools, you also inspire by your own example.

I’m hoping what we can do with the Goat Rodeo Sessions in music is show how much fun it is to collaborate, how much fun it is to be mentally flexible, to switch from one thing to another with a certain playfulness and ease, and how much fun it is to imagine something. Before we got together, there wasn’t a group with mandolin, bass, cello and violin, and imagining what these sounds would be like before it happens was a worthwhile thing to do.

The four qualities that educators and politicians say we need are connecting, collaborating, imagination and innovation. If we can show these things in sound, we can also do it with anything else, be it biology, language or carpentry. It’s part of our DNA, and I’m putting that forth on a platform: that these are desirable things. It’s another way of learning, which is passion-driven. There’s so much energy to put into it, but it’s free energy, because once you have the passion, you’re self-motivated.


The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile & Aoife O’Donovan, Friday, August 16, 8 p.m., $35+, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, 200 Hurd Road, Bethel; (866) 781-2922, www.bethelwoodscenter.org.

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